Via Forbes, written by Monte Burke:
Kerry Heffernan, the former executive chef of Eleven Madison Park and Southgate, and the current impresario of the new Manhattan restaurant, Grand Banks, is obsessed with fishing for striped bass. But like countless recreational anglers up and down the East Coast, he’s noticed, with growing despondency, that fishing for stripers has grown worse and worse over the last few years. His personal tipping point came, he says, during the 2014 iteration of the Manhattan Cup, a New York City inshore catch-and-release fishing tournament put on by the Fishermen’s Conservation Association (FCA). “I caught a puny eighteen-inch striper and it won the tournament in the fly fishing division,” he says. “Even the guys fishing with artificials had pitiful results.” He decided then that something needed to be done.
That opportunity came when Captain Frank Crescitelli, the chairman of the FCA, told Heffernan that he was planning to give him with the organization’s highest conservation award at the 2015 Manhattan Cup, honoring Heffernan for his many contributions to striped bass and the FCA. Heffernan declined the offer. “I thought what I’d rather do is put the focus on the fish,” he says.
In place of the award, Heffernan decided to embark on a new campaign, something called #SaveOurStripers. Leveraging his many years in the restaurant business—and with the help of Crescitelli and others in the FCA—Heffernan cajoled nine of his fellow celebrity chefs to join him in making a pledge to take striped bass off of the menus at their respective restaurants. “I felt like we could make a difference,” he says.
The stripers certainly need the help.
Striped bass are—both historically and presently—the most important inshore saltwater fish on the East Coast of the United States. More than three million recreational anglers fish for stripers in any given year. The economic impact of that recreational fishery is believed to be $6.5 billion. Stripers are also an important commercial catch, prized as table fare for their mild and firm flesh.
But the striped bass is also very much in trouble. Between 2006 and 2011, catches by recreational anglers in Massachusetts were down 85%. (The state is known by striper fishermen as “Bassachusetts” for its historically excellent striped bass fishing.) Striped bass reproduction hit a record low in the Chesapeake Bay—the species’ most important spawning grounds—in 2012.
Even the notoriously slow-moving feds have begun to catch up to the problem. A 2013 report by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), which oversees the management of the striped bass, seemed to contradict itself. The report concluded that the species was not yet overfished, but that number of spawning female striped bass:
has continued to decline since 2004 and is estimated at 128 million pounds, just above the SSB [female spawning stock biomass] threshold of 127 million pounds, and below the SSB target of 159 million pounds.”
But the ASMFC seemed to realize that something was wrong, and has enacted a 25% reduction in the striped bass harvest this year. Though the various state bureaucracies and stakeholders involved in the striped bass fishery (both recreational and commercial) will make this reduction difficult to both implement and police, it is a step in the right direction.
For some, though, the ASMFC’s action was not nearly enough.
Years ago, Heffernan routinely served striped bass in his restaurants. “It was considered a glamour fish, it was local and, at the time, it seemed sustainable,” he says. “That’s all changed now.”
That change has been well-documented by scientific data and the drum-banging of striper advocated like the FCA, Stripers Forever, Charles Witek and John McMurray. Heffernan says the first action he took was to stop killing any bass that he caught. “I think all recreational anglers should do the same,” he says. (For the record, I agree with him.)
He next sent the scientific data to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which produces the influential guide to eating sustainable seafood (called “Seafood Watch”), which currently lists recreationally-caught stripers as a “green”—or fine to eat—fish. “But I knew because the data had to be reviewed and then peer-reviewed, that it would take a long while to get that designation changed,” says Heffernan. “We needed to do something now. It’s less difficult to rebuild a stock from 30% of its capacity than it is at 10%.”
Heffernan says that the campaign to get the then-imperiled swordfish off of menus in the late 1990s served as a model for his campaign, even though the two fish differed in the manner in which they are harvested (swordfish are rarely targeted by recreational anglers). Swordfish have since bounced back.
One of Heffernan’s first calls was to his friend and fellow ardent striper angler, Tom Colicchio, the founder of Craft and Colicchio & Sons. He was an easy sell. By the 2015 Manhattan Cup (held on May 15th), eight other influential chefs had joined the #SaveOurStripers cause. Along with Heffernan and Colicchio, the list includes:
–Floyd Cardoz (most recently the executive chef of North End Grill)
–PJ Calapa (the executive chef of the Altamarea Group, which includes Ai Fiori, Costata)
–Harold Dieterle (Perilla, Kin Shop and The Marrow)
–Ben Pollinger (Oceana)
–Todd Mitgang (Crave Fishbar)
–Rick Moonen (RM Seafood and RX Boiler Room)
–Brian Pancir (NY Yankees and NY Giants personal chef)
–Dave Pasternack (Esca and Barchetta)
(Pasternack, to me anyway, is the most interesting name on this list because of this 2010 story. His apparent change of heart is admirable.)
The #SaveOurStripers campaign is, at once, both simple and powerful. Taking stripers off the menu is a relatively easy task, but the implications of such a move are much grander. Chefs, in general, have more visibility and power than ever before. They have become celebrities and cultural tastemakers. The campaign sends a strong message that they will no longer participate in the overharvest of this fish. It also acts as a platform for better general awareness of, and consumer education about, the plight of stripers. Heffernan says that he and his fellow chefs, by no longer serving striped bass, will have the opportunity to introduce their customers to other types of sustainable fish—like porgies, bluefish and black sea bass. This, in theory, will also help commercial fishermen, who can stop targeting a species in decline and diversify their own harvests. Most important—at least in the short term—is the impact the campaign will have on the striper stocks. By taking striped bass off of menus, Heffernan estimates that somewhere between 6,000 to 9,000 fish will be saved just this year. And many of those fish will be, of course, the integral spawners needed to sustain the species.
“We’re still ramping this thing up and getting the word out,” says Heffernan, who hopes to add dozens more chefs to the #SaveOurStripers campaign in the coming months. “This is only the beginning.”