Coloradans care about the coast

When you choose a package of shrimp at the grocery, what you won’t see on the label is the staggering amount of other fish harmed in the capture. Local organizations and restaurants in Colorado strive to bring this reality to forefront of consumer’s decision making process.

Bycatch is the unintentional capture of any species that was not the targeted fish in a fishing operation. This can include a wide variety of fish as well as seabirds, dolphins and turtles. These non-targeted species, often times injured or dead from the capture, must then be tossed back into the ocean.

“If you care about ocean health and habitat protection, then going with a sustainable approach is really the only way to go,” said Vicki Goldstein, founder and Executive Director of the Colorado Ocean Coalition, which partners with chapters in other states to form the Inland Ocean Coalition. This organization aims to raise awareness about the ways residents in inland states can participate in ocean conservation.

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This graphic represents estimates of the bycatch of fish only and not marine mammals or seabirds. The fisheries included in this estimate can be found in the National Bycatch Report. Graphic: Julia Medeiros

One of the most harmful methods that Goldstein advocates against is the use of trawls. Trawls are large nets dragged by boats either through the ocean or across the sea floor. Cone shaped, they have a wide opening that can be as large as a football field and capture almost anything in their way.

“They do not discriminate,” Goldstein said.

Trawling can capture sea turtles and either drown or crush them under the weight of the catch. Goldstein wants to see more turtle excluder devices (TEDs) installed in trawls to help prevent these casualties. The device consists of a grid of bars fitted in the neck of the trawl with an opening in the net. While the shrimp can pass through to the end of the net, turtles will be stopped at the grid and pushed out from the opening.

Collecting accurate data on bycatch can be challenging as it often goes underreported. If an endangered species is caught, fishermen are under pressure to get rid of it without reporting the incident in order to avoid a fine. One way to monitor bycatch is to have an independent observer on-board the fishing vessel, but this would be costly to mandate across all fisheries. Even then, an independent observer has the potential for human error.

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Longlines capture fish by stringing out a series of baited hooks from a fishing vessel, suspended by buoys. Gillnets float like vertical curtains in water and catch fish by the gills as they try to slip through the netting. This graphic represents estimates of the bycatch of fish only and not marine mammals or seabirds. Graphic: Julia Medeiros

The United States is considered to have a more tightly regulated fishing industry than other countries, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association moving towards the broader implementation of electronic monitoring on fishing vessels. This technology consists of electronic reporting of fishing trip data, on-board video cameras and gear sensors that can collect information about catch and discards that is potentially more accurate. In 2015, the association performed a cost comparison between the use of these technologies and human observers and found that for several fisheries electronic monitoring may be a more cost effective option.

Seafood comes to Colorado from all over the map. In addition to United States fisheries, fish arrives here from the coasts of South America, Europe and Asia. This means that Colorado consumers have a plethora of both sustainable and non-sustainable options to choose from.

“We need to become smarter about the choices we make about what we eat,” said Goldstein. “That will then send a message to the restaurants and chefs and markets that we don’t want to purchase fish that are not sustainable.”

Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar, based in Denver, became the first Colorado restaurant to be certified by the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch in 2014. Through this partnership and several others, they have access to educational tools on sustainable fishing for their staff and resources to connect chefs directly to fishermen. They also partake in a quarterly audit to confirm that the species they serve and catch methods used for them are in line with sustainable parameters.

“It’s not just a coastal thing,” said Sheila Lucero, Executive Chef for Jax. “It’s a web, we’re all connected.”

Lucero is in charge of the sustainability program at Jax. Cultivating good and longstanding relationships with trusted fish mongers is one of the key ways that she ensures the restaurant purchases from sustainable sources.

Throughout this experience, Lucero has noticed that her customers care deeply about sustainability as well.

“Our guests are asking questions,” Lucero said. “They want to know: ‘Where are you getting your fish from?’”

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