NOAA rules could jeopardize Md. fish stocks

Chef Spike Gjerde: I am deeply concerned about the new fisheries management rules.

When I opened Woodberry Kitchen in 2007, one question defined my approach: What's the best way for us to feed ourselves quality, local food while returning value to the growers and watermen who make it available? The answer became our foundation. I would source my ingredients only from local growers and watermen of the Chesapeake in order to shift consumer spending away from industrial — and often exploitative — farms and fisheries toward those who are true stewards of the land and sea.

I am deeply concerned about the new fisheries management rules proposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries (NOAA Fisheries). The quantifiable progress my restaurants and our local fisheries and watermen have made for our aquatic ecosystem could vanish with a couple signatures on a page.

Since 2006, under the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), American fisheries have been managed more effectively than ever before. Thanks to science-based catch limits and stock assessments, 30 fish stocks once in severe decline have been rebuilt to healthier levels since 2007. Now it seems NOAA Fisheries wants to jeopardize that success.

Recently, NOAA Fisheries finalized alterations to National Standard 1, the rule under MSA that guides our nation's eight regional fisheries management councils in setting catch limits, assessing the health and abundance of fish stocks, regulating bycatch, and other issues. Under MSA we have had strong, science-based rules that established catch limits by conducting annual assessments and reviews. The new rule opens the door to delaying the trigger for taking action to ensure sustainable management as well as putting off actually addressing problems in our fisheries. Additionally, the MSA requires the secretary of commerce to review all stock rebuilding plans to determine if they were making progress. Under the new rule, the secretary is only required to determine if the plan is being implemented as intended regardless of whether the fish stock is improving.

Since 2006, fishery managers largely stopped overfishing because MSA had the teeth to require managers to take immediate remedial action when overfishing was occurring. We know what happens when remedial action isn't taken right away. In the 1980s and 1990s, before MSA, fishery managers saw that their management plans weren't working, but they refused to change course. As a result, many fisheries plummeted, requiring a decade to rebound — many are still slowly recovering.

If U.S. fisheries return to the days of high-risk management, can't I just serve Indonesian fish or Venezuelan crab instead? Absolutely not. When I make my Tilghman Island Crab Cake, it has to be made with blue crab from the Chesapeake Bay. It's not about a certain recipe or style of cooking. It's about supporting our region's watershed and the actual production of the ingredients that relies on farmers and watermen as much as it does any recipe. It's about a commitment I made nearly a decade ago to source thoughtfully caught fish and shellfish from the Chesapeake Bay, West Ocean City and Chincoteague.

The French often speak of the taste of a place, the terroir of a food. Chesapeake Bay oysters have a special, distinct meroir — the seafood version of terroir. When the our watermen are selling black sea bass, blue catfish, rockfish, Chesapeake clams, oysters and the iconic blue crab, I make the most of what is seasonally and locally available. And it makes sense; our patrons want delicious and fresh food more than a predictable menu. And there are things we just don't serve. I don't buy salmon or shrimp because they are not available at local fisheries. I'd much rather work closely with bay watermen to help guarantee them reliable markets. This is the real goal of building a local food economy: to create a healthy ecosystem of burgeoning fisheries, independent fishermen, wonderful restaurants and ultimately our own good health.

Supporting fisheries management also makes good business sense. When fisheries are not managed through science-based decisions, supplies are erratic, which introduces a whole new level of uncertainty that makes it hard to run a kitchen. If we don't make responsible choices now, we may not even have the option to make them in the future.

I know many people don't have the time to investigate where their food comes from. But thanks to MSA it has been clear to buyers like me and consumers alike that American fisheries could be trusted — not only is the quality excellent, but stocks are being restored.

So, what's the best way for us to feed ourselves quality, local food while returning value to the growers and watermen who make it available? The answer is clear. I call on the next president of the United States to work with NOAA Fisheries to abandon these weakened rules and once again manage our fisheries with the sustainable practices that MSA delivers.

Spike Gjerde (spike@woodberrykitchen.com) is chef and partner of Baltimore's Woodberry Kitchen, Artifact Coffee, Parts & Labor, Grand Cru and Woodberry Pantry; in 2015, he won the James Beard award for "Best Chef: Mid Atlantic."

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