The Ocean

Picture of fisherman Erik Bahrt holding a halibut

Fisherman Erik Bahrt processes halibut. A growing movement hopes to make fisheries more sustainable.

Photograph courtesy Sea to Table

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

This story is part of a special series on Ocean Innovations.

A group of halibut longline fishermen in Sitka, Alaska, recently became concerned about how much rockfish they were hauling in as unwanted bycatch. So they got some new laptops and better seafloor mapping software, and started laying their lines so they stayed over the continental shelf, instead of straying beyond it.

Their bycatch dropped by 25 percent, according to Ed Backus, who is vice president of fisheries for Portland, Oregon-based Ecotrust. Backus helped the Alaska fishermen accomplish that by partnering with them to create the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust.

"Now the fishermen have a better market story for their fish," said Backus.

Backus explained that Ecotrust's goal is to innovate in marine conservation through the lens of community economic development. He said the idea is to work with fishermen who are on the cutting edge of conservation practices to help them earn trust from consumers, increase profits, and make use of the ocean's bounty more sustainably.

Better Business

Ecotrust hopes to build on the growing market for more specialty and sustainable seafood. To get there, Ecotrust helps found and strengthen local conservation groups, such as the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust, and it helps such groups "dip their toes into the business side of the equation," said Backus.

Backus added that because many fishing communities have a hard time accessing capital, part of the equation is lending money to responsible fishers who need to make improvements. Ecotrust also helped start Community Fisheries Network, a peer-to-peer learning group that brings together people from across the country to work on such issues as conservation practices and microscale processing, branding, and distribution.

Backus explained that many small fishing communities are producing a surplus after they feed local bellies, but then they lose potential revenue when they sell their catch to big conventional distributors, which mix the products in with whatever comes off other vessels and fleets that do not use the same conservation practices. Instead, the goal is to brand specialty seafood throughout the supply chain.

"This would generate benefits for fishermen in rural areas and food for people in urban areas that they can feel good about," said Backus. "We want to tap into the whole buy-local movement."

To help get the job done, the team is working on mobile fish-processing units, which can be trucked via trailer to local fishing communities during peak harvest times. "This would allow people to take a step up the value chain without massive investment, and extract more value from less volume," said Backus.

He added that the system Ecotrust and others are building would have data-based benchmarks and checks and balances to ensure bad operators can't greenwash (or "bluewash"). "There are lots of fish stories out there. I think story matters, but it has to be authentic and auditable," said Backus.

Backus added that most of the communities he works with operate on too small a scale to function under big sustainable standards like Seafood Watch. "We can't just let them fall through the cracks," he said.

Backus said he envisions the future of marine conservation being a hybrid approach, combining traditional policy work with new business models. He said the key to the latter is spinning off good ideas into viable businesses.

Life on the Water

Backus grew up in coastal Woods Hole, Massachusetts. His father Richard Backus was a well-known marine scientist and shark expert. As a young man, Backus tried his hand at fishing out of Nantucket. He did handlining for cod and worked on a 32-foot lobster boat. Later, he worked in the charter industry, taking sportfishers out for striped bass.

"Around 1980 we would still see 50-pound cod, but even then you could tell it was the beginning of the end," said Backus.

Backus also had a keen interest in science. So he started studying seabirds in Georges Bank. He landed in graduate school, then worked in tropical forestry for a few years. In 1993 he moved to the West Coast and began working on fisheries conservation.

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