Does local always = sustainable?

cod61The short answer is yes. At least we think so. But first, a parable.

Our friend Adam has a share with Cape Ann Fresh Catch. Like us and the other 898 members, he’s been getting a lot of cod from the community supported fishery. Through the magic of the internets, he found himself surfing the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s web site recently, where there’s a very thorough guide on how to eat seafood and protect endangered, overfished species. As it turns out, they had this to say about cod:

Atlantic cod from North America has been fished heavily for the past 50 years, resulting in massive population declines. Scientists agree that we are now fishing the last 10 percent of this population. … Fishermen often catch cod with bottom trawl gear, which involves dragging large nets across the seafloor. This damages marine habitats and results in bycatch.

Adam, like us and probably the 898 other CSF members, is a conscientious eater. He doesn’t want to consume the last 10 percent of cod. So he contacted Cape Ann Fresh Catch and asked for some guidance.

Two days later, he got an email back from the president of the Gloucester Fisherman’s Wives Association (which is facilitating the CSF). This is some of her response:

Thank you for bringing this to our attention. What the Monterey Bay Aquarium has on line about the Atlantic cod is not the truth. For the last 32 years the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives association has worked with the regulators to make sure that we preserve the fish stocks in the atlantic.

The fishermen of the eastcoast have made many sacrifices for conservation. They fish under the most restrictive regulations in the world …. The latest news from the scientists was that the cod stock of the gulf of Maine is in recovery and by the year 2012 it will be fully recovered.

Keep in mind that the boats that catch the fish that we deliver to you is done by small boats between 40 to 50 feet, they are on the fish ground only few hours a day because they are allowed only to bring a total of 800 lb of cod per day. The catch is inspected at the docks by federal agent.

Yes our boats are bottom draggers but remember that they have fished as draggers for over 100 years and they still fish in the same fish grounds and it takes a 10 minutes tow to get 800lb of cod. so you see there are pleanty of fish for us to enjoy.

I hope I have given you enough information, if you need more please let me know.

No, we didn’t need to publish all of that. But, in a way, we did. Implicit in it is the answer to the question in the headline on this blog post.

Couple things:

It’s really great that Adam asked this question. It’s really great that he got a prompt, warm answer — and an offer for more info. It’s really great that he shared it with us and that we’re sharing it with you. This is an active engagement in a food system and it is the number one way to dig ourselves out of the hellhole where most of what America eats is presently cultivated/swimming around in.

cod2If all of our fish (if all of our food…) were coming to market through small, co-operatively owned models like Cape Ann Fresh Catch, it’s probably fair to say the ocean would be in better shape. Because the success of the fishery hinges on the success of its membership, Adam’s question mattered. Because of its scale and proximity, he could have an actual dialog with the people in charge there. Any of us could.

On the matter of cod and who is right about whether it’s safe to fish: It’s impossible for us non-fisherman, non-scientist types to really make the call on this one. We don’t have full access to the complexity of the situation. And so the true word on cod remains a mystery to us.

In a way, that’s OK. What matters more than solving that mystery is resolving the problems that precipated it at all.

On its page about ‘green seafood,’ Cape Ann Fresh Catch issues this sentiment — almost precisely. This is sort of perfectly expressed.

We wouldn’t have to think this hard about what we eat from the seas if policies and regulations were ecosystem and community based. NAMA believes that through a grassroots movement of fishermen, fishing community organizations and those who eat their catch we can transform today’s fisheries policies towards ones that recognize the oceans are complex ecosystems and not bodies of water that magically produce single species of fish that pop onto our plates.


  1. Cod school. They gather together in one place. Fishermen can still go to one spot and catch a bunch and say, “There are lots of it! Look!” but that doesn’t mean there are lots of it elsewhere. I highly doubt the scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium are “not telling the truth”. What an accusation! Only the fishermen have a profit to make here. Many of the fish on the CSA are redlisted which is exactly why I didn’t join, and I’m glad to see that members are starting to question it. (Note recent thread on Chowhound on the subject.)

  2. I like this very much for the basic analysis that dialogue and transparency in our (local) food systems, allowing space for questions and ethics, will bring us to “right practice” in the way we eat. I am still worried about the cod though. I think there may be times when we should forgo certain foods altogether because of the damage done to the ecosystems by our corrupt food system, even when we are catching (hunting, growing, farming…) them locally and sustainably. I suspect cod is in this category. I wonder if all large fish may be….

  3. The first comment from David is right on the $. I fish for cod off MA and can to point to basic yet compelling evidence of the stock’s poor condition. Look up pictures of cod fishing from 50 or 100 years ago. Now compare the size of the fish in the pictures with the size of the fish you get every week. Any questions?

    This is not a fishing vs. science arguments. Science is science. There is no one out in Monterrey Bay with an ulterior motive, but the same cannot be said for Gloucester. It has been demonstrated over and over again that fishermen will explain away a stock’s collapse until the very last fish is gone. Just ask the cod fishermen up in Canada. Or look what’s happening with bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean.

    And as a point of fact, our restrictions do not go nearly far enough. The National Marine Fisheries Service enforcing the most restrictive regulations in the world? I wish. If you want good examples of sustainable practices, look to New Zealand.

    So I’m sorry to rain on this buy-local-sustainable-co-op-parade. But if you want to do something sustainable, ban draggers from this program and buy from a rod and reel fishery. In the meanwhile, buy your cod from Alaska. That’s a well managed and health fishery.

    If you want to do something to really help our eco system, join the fight to ban industrial fishing practices. How about we sink the dragger fleet and use the old hulls to build artificial reefs? That would be a good first step to rebuilding stocks.

  4. The fishermen association’s “defense” of their use of bottom trawlers is totally unsatisfactory, and I fail to see how their having used “bottom-trawling” for the past 100 years should qualm my concerns about the terrible environmental impact they have.

    More in general, their reply is what one would expect from a trade organization (certainly I wouldn’t expect an answer of the sort, “yes, we are fishing unsustainably, deal with it”). This of course doesn’t mean their statement about the cod stock being in recovery is not accurate, but frankly I won’t believe it until I see an adequate response/confirmation from an independent (and disinterested) third party, be it the MBA or other expert organization.

    Incidentally, another source that seems to agree with the MBA assessment is Alan Grescoe’s superb book “Bottomfeeder” (check out the website: The book provides a useful (and more thorough than the MBA’s) guide to “how to eat ethically in a world of vanishing seafood”, and groups seafood into three categories: 1) “Always, absolutely”; 2) “Depends, sometime”; and 3) “Never”. He places Atlantic cod unequivocally in the “Never” category.

    Regardless of the sustainability of Atlantic cod (the jury’s still out, I guess), I find the opening statement of this thread rather disingenuous. While I highly admire (and endorse) this blog’s effort and mission, I strongly disagree with its claim that local is always sustainable.

  5. I have to say that I could not, in good mind, become a CSA member for the same reasons, David.
    I wish I felt I could support the livelihoods of people who have chosen a field they love, but I feel too strongly that we need to leave the oceans alone now.

  6. Hi everyone. Thanks for the thoughtful responses.

    I want to make it clear that I have my own serious concerns about our oceans. To be blunt, they’re fucked beyond any point of return. The same is, more or less, true about our agriculture. This is also to say, I’m not sure the CSF is perfect. Or that any CSA is, particularly the meat CSAs. (They’re still producing more than we need,
    per person.)

    We are deeply entrenched in a system that actively hurts the environment and us. Maybe so entrenched that we can never get out of it.

    However, I’m standing by my local is sustainable, pretty much always, statement. It’s *more* sustainable, that’s for sure. And in the context of the last 50 years of corporate industrial food, it’s our only hope. If a food system is small and managed within proximity to where we live and if consumers are seen as necessary partners to its success , we can ask questions, make demands and see results. But we need to dramatically alter the scale before we can seriously alter the practices.

  7. A while back, we, too, read Bottomfeeder. It’s a great book. We blogged about how we stopped eating fish as a consequence (though that was more of a statement for effect; we hardly ate much anyway). I wrote to Taras Grescoe, the author, and asked what we should be doing, and if he supported marine CSAs. Here is what he said: “There’s a group called the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax NS that’s set up a fishermen’s cooperative whereby local people can put in orders and get sustainable seafood from lobstermen, mackerel and herring fishermen. They’re really active and leading the way on the issue, I think….As for marine CSAs, there aren’t enough, but I’m confident they’re coming. I’ll keep you posted the more I learn…”

    With that endorsement, and with our own thinking brains, we decided that supporting a nascent CSF was an important step to reconnecting eaters with their fish, developing accountability with fisherman and practices, etc.

    I completely agree with Kristi - this CSF is not perfect. And we could not have known ahead of time that we’d be seeing undersized, overfished cod so much. Grescoe certainly advocates eating lower on the food chain, and we hoped that this CSF would subscribe to that philosophy.

    Long story short, we agree and are considering, as the result of this dialogue, petitioning the Gloucester CSF to fish less stressed species and buy from ships using more sustainable methods. But we can only do this because we are members. It’s not perfect, but it’s something.

  8. Great frickin’ discussion. We’re members and I completely share all of these concerns. I would enthusiastically endorse a unified request from CSF members that Cape Ann Fresh Catch change its standards. The response from CAFC is inadequate.

  9. I’ve struggled with my membership in the CSF because of all the cod they’ve been delivering. I’ve actually NOT picked up my share for the last several weeks because I simply could not stand the idea that I would be contributing to the further decline of our once bountiful cod fishery (the excess shares go to a local soup kitchen). I believe the incentives are misaligned between the CSF and the fishermen - the tail is wagging the dog. The CSF seems to have little control over which fish is distributed or how the fish is caught. And yet they are paying premium prices - why can’t they use their buyer power to force change?

    I subscribed to the CSF with the hope that we would be receiving more sustainable fish - the non-stop delivery of cod has been, in my mind, a tremendous disappointment.

    I joined for the same reasons you did. But at this point I’m nothing short of frustrated and fed up.

  10. I agree with the sentiment that the CSF is probably better than buying fish at random at the local supermarket, but how much better? My naivete led me to think (i.e. hope) that trawling would not be part of this so-called sustainable fishery. And I don’t believe that their response to Adam’s inquiry was entirely ingenuous. At best, there may be some honest self-denial.

    I agree that we should petition the CSF to act more sustainably. Perhaps we could even contact Mr. Grescoe who might be interested in joining this dialogue and supporting our cause. I’d love to see this become a truly sustainable program. If not, I won’t be renewing my membership.

  11. Excuse my naivety (and I am very interested in being either corrected or guided)…. However let me take the chance and ask (in theory), if communities were to eat more locally caught fish (even those that are currently in precarious situations), and the fisherman were eventually able to financially sustain themselves mostly on selling to their own communities.,,,wouldn’t there therefore be a decreasing need to sell to large companies in mass quantities, and thereby fishing only what we need/eat and allowing the fish stock to replenish. This would take a significant amount of time and culture shift but isn’t this the goal? It seems to me that sticking with the CSF and encouraging its growth would be beneficial.

  12. The choice is not one between CSF and buying ‘random’ fish at the supermarket. This is a market economy so you should exercise your power as a consumer.

    Don’t let anyone else lead you blindly to the trough. Instead do your homework, shop around, and make better choices. For example, the vast majority of cod in local groceries comes from Alaska- this is a MUCH better choice than what the Gloucester draggers pound off the ocean’s floor . There are other options as well- stripped bass, bluefish, talapia, trout, herring, black sea bass, mussels, oysters, and so on. Much of this is local, some of it farmed inland, at infinitely more sustainable.

    Come on people- don’t take a handout of some slimy basket of scrod and feel good about it because it comes to you by means of some co-op. If you’ve ever seen these draggers out pounding on our environment, you wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole.

    And by the way- our local cod is infested with worms. It is pretty gross.

Leave a comment