A Cheerful Story About Environmental Conservation (Really and Truly)

Headlines about the environment have been dire recently, particularly when it comes to seafood. But when we learned the story of West Coast groundfish — a true story about people with diverse perspectives banding together and taking action…and the action worked! — we just had to share it.

First, a deep dive

Like every truly good story of triumph, it’s complicated.

Let’s start with the easy part: “Groundfish” are a wide variety of fish that live at or near the bottom of the ocean — some of the most well-known types of groundfish are rockfish, halibut, sole, sablefish, and cod. In the year 2000, the West Coast groundfish fishery was declared an economic disaster by the federal government. The West Coast fishery, which is in the federally managed waters off the shores of California, Oregon, and Washington, includes more than 90 species of groundfish.

In late 1999, West Coast groundfish fishermen were seeing their catch plummet drastically. After scientific assessments, government regulators declared 10 species of West Coast groundfish overfished. When a species of fish is deemed overfished, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act requires regulators to develop a plan to rebuild the stock in as short a time as possible, while balancing and incorporating the needs of the fishing community.

Historically, fisherfolk, government regulators, and environmentalists have had contentious relationships. But in the face of the West Coast groundfish disaster, something unprecedented occurred: fishermen, regulators, and conservationists sat down and worked together to save West Coast groundfish.

It wasn’t easy, especially for the fishermen. A management plan was put into place that included “catch shares,” which meant that they had to accept drastic cutbacks on the number of fish they could catch, even species that weren’t overfished because of the possibility of bycatch (catching a non-targeted species while catching a targeted species). The management plan also included area restrictions, seasonal closures, gear restrictions, and a mandate that a federal observer be on every fishing trip to monitor bycatch.

A period of austerity and uncertainty ensued. But, as early as 2005, hope began to float to the surface of West Coast waters: Stock assessments showed that the population of lingcod had been rebuilt. In 2012, the population of widow rockfish was rebuilt, and the successful recovery of other species continued.

In 2014, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which makes science-based environmental recommendations for seafood sustainability, announced a huge improvement in the rankings for many species of West Coast groundfish, upgrading 21 species in the fishery from its “Avoid” list to a “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” ranking. In tandem, the Marine Stewardship Council certified 13 trawl-caught groundfish species as coming from a sustainable and well-managed fishery. And this summer, the Pacific Fishery Management Council announced that two species, bocaccio and darkblotched rockfish, have recovered ahead of schedule.

It may have taken 14 years, but a fishery in crisis has not only recovered, but has turned into a model of sustainable management.

Meet — and eat — the Rip Van Winkle fish

However, there’s one thing we all must do to make sure this environmental success story stays happy forever after: Eat more West Coast groundfish. You see, since rockfish, lingcod, and other types of groundfish haven’t appeared on menus or in seafood cases for nearly a decade, consumers have sort of forgotten about these fish. Fishermen finally have catches of sustainably managed rockfish, petrale sole, and more, but they have a hard time selling it because the fish seem unfamiliar to consumers.

Who wants to eat a weird-sounding fish like longspine thornyhead when they can eat salmon?

Well, we do! Look for fish like sablefish and rockfish on the menu in your café (you might be surprised by how much you like it). In the grocery store, look for West Coast groundfish and try out a new type of fish. (With its silky texture and delicate flavor, sablefish is delectable with a sweet/savory miso glaze. And chilipepper rockfish makes a killer fish taco.) This handy guide to West Coast groundfish will show you what to look for, and how to cook it. Not sure what you’re looking at in the seafood case? Download the Seafood Watch app, and you can search by market name.   

Go for West Coast groundfish. It’s good for you, good for the fish, good for the fishermen — and good for the ocean. Now, that’s a story we can all celebrate.


Featured Image: A deckhand holding a sablefish, aka black cod. Photo: Corey Arnold | Courtesy of the California Groundfish Collective