MONTAUK, N.Y.—The ocean blue stretches as far as the eye can see. Birds fly overhead, occasionally diving into the water, then re-emerging milliseconds later with fish in their beaks.
“They’re the best fish finders in the world,” said Ron Onorato, who goes by Captain Ron. He has been fishing in Montauk, New York, for more than 40 years. His father was a fisherman, so Onorato started learning how to fish when he was a young boy.
He is among a diminishing group of fishermen in Montauk who still catch fish by traditional rod and reel. Unlike big commercial fishing boats that use huge nets, which often trap other marine life as well, Onorato only catches whatever he is looking for. By its very nature, this method is a far more sustainable way of fishing.
Onorato casts into the water a contraption with multicolored rubber tubes hanging from hooks, a device he made himself. When he moves it around in the water, the contraption resembles a school of small fish and attracts the attention of bigger fish.
A glimmer of silver flashes by. Onorato begins to maneuver the rod back and forth, leading the fish closer to the boat. After several minutes, he feels it’s the right time to start reeling in the line. He leans back to brace himself and pull the fish to the surface. In one fluid motion, it lands on the boat with a thud. It’s a bluefish, a meaty and full-flavored variety. They’re plentiful in the Atlantic, but because their flesh is more intensely flavored, bluefish are not as popular with consumers.
A Fisherman’s Dilemma
During the Montauk fishing season from May to November, Onorato goes out to sea every day. But he still has trouble making ends meet. Federal and state regulations on catch limits hinder him from making enough of a living, he said. More coveted fish—those that are popular menu choices—command a higher price but have smaller catch limits, to prevent overfishing.
Striped sea bass, for example, sells for about $3 per pound, but Onorato can only catch 50 pounds of it per week. Bluefish earns him about $1 per pound, and he can catch up to 2,000 pounds per day.
Sustainability experts say quotas have to be set conservatively so that fish populations stay healthy. But Onorato believes the limits are too constricting, especially when he sees plenty of fish in the water that he’s not allowed to catch. To him, the conversation about sustainable seafood should address the big commercial trawlers overseas that are hauling seafood in enormous quantities.
He cited a statistic that 90 percent of the country’s consumed seafood is imported, a fact substantiated by The Safina Center, an ocean research and conservation institute based in Setauket, New York.
“It’s in our best interest to harvest sustainably. Otherwise, we won’t have any fish and we’d be out of business,” Onorato said. He agrees that some regulations must be in place to prevent overfishing in U.S. waters. “But the problem is, we [traditional fishermen] don’t have any input. We’re the affected group, so we should have some say. We’re totally dismissed.”
Fishermen are often perceived as the part of the problem, but the reality is far more complicated. Onorato takes part in the Dock to Dish program, a cooperative that directly partners with small-scale fishermen to provide fresh, local seafood to restaurants and consumers.
Unlike the convoluted supply chain that is commonplace in the fishing industry, with many brokers and suppliers who relay the seafood from the dock to the restaurant kitchen, Dock to Dish cuts out all the middlemen. Thus, common issues like losing information about the source of the seafood are avoided. It also creates demand for local seafood.
“Promoting local seafood is a good thing,” said Elizabeth Brown-Hornstein, a research scientist at The Safina Center. “We definitely need to eat a wider variety of fish. Salmon, tuna, and shrimp are the most common. We need to move away from them.”
Relieving the pressure on popular species would benefit the ecosystem and fishermen like Onorato, who would have a wider variety of seafood to catch and sell. Consumer choices have a direct effect on his earnings. When underutilized fish like bluefish and porgy gained popularity on the dinner table, their prices went up, and Onorato started catching more of them to keep up with demand.
So how can we prevent overfishing of these once-underappreciated species, too? Brown-Hornstein said management systems need to be in place for local seafood species, to monitor their population before numbers get dangerously low. “It’s on the government agencies to monitor these fish populations and make sure we have appropriate measures in place [to prevent overfishing],” she said.
Ultimately, it’s also up to consumers to eat a variety of seafood so as not to put too much pressure on any species—and for chefs to make those choices available. “Demand changes what supply is,” said Jason Weiner, executive chef of Almond, a restaurant in Bridgehampton, not far from Montauk. “We’re voting with our dollars, with the choices we make.”
Weiner thinks chefs have the responsibility to help consumers make the right choices by introducing them to lesser-known species. “People don’t have to be knocked on the head, but when there’s a conversation between chef and waiter, and waiter to customer, it hopefully helps [lead] people in the right direction,” Weiner said.
Seafood purveyors, stuck in the middle of the supply chain, also feel that chefs are the ones who can really effect change. “In this day and age, people watch food TV programs. People trust and listen to chefs,” said Joe Cooper, lead sales executive at New York seafood purveyor Lobster Place.
The company sources mostly from the East Coast, and follows guidelines by the Seafood Council and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to make sure they are not selling species that are running low, said Cooper. But he has encountered many chefs who would make unreasonable demands to buy seafood that is low in stock. “Chefs will ask, ‘Why can’t you get U.S. cod?’ It’s because there’s not much left,” Cooper said. Lobster Place now gets most of its cod from waters further north, like near Iceland and Norway.
“Some chefs want to demand from the environment, not do what the environment demands from us—which is the way it should be,” he said.
Brown-Hornstein suggests that next time consumers shop for seafood or dine out, they should ask lots of questions about the seafood and where it comes from, “so restaurants know it’s important to consumers.”
“Those businesses will try to source more sustainably, if that’s what consumers want,” she said.