10.11.2012

The Local Food Report: groundfish down

Greg Walinski has been longlining for thirty years. Groundfish, mostly—haddock, cod, Pollock, hake, flounder. The bottom dwellers. He fishes out of Chatham, on a boat called the Alicia Ann, and he is incredibly worried about the future.


It's no secret that the fishery is in trouble. The Secretary of Commerce declared a commercial fishery failure in the Northeast groundfish fishery for the 2013 season. Starting in May, there will likely be big cuts to the quotas.

But the thing is, these cuts aren't even really what worry Greg. It's not like he and the other groundfish fishermen in Chatham are lobbying to open closed areas or raise the quota. They can't find enough fish to reach the quota as it is. According to preliminary catch data from the New England Fishery Management Council, fishermen have only caught 17% of the quota for cod in the Georges Bank area this year, and 2% of the haddock. The season is almost half over, and that's it. Last year, the numbers were a little better—28% and 7% respectively—but not exactly fantastic.

What's more, it isn't even small longliners like Greg who are catching that small percentage of fish. It's bigger boats, not dayboats but boats that can take twelve-hour in, twelve-hour-out, overnight trips. Dayboat fishermen who used to bring in Chatham cod are now fishing for skate and dogfish. These days, the cod for sale at your local fish market isn't usually from here. Some of it is Pacific, some of it is Icelandic. And as Greg says, no one's talking about this.

He thinks there are a lot of different reasons for the recent decline in groundfish. There are a lot of seals around, and a lot of dogfish. Scientists are unclear on how seal populations affect groundfish—they might help or they might hurt—but both seals and dogfish can and do eat groundfish. Those two seals below hung out the whole time I talked with Greg, hoping for a handout from the boat.


There also isn't a lot of bait around, particularly herring. Fishermen need bait to set their hooks, and groundfish need bait because it's a big part of their diet. 

Finally, Greg thinks a lot of the drop off in groundfish has to do with climate change. Water temperatures have been getting warmer—they used to hover in the high 30s on the surface, he says, and last year in the Gulf of Maine they were consistently around 43 or 44. That's a big change, and many species spawning time is tied to environmental cues like water temperature. The New England Fishery Management Council reports that cod are already shifting their range to the northeast.

There's definitely something going on. Greg hasn't been out groundfishing all year, and he says last year groundfishing made up two thirds of his income. He's hoping for a cold winter, but in the meantime, he's been harpooning bluefin tuna and fishing for dogfish and skates instead. 

And there, at least, is some good news. There are plenty of dogfish around—the quota went up this year—and plenty of skates. The thing is, we're shipping most of it to England. If we want local, dayboat fish, we might just have to learn to eat it instead.

P.S. The group Finest Kind sings a haunting song on the collapse of the Canadian fishery in the 1990s. You can't listen to the full version anywhere online without purchasing it, but you can hear a snippet over here. It's worth a listen.

PAN-FRIED SKATE

Alex has made skate for me several times this way, and it's delicious. The meat is sweet and tender. Look for skate wings, sweet smelling (no ammonia) and without the skin.

2 skate wings
flour
salt and pepper
2-3 tablespoons butter

Dredge the skate wings in flour, salt and pepper. Melt the butter in a pan over high heat. Add the skate wings and sear for 3 minutes on the first side, then flip and sear another two minutes on the second. Turn the heat off and let the meat rest for 10 minutes or so before serving.

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All text, photographs, and other original material copyright 2008-2010 by Elspeth Hay unless otherwise noted.