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How Wild Fish Is Caught

Your guests are becoming more eco friendly than ever before.  Organic, sustainable, free range, cruelty free, locally grown, and a variety of other catch phrases that were unheard of when I started waiting tables are now common place.  Most all of these are easy enough terms to understand because they are relatable.  We understand grazing land animals and crops growing in a field because we have seen them.  With fish, the concepts are a little more foreign.  In the past I have discussed these methods as they related to salmon and crabs.  Today, I wanted to discuss these methods in greater detail.

It is becoming increasingly common for guests to ask how their wild seafood is caught.  I am the de facto fish expert in my restaurant and am called upon at least once a week to explain to a guest how their fish was caught.  Guests that are environmentally conscious want to know that the fish they are eating was caught using methods that are sustainable and avoid by-catch.  With this post, I hope to explain these methods so you too can be the de facto fish expert in your restaurants.

There are two factors that are important to consider in sustainable fishing:

1)    By-Catch:  This is the unintentional catching of species beyond the particular species you are fishing for.  The most famous example of this is dolphins being caught in nets used for tuna fishing,

2)    Habitat Impact:  This is the disturbing or damaging of a marine habitat while fishing.  If a huge crab pot falls on a scallop bed, the scallop bed is destroyed.  This is not only bad for the scallops, but also the other fish that eat scallops.

Here are the most common types of commercial fishing in rough order from most sustainable to least.  The percentages listed are the percent of wild seafood caught worldwide using this particular method.  Pictures and animations of all of these methods can be found on the Seafood Watch website:

Harpoon (>1%):  Just like Captain Ahab seeking Moby Dick, fisherman still use harpoons to catch large fish.  While it inspires thoughts of harpooning whales to near extinction, the method is actually very eco friendly.  The target is visually selected and results in very little by-catch.  The habitat impacts are also minimal.

Trolling (<1%):  This is like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn walking down to the pond to drop their line.  Commercial fishermen do it on a much larger scale.  Running multiple lines on poles from the back of the boat.  Once a line has caught something the fisherman reels it in.  By-catch is minimal because the fisherman can quickly throw back any unintended fish.  Environmental impact is also minimal from the floating hooks.

Traps and Pots (7%):  By now everyone reading this should have seen at least one episode of Deadliest Catch.  While these are extreme examples of fishing pots, they give the basic idea.  They are designed in a way to reduce by-catch although some inevitably occurs.  The habitat impact is significant, but limited to the specific area the pot lands on or may be dragged to by currents.

Purse Seining (25%):  No great literary or reality television references left for this one.  A large boat will approach a school of fish and bait the area.  While the fish are enjoying the bait a second boat will circle around with a large net, which can be closed from the bottom.  Once in place the net closes and is tightened catching all of the fish inside.  The habitat impacts are less of an issue than by-catch.  Depending on the type of net and the diligence of the fisherman, other species may be caught in the net.

Longlining (5%):  This is the process by which a main line (sometimes as much as 50 miles long) is dragged behind a boat with smaller baited lines attached.  Anchors and bouys are attached to keep the lines at the desired depth.  These smaller lines have hooks that the fish are caught on.  The problem here is that other types of animals are attracted to the bait as well.  Sea gulls, sea turtles, dolphins, and sharks are all part of the by catch problem with longlining.

Gillnetting (3%):  A net made of thin mesh, which is practically invisible to fish, is placed underwater. Anchors and bouys are attached to keep the net at the desired depth.  As the fish swim along they become entangled in the net and are caught.  This obviously has tremendous by-catch issues.  Their use is highly regulated in the US to areas where other sea life is too small or large to be caught.

Trawling (54%) and Dredging (>2%):  This is not only the most common fishing technique, but also the most controversial.  Trawling is the act of dragging a large net behind a boat and catching anything in its path.  Dredging is the same process, but done along the ocean floor.  Trawling results in by-catch to intentional catch ratios as high as 20:1.  This by-catch can include both endangered species and smaller fish necessary for sustaining the food chain.  Dredging not only results in by-catch but also disastrous impacts on the ocean floor.  The “doors” to the nets often way several tons and are dragged across the ocean floor.  This not only damages the habitat, but stirs up a column of sand and silt that can be visible from satellite images.

These are not the only fishing methods used, but do constitute the majority of commercial fishing.  This post will be referenced back to numerous times as I discuss different species of fish on this blog.  The purpose of this post is to inform.  I am not in the business of making moral judgments on what people eat.  Instead I want servers to be more capable of informing consumers who have questions about where their fish comes from.

If you are interested in learning more about fish and sustainability, I highly recommend visiting Seafood Watch and Fish Online.  I believe these are the two best sites on the web for this information and both were instrumental in creating this post.   If your restaurant serves a variety of fish or seasonal features, Seafood Watch has compiled a tremendous one-page tool to reassure guests what their best choices for the environment are.  Both sites are tremendously helpful and highly recommended.

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About David Hayden

David Hayden is the creator of The Hospitality Formula Network, a series of websites dedicated to all aspects of the restaurant industry. He is also the author of the book Tips2: Tips For Improving Your Tips and Building Your Brand With Facebook.

2 comments on “How Wild Fish Is Caught

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