As the chef-owner of a restaurant in a city that relies on tourism to fuel its economy, I feel obligated to weigh in on a serious concern for our nation’s foodways: H.R. 200, the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act,” an ironically named bill that would wreak havoc on fishing communities and will likely be voted on by the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
More than 30 million people are projected to bring more than $13 billion to Louisiana in 2018, and all of them are hungry for our culture. Anyone familiar with our blackened redfish and trout amandine can tell you that means a lot of fish. Removing it from our restaurants and markets would be a serious blow to our culture.
But already there are missing pieces to the puzzle if you know where to look.
An iconic symbol of New Orleans cuisine, redfish, is unavailable to me as a chef. Very few eaters realize that the blackened redfish they have heard so much about is actually illegal to serve if caught in Louisiana.
Commercial harvest of redfish was banned in 1988 after being badly overfished by both commercial and recreational fishers. The ban was set to expire in 1991, but under pressure from the powerful recreational fishing lobbying group Coastal Conservation Association, redfish has remained the exclusive property of the recreational sector. In recent years recreational anglers have caught record amounts of redfish, while commercial fishers are still out of the job.
For the vast majority of the public who doesn’t live near the ocean and fish, this means a public resource has been privatized for a select few.
The fish in our oceans belong to everyone in the United States, and commercial distribution makes it possible for those in the interior of the nation to enjoy wild-caught seafood without hopping on a plane.
Now history is repeating itself as certain sportfishing groups are attempting to gain control of a shared public resource.
H.R. 200 would reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), the primary law managing federal fisheries. This 1976 law brought 44 fish stocks back from the edge of collapse all while increasing the economic output of fisheries across the nation.
Previous bipartisan reauthorizations of the bill in 1996 and 2006 led to science-based rebuilding plans that we all have benefited from, whether you prefer halibut from the Pacific or scallops from the Atlantic. H.R. 200 and its companion in the Senate, S. 1520, the so-called Modern Fish Act, would weaken MSA and have been widely criticized by conservation groups, commercial fishers, and elements of the recreational fishing industry.
Yet these bills have been supported and advanced by Louisiana members of Congress who should be in the best position to understand the dangers of overfishing and whose constituents will be most directly harmed overfished.
The most obvious reason for their support is that they have been given a lot of money by lobbying firms working with private recreational fishing interest groups.
These small groups have had an outsized effect on the reauthorization process. As one Oregon fishing guide noted about H.R. 200, “It is a Gulf Coast initiative, but it is changing federal law.”
We can’t rely on politicians to preserve this resource for all eaters when the loudest and most powerful voices are only in it for themselves. Those of us who don’t have a team of lobbyists are left to wonder if we will continue to enjoy wild-caught fish if we don’t own our own expensive boats.
H.R. 200 will damage fish stocks in the Gulf and across the nation. As a business owner, that means fewer options for my guests and the seafood-hungry throngs of locals and tourists alike. As a moral citizen, it means putting in danger an invaluable ecosystem and jeopardizing future generations’ ability to experience the cuisine of the city of New Orleans, the state of Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast.
Marcus Jacobs owns and operates Marjie’s Grill in New Orleans.