Friday, November 27, 2015

Save Our Sea Bass, by Don Orth

Several years ago, I was at a conference in Queens, New York, and a group of us had dinner at a local restaurant.  It was an education conference and I was the only fisheries person in the group.  While scanning the menu, I noticed a seafood entrée, called Branzino.  Few things are more embarrassing than the fish guy being confused by an unfamiliar fish on a menu.  Someone asked, “What’s branzino?” So I replied, “I don’t know, but I’m ordering it.”   A smartphone search started.  It turns out that Branzino is an Italian name for the European Sea Bass Dicentrachus labrax, a member of the Moronidae family.  That’s the same family of the Atlantic Striped Bass Morone saxatilis, or Rockfish, so I knew this fish would be good.     
European Sea Bass Dicentrarchus labrax  from
  The European Sea Bass is second only to the Atlantic Salmon Salmo salar, as the most popular food fish in Europe and occurs in the Mediterranean Sea and eastern Atlantic Ocean.  In Ancient Greece, it was said to be the “smartest of all fish, as it was the most difficult to catch.” However, today, in modern Greece, it is so rare to catch one that there is an expression “I caught a Sea Bass” (epyasa Lavraki) that roughly translates as “I hit the jackpot”.   So how did I hit the jackpot and order a European Sea Bass in Queens?
Grilled Branzino.   source:
A popular food fish in the Mediterranean would have been overexploited many decades ago were it not for fishing regulations.  In the case of the European Sea Bass, regulations are not yet fully in place yet.  Fishing mortality has been increasing and abundance declining for at least 10 years.  Usually, a fishery goes through predictable phases if harvests are not regulated; these are: (1) predevelopment, (2) growth, (3) full exploitation, (4) over-exploitation, eventually (5) collapse, and hopefully (6) recovery.   
Sevel phases of fishery development. (Source:

 Popularized by celebrity chefs, the catches of European Sea Bass are now at a 20-year low and ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Seas) asked EU fishermen to reduce harvest by 80% to help revive the Sea Bass stock!  In 2015, the EU banned trawling during the spawning season to reduce harvest on Sea Bass; this was an emergency measure because the EU countries could not agree on harvest restrictions.  The fishery for wild European Sea Bass is reaching the collapse phase because regulations are not working.    

Consequently, non-profit organizations developed a public relations campaign to “Save Our Sea Bass.   Organizations are primarily composed of the coastal sport fishers, who have the most to lose in this conflict.  Most recreational anglers in Europe release much of their catch, and this applies to European Sea Bass where 77% of marine anglers in England released their catch (Ferter et al. 2013).  Marine anglers from eastern and southern European countries are often more consumption oriented.  There are no studies of post-release mortalities of European Sea Bass, so it is difficult to know how effective minimum size limits might be.  After many years of conflict, the EU Commission persuaded the EU Member States to agree to a number of emergency measures to restrict harvests of Sea Bass. This campaign was supported by the "other B.A.S.S."  (Bass Angler’s SportfishingSociety). 
Commercial harvest of European Sea Bass.  Source.
European Sea Bass are eurythermic (5-28 °C) and euryhaline (3‰ to full strength sea water) and frequent coastal inshore waters, and occur in estuaries and brackish lagoons.  They are voracious predators on crustaceans, mollusks, and fishes.  Historically, they were raised in seawater ponds and lagoons where special barriers were placed in appropriate lagoon sites to capture fish before out-migration.  By the 1970s, mass-production techniques for juvenile Sea Bass were developed in most Mediterranean countries such that hundreds of thousands of larvae could be produced.  Thus, intensive aquaculture in sea cages became feasible and the production of sea bass greatly increased.  Today, prices for wild Sea Bass are much higher than farmed Sea Bass.   Most of the production occurs in Turkey, Greece, and Spain and the market is saturated.   Farmed production now dwarfs the wild capture fisheries.   Some efforts have begun to diversify the market through organic aquaculture.  

Farmed or Wild?  What’s the difference?  Farmed Sea Bass are cheaper.  But use of antibiotics and development of antibiotic resistance by pathogenic bacteria is a clear human health risk and no safe residue levels are established for most antibiotics.   The market demand for the more expensive wild Sea Bass far outstrips the sustainable harvest.    Therefore, the most likely source of my restaurant Branzino was farmed.   A recent ICES call for reduction in harvest means the wild fish will become even rarer – however, commercial fishers have resisted quota reductions for years.  Although the farmed Sea Bass production continues to rise, there are risks of intensive farming.  Risks include transfer of pathogens and genetic mixing between wild and farmed animals upon the escape of farmed sea bass from sea cages.

Wild Sea Bass stocks are at historic lows and emergency measures (ban on pelagic trawling, bag limit, closed areas and increased minimum size limits) are in place to reduce harvest by both commercial and recreational harvesters.  Size limits, such as a higher minimum landing size, appear to be a long overdue management strategy in order to avoid overfishing. The current minimum landing size of 36 cm (=14 inches) is below the size at which female Sea Bass reach sexual maturity (40-45cm).   This minimum landing size “corresponds with the size Sea Bass the market traditionally prefers” (Clover 2006; p 278), and not a size limit appropriate to conserve Sea Bass.
Number of offspring produced by different sized European Sea Bass.  Source.
Gear and area restrictions are also likely long-term management strategies debated.  A Sea Bass caught with hook and line provides the best quality flesh, relative to trawls, seines, or gill nets.   Fisheries based on line-caught Sea Bass would provide both the most jobs and highest price per kg of bass, while also being the least damaging to the marine environment. Discarding undersized Sea Bass is a significant issue for any fishing gear, other than hook and line.  Finally, gear and area restrictions are needed to prevent commercial fleets from targeting immature fish in nursery areas. 

I did not hit the jackpot with the Branzino I ordered in that Queen’s restaurant.  It was the result of decades of research and development to create an intensive sea-cage fish farming industry.   While the farmed production of European Sea Bass has grown, the harvest of Wild Sea Bass has dwindled as commercial and recreational interests from competing European states argue over appropriate fishing regulations. Let’s hope they act soon to Save Our Sea Bass.   

Clover, C.  2004. The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat. London: Ebury Press.
Hillin, J., I. Coscia, and F. Volckaert.  2014.  European sea bass (Dicentrarchus labrax L). AquaTrace Species Leaflet. 
Perdikaris, C., and I. Paschos. 2010. Organic aquaculture in Greece: a brief review. Reviews in Aquaculture 2:102-105 
Ramirez, B., L. Ortega, D. Montero, F. Tuya, and R. Haroun.  2015.  Monitoring a massive escape of European Sea Bass (Dicentrarchus labrax) at an Oceanic Island: potential species establishment. Journal of Aquaculture Research and Development 6(5):339. doi: 10.4172/2155-9546.1000339
Sánchez Vázquez, F.J., and J.A. Muñoz-Cueto.  2014.  Biology of European Sea Bass. CRC Press. 436 pp.

1 comment:

  1. This really helps me appreciate how complicated it can be to make sustainable seafood choices. Thanks!