Hurdles won’t stop seafood harvesters from fulfilling their mission

By Michael Briggs

One of the largest and most prestigious environmental watchdogs of aquaculture and wild fisheries in the United States is the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. This program researches and evaluates the environmental footprint of wild fisheries and aquaculture products. Seafood Watch recommendations are science-based, peer-reviewed and use ecosystem-based criteria. They define “sustainable seafood” as seafood from sources, whether fished or farmed, that can maintain or increase production into the long term without jeopardizing the structure and function of affected ecosystems. The program’s goals are to raise awareness of important ocean conservation issues and empower consumers and businesses to make choices for healthy oceans. Farmed American oysters (same variety farmed in the Bagaduce), receives their highest rating of “best choice.” Even Maine lobster receives a lower rating of “good alternative.” Farmed oysters account for 95 percent of the world’s total oyster consumption.

In Tom Stewart’s commentary in The Ellsworth American dated April 2, he writes: “Rather than dedicating resources to researching and restoring these habitats to the historical higher standards, the Department of Marine Resources’ (DMR) focus seems to be on developing new aquaculture industries without much regard to the native and migrating wildlife.” I don’t know if Mr. Stewart just doesn’t do his research or he thinks that nobody else does. One need only go as far as DMR’s website to find a wealth of information proving the contrary to his claim. You could start with the Bigelow Laboratory and the Maine Department of Marine Resources Library and Information Center. This is a world-class facility featuring an open stack research library developed and maintained for researchers and students. The library’s holdings include 15,000 volumes, 200 current serial subscriptions, 5,000 reprints and technical reports and 75 videocassette tapes. The main collection emphasizes the biological and physical study of the ocean with major strengths in marine productivity and the commercial species of the Gulf of Maine. The DMR also coordinates its efforts with other research and management strategies developed by other marine resource departments and agencies from all over the country.

Further investigation of the site and contrary to Mr. Stewart’s statement, you’ll find DMR dedicates most of its resources to researching and restoring habitats. Had Mr. Stewart taken the time to look, he would have found under the Research and Survey tab: Salmon, Smelt, Stripers, Shad and Eel Projects, Halibut Projects, Cod Tagging Program, Herring Research, Lobster Research Projects, Inshore Trawl Survey, Invasive Marine Species, Phytoplankton Monitoring, River and Pond Restoration (Sea Run Fish), Sea Scallop Projects, Sea Urchin Projects, Shellfish Management, Shrimp Trawl Survey, Smelt Projects, Stock Enhancement Projects, to name some. How many meetings has DMR held to get feedback from harvesters of lobsters, crabs, clams, mussels, scallops, urchins, shrimp, herring, groundfish, tuna, elvers, rockweed or marine worms?

He goes on with, “Why not instead make a significant effort to re-establish healthy historic eelgrass, kelp and rockweed habitats.” DMR has led the way in re-establishing eelgrass, by first mapping the entire state’s eelgrass beds. Locally, in 1996, it did a survey of the Frenchman Bay area. It found extensive eelgrass beds throughout the area. By 2006, due to DMR’s continuing survey, eelgrass beds were found to be reduced to a scattering of plans. This led to a grant from the Gulf of Maine Council for a restoration project. Some of the participants in the project were the MDI Biological Laboratory, College of the Atlantic, Aquaculture Harvesters, Maine Mussel Harvesters Association and the Bagaduce Watershed Association, which I can only assume that Mr. Stewart is a member. If not, he should be, considering his concerns for the Bagaduce.

Kelp is more abundant today than it’s been for decades due to the reduction in the population of sea urchins. One of sea urchins’ favorite foods is kelp.

Rockweed in most areas have never been harvested and are in healthy concentrations. There is an evolving fishery concentrated mostly in the Downeast region. Due to this, the commissioner established the DMR Rockweed Working Group, which led to the Rockweed Fisheries Management Plan.

Everyone in the seafood industry knows it’s a tough way to make a living without the added burden dealing with misunderstandings, false information and personal agendas. Despite all the hurdles, researchers, policy makers, harvesters, aquaculturists and entrepreneurs will continue in their efforts to provide people with one of their most basic necessities — food.

Michael Briggs is president of Taunton Bay Oyster Co. Inc. in Blue Hill.

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