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Fishermen Fight Back

January’s controversial “blacklisted fish” dinner at Legal Sea Foods in Boston did not turn out as planned. But it did turn out roaringly well, especially for those who wanted to argue there’s a lot more to “sustainable seafood” than just the fish. Billed in advance as a standoff between champions of sustainability and a very successful seafood restaurant chain, the event turned into a full-fledged teach-in about the sustainability not only of the fish, but also of the dwindling numbers of New England fishermen, several of whom were in attendance at the dinner. The bloggers who had been attacking Roger Berkowitz, president and CEO of the 30-unit Legal Sea Foods chain in the weeks leading up to the dinner sat meekly at their places, twittering away.

Cuddling the mic as he welcomed guests at the “blacklisted fish” dinner, Berkowitz joked that he usually introduces himself as “Hi, I’m Roger and I sell fish,” but recently he’s been tempted to introduce himself as “Roger Berkowitz, Lightning Rod.”

Originally intended as a pleasant winter outing for the members of the Culinary Guild of New England, the private dinner morphed into a media moment when Berkowitz cheekily chose to use it as a forum to present his views on the popular “watch lists” that millions of concerned diners and chefs use to decide which seafood to eat and which to enjoy. On the dinner menu: Atlantic cod cheeks with spaghetti squash and prosciutto-wrapped hake.

Questioning the sustainable list

For several years, Berkowitz has been vocal about his view that the assessment of the health and sustainability of New England fishing stocks is vastly under-represented by the data used by both the U.S. Commerce Department and by the non-governmental organization environmental watchdogs such as Pew Charitable Trusts and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program.

At a Culinary Institute of America event in Hyde Park, N.Y., a few years ago, Berkowitz fumed when an eminent chef told him that Atlantic cod was not sustainable seafood. Berkowitz asked the chef, “Why do you say that?” The chef responded by pulling his Seafood Watch card out of his wallet. “See,” he said pointing, “It says so here!”

Berkowitz asserts that the watch lists depend on misinformation, that the highly restrictive National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s catch allocations to local fishermen are based on flawed data that is not substantiated by high-tech sonar fish-finding techniques used by contemporary fishermen and do not take into account different catch methods. As a result, Berkowitz argues the fishing limits do not reflect the true health of the seafood population within the 200-mile limit surrounding Georges Bank and elsewhere along the New England seacoast.

Berkowitz calls the relationship between the fishermen and the NGOs and the government asymmetrical. “The well-intentioned environmental groups are very well-funded and the fishermen have no one to speak up for them. It’s too tightly regulated for the fishing industry to survive,” he said.

Richie Canastra, a fisherman from New Bedford, Mass., railed against the well-funded efforts of sustainable-fish-list proponents and the fines from regulators who make it increasingly difficult for “a guy in his boat” to make a living.

An accurate count?

A heated political controversy is playing out in New England. On one side are Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco and several environmental NGOs. On the other are Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation and local New England fishermen. At issue is who accurately measures the supply of the fish. Does NOAA more accurately measure the supply of fish in the sea using its decades-old techniques, or are the fishermen and scientists who use four-dimensional sonar more accurate? Is the government setting catch limits that appropriately account for the differences in catch method, in habitat (for example, sandy bottom versus rocky) and size of nets (are the openings small enough to catch juveniles). Are the fishermen, who are assigned catch limits that equal 25 percent of the allowable annual supply, being capriciously penalized for exceeding these limits by as little as 1 pound of fish.

There’s even a “trawlgate” scandal where NOAA’s cables got entangled and three years of false assessments were reported and used as inputs to catch allocations. At the blacklist fish dinner, several professional fishermen were up in arms. “There was proof that [NOAA] was wrong for three years running and they still refused to change the catch allocations,” one shouted from his seat.

Fight over enforcement continues

Recently, the Commerce Department denied the request by Northeast lawmakers who lobbied to freeze sanctions and allow local fishermen accused of breaking the law to have their cases reviewed. This denial came even as an inspector general appointed by Secretary Locke to review the fishermen’s claims against the NOAA found financial mismanagement, abusive treatment of fishermen, and the use of high-pressure tactics used to force fishermen to settle their claims.

This month, Gov. Patrick sent a letter of protest to President Barack Obama, saying, “Our fishing communities face severe challenges, and are currently suffering great hardship, as a result of well intended but often ill-conceived and poorly executed efforts by federal regulators to constrain the fishing harvest and rebuild our fish stocks. Over the last decade, the Northeast groundfish fleet has been reduced by nearly 60 percent, and this decline shows no sign of ending. The small fisherman is in danger of disappearing altogether, and with him would go a way of life.” The governor adds his voice to the chorus of people who think the federal government and the sustainability lobby have fishermen over a barrel. Newly released Agriculture Department dietary guidelines encourage all Americans to eat two or more seafood meals per week. From where will the seafood supply come if fishing industries like New England’s are decimated? Who will catch the fish?

Berkowitz says he was pleasantly surprised by the dinner.

“It was a respectful crowd, intent on learning more. People walked in with preconceived notions about the fish and the fishermen, and I think we helped them understand how important the new science is and how restricted the fishermen are today.

“Believe me, fishermen are the people most invested in making sure that fish stocks are sustainable. Fishing is the only life they know. I scratch my head and wonder how all of them will survive.”

Zester Daily contributor Louisa Kasdon is a Boston-based food writer, former restaurant owner and founder of She is a columnist for the Boston Phoenix, the food editor for Stuff Magazine and has contributed to Fortune, MORE, Cooking Light, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine and the Christian Science Monitor, among others.

Photo: Roger Berkowitz. Credit: Legal Sea Foods.

Zester Daily contributor Louisa Kasdon is a Boston-based food writer, former restaurant owner and  the founder and CEO of Let's Talk About Food, an organization that engages the public around food issues in our world. Kasdon was the food editor for Stuff magazine and the contributing editor for food for the Boston Phoenix.  Winner of the MFK Fisher Award for Culinary Excellence, she has  written for Fortune, MORE, Cooking Light, The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine and The Christian Science Monitor, among others.