Fishing for good news? Here’s a breakthrough food lovers can celebrate

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Chef Dana Honn

The year now coming to a close has seen its share of environmental setbacks. We can be grateful that EPA head Scott Pruitt and Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke finally proved to be too much of a fiasco even for the Trump administration, but much of the damage they wrought will be with us for a while.

That said, as we look ahead and vow to do better in the coming year, let’s not overlook one substantial victory — for the planet and for New Orleans food lovers.

When 2018 began, it seemed a near certainty that Congress would revisit the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), the nation’s landmark fishing law that limits overfishing and makes sure future generations will have access to abundant seafood. The question was whether they would gut or renew it. Traditionally MSA has been reauthorized every 10 years and it had been 12 years since the last major overhaul.

But though the law has successfully rebuilt 45 fish stocks in 20 years, while still increasing the economic output of the nation’s fish harvest, not everyone has been happy with the gains. Powerful interest groups within the industrial, commercial and the private recreational sectors think the law’s conservation measures should be relaxed. They have been working relentlessly to gut MSA.

With an executive branch hostile to conservation and a Congress amenable to deregulation, many of us expected the worst. One bill introduced in the House was nicknamed the “Empty Oceans Act.” Things seemed grim.

But that just inspired the opposition—small-boat commercial fishing groups, fly-fishing guides, chefs, environmental groups and others—to work even harder. We built a coalition and helped bring some mainstream coverage to fisheries. Our positive press inspired some of those industrial interests to lash out at us. If their attacks were supposed to intimidate us, they failed. Instead, they emboldened us.

We organized, wrote letters, and called Congress. In July, the House narrowly passed the Empty Oceans Act along partisan lines, but thankfully, the bill never gained traction in the Senate. We survived by the skin of our teeth.

So now we look forward to 2019. We have a new Congress and a fresh chance to rewrite our future.

Chefs have not traditionally been thought of as fisheries stakeholders. We and our customers are the end users on the consumer supply chain. Our industry contributes $800 billion to the economy, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration doesn’t count our numbers when it tabulates its annual “Fisheries Economics of the United States” reports.

Every day I source fresh fish for my restaurant, speaking with everyone from fisher to distributor along the way.  The vast majority of the seafood I use for our regular and raw-bar menus is from the Gulf of Mexico—and that’s true as well for other conscientious local chefs. I’m also not alone in being open to the true bounty of our fisheries; wherever possible, rather than use more heavily-targeted species we choose fish that are under-utilized, caught as by-catch, or even invasive.

Chefs are generally the primary link between the fisher and the table. They provide useful information about consumer tastes. We help suggest and introduce more sustainable alternatives to our customers. Unfortunately, regulators rarely ask for our input, and the net result is an incomplete picture of the challenges and opportunities on the horizon. That needs to change.

In 2019 you will see the chefs in our coalition take the next step. We will release our own policy statement with goals that reflect our unique interests. We will work tirelessly to advance them.

As 2018 gives way to the new year, I hope you will be joined by friends and family for a terrific meal featuring  fresh domestic seafood! I hope you will raise a glass and join me in a toast to another great year for fisheries advocacy and an even brighter future in the years to come.

Chef Dana Honn

Together we can make sure our landmark fisheries law is not only maintained, but strengthened.

Dana Honn owns and operates Cafe Carmo, a tropical cafe and bar in the Warehouse District of New Orleans.

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.

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