Interview of the Week, Eric Brazer of the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance

Eric is the Deputy Director of the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance, an organization that is working to protect the fisheries resources that fishers and consumers rely upon.

ODP:  Why was the Gulf of Mexico Reef Shareholders’ Alliance formed?

EB:  The Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance (Shareholders’ Alliance) was formed in 2008 to unify and strengthen the commercial reef fish fishing industry around core concepts of conservation and sustainability. We came together under the belief that conservation goals and business objectives go hand in hand. By organizing and engaging conservation-minded commercial fishermen, we helped build a wildly successful red snapper individual fishing quota program that is heralded throughout the country as an example of fishermen innovation and conservation achievement.

Today the Shareholders’ Alliance engages in cooperative research, executes policy campaigns, represents our members before Congress, disseminates information among the fleet, and builds bridges between commercial fishermen, the seafood supply chain, and the American seafood consumer. We have become the largest organization of commercial snapper and grouper fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico. We work hard to ensure that our fisheries are sustainably managed so our fishing businesses can thrive, and our fishing communities can exist for future generations. We are the harvesters that provide much of the American public with a reliable source of domestically-caught wild Gulf seafood, and we do this through a philosophy that sustainable seafood and profitable fishing businesses depend on healthy fish populations.

ODP:  The Gulf of Mexico is one of the most important commercial fishing grounds in the U.S.  What are the management challenges there?

EB:  Red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico is a resounding success story. Thanks to a strong conservation ethos and a robust system of accountability in the commercial fishery, the red snapper population has nearly tripled in the last decade. Commercial fishing is profitable and American seafood consumers can now enjoy a sustainably-harvested American red snapper on their plate 365 days a year. Yet well-funded recreational anti-conservation fishing organizations have set their sights on rolling back the progress we have made protecting this iconic fish and building thriving small businesses. They are undermining successful commercial fishery management systems, influencing decisions that could promote overfishing, and are working to strip away commercial fishing quotas and reduce seafood consumer access to these public resources.

Commercial fishermen have worked hard to build a management system that identifies participation levels, accurately counts fish, and successfully monitors fishermen. Unfortunately, an unfettered and effectively infinite population of private recreational anglers has avoided any meaningful attempts to count their population of fishermen and the number of fish they catch. Without this critical information, any fishery management system will be fraught with loopholes that could threaten its sustainability and ultimately its success. Complicating this situation even further, these regional challenges have historically spawned national responses in the form of harmful anti-conservation federal legislation that could weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and impact commercial fishermen from coast to coast.

ODP: We hear so much about the importance of sustainability in the fishing industry.  How can new technology help the industry improve its sustainability?

EB:  Without sustainability, there can be no long-term future for the commercial fishing industry. Advances in technology are now helping commercial fishermen protect the resources their businesses and communities depend upon. The Shareholders’ Alliance has been at the forefront of testing video camera systems in the Gulf of Mexico to improve the accuracy, precision and timeliness of fishery data collection. Similarly, we have been working to advance electronic reporting options for fishermen who want to get away from the old-fashioned paper-and-pen reporting that has been in place for decades. Advancing technological solutions like these will help ensure that our fishery data is as good as it can possibly be and that any uncertainty estimates are minimized or altogether eliminated. Doing so ensures that the fishery management programs that are built on these data are sustainable and successful at protecting both fish and fishermen for future generations.

Technology can also add value to today’s fishing business by better connecting the seafood consumer with their food. Consumers who scan the QR code from each individual fish tagged as part of our unique Gulf WildTM program can see where their fish was caught, how and by whom and track it along the path it took from the boat to their plate. Consumers demand sustainability, and technology allows Gulf WildTM to deliver it to them.

ODP:  Are restaurants in places like New Orleans and Tampa becoming more discriminating — wanting to know where the fish they buy was caught and that it was sustainable?  

EB:  The fish of the Gulf of Mexico belong to us all – they are a public resource to be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of whether you live in New Orleans or Tampa or thousands of miles from the coast in America’s heartland. American consumers throughout the nation know this and they are rising up to demand sustainability and transparency with their seafood. While country of origin laws have been in effect for US retailers since 2005, Louisiana took this idea a step further earlier this year when it began requiring all Louisiana restaurant owners and seafood shops to disclose exactly where their seafood comes from. When purchasing Florida seafood, consumers can look for the “Fresh From Florida” logo on the label, thereby ensuring that the product comes from Florida. And regardless of where you are in the country, if you order Gulf WildTM-tagged fish, you are getting your seafood with certainty.

ODP: How hard will it be to get the whole U.S. commercial fishing industry on board with using new technology to improve sustainability?

EB:  Technology has been helping commercial fishermen for years – from GPS to depth sounders to AIS to satellite phones. This industry has become safer and more profitable thanks to technological advances, and there’s still room for improvement – for instance, replacing paper-and-pen with electronic reporting systems and supplementing (or replacing) fallible human data collectors with impartial video cameras. But technology has its limitations, especially on busy fishing boats battling rough seas and salt spray tens (or hundreds) of miles from shore and operated by an aging generation of captains. New technology can, and will, improve the commercial fishery and long-term sustainability of our ocean resources if it is simple, reliable, efficient, economically viable, and can straightforwardly improve fishery science and management. Public-private partnerships and broad input from commercial fishermen are critical to ensuring these objectives are met.

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