I recently had the fortunate opportunity to observe a commercial longline vessel being unloaded at a landing near Perdido Key. 10,000 pounds of fish, mostly grouper and tilefish, were being unloaded for markets in Atlanta, Canada, and locally. When I heard 10,000 pounds two things popped into my head right way…
1) That is a lot of fish
2) It is great to know that fresh local seafood can still be had.
It is a lot of fish, and this concerns some about the future of wild caught seafood. Humans have been harvesting wild caught seafood since the beginning of time, or at least as far back as boats go. What has changed today is better technology and more fishermen on the water. With these issues in mind, you have to either (a) reduce the number of fishermen on the sea, or (b) reduce the number of fish harvested. Though not always popular, this is where fisheries management comes in.
The basic idea is to allow each species a chance to breed at least once before they are harvested. The Magnuson-Stevens Act, passed in 1996, requires that commercial fisheries within U.S. territorial waters be sustainable – meaning viable into perpetuity. To do this you need to know the life cycles of your target species. At what age do they become sexually mature and begin breeding? The age of a fish can be determined by rings in the otolith (ear bone) and there is a correlation between the number of rings and the length of the fish; hence the length regulations many species have. You need to know at what age they reach maturity, you allow one (sometimes more) years beyond this age allowing them to breed.
The next metric is how many of the mature adults can you allow to be harvested and remain sustainable. This obviously takes a lot of fisheries biology, and there are researchers at the federal, state, and university levels who work on these questions. When know the answer to some of the biology questions, you can now input this into a computer model and determine what is known as the maximum sustainable yield, or how many fish (either number of pounds) can be removed and still be sustainable.
Computer models are only as good as the programs that are developed for them. These can be hard to test. Hurricane computer models have become pretty good. Everyone remembers when Michael was approaching the Pensacola area and the modelers were sure it would make an eastward turn; and it eventually did. The thing about hurricane models is that if they are not working well, you know relatively quickly. Hurricane approaches shore – computer predicts where it will go – it makes landfall somewhere else – you correct the model – we get better. With fisheries, and other issues, we do not always get feedback as quickly as this. Stock assessments for selected species have to be made to see how the models are working, and this takes time.
Though it may not be an exact science, fisheries management certainly has helped hold on to some species that would have been harvested out otherwise.
As far as knowing local seafood is still available, this is good news for many. Checking in with your local seafood markets you can find a variety of species at different times of the year. Some provide information as to which local restaurants they sell to. Many locals, and visitors, are willing to pay a higher price for these sought-after seafood species. It is good to know you can still get them in our area.
Sea Grant, and the Escambia County Extension Office, will be providing more articles and programs on the local seafood industry beginning in 2019. The program is called Seafood @ Your Fingertips. Check our website for more information.