Toward Sustainable Seafood: A Fisherman’s Story


Toward Sustainable Seafood: A Fisherman’s Story

Chris Brown

President, Seafood Harvesters of America

I started fishing when I was about seven years old. My grandfather was a commercial fisherman who operated a boat off the coast of Rhode Island. 

As a boy, I felt a real sense of freedom being on the water. The fishery was strong. Haddock and cod were abundant. We caught a lot of winter flounder and whiting, too. There were sharks everywhere. 

I was addicted early. I would lie about having Little League games and sneak out with my grandfather. He was always giving me life lessons about respecting the ocean, respecting the fish. 

Sometimes, we’d haul up the net and it would be full of juvenile fish. My grandfather would look over and say, “Don’t eat your seed corn, boy.” That was him telling me it’s not okay to catch juvenile fish. Another saying he had was, “You can only kill fish once, so make sure that the day you do, you sell them.” The lesson in all of it: Don’t waste. I learned to be a fisherman and conservationist from my grandfather.

John Rae
John Rae

Chris Brown, president of Seafood Harvesters of America

I don’t see fishing as a right. Fishing is a privilege. I get to take my boat into the nation’s strategic protein reserve and extract wealth. With privilege comes responsibility. My responsibility is to do no harm to that resource – to harvest responsibly and make sure there are more fish in the ocean at the end of the year than the start. That is the goal of a sustainable fishery. I have been fishing for a living since graduating high school. I got my diploma, walked down to the docks and got a job. I fish out of Point Judith, the main port in Rhode Island. There are 60 or 70 commercial vessels: trawlers and lobster boats. It’s a good location. We are on the southern end of the northern fish stocks: Codfish, yellowtail flounder, winter flounder, mackerel and herring. And we’re at the north end of the southern stocks: Scup, black sea bass, summer flounder and squid. It underscores why you need a healthy ecosystem. You can’t rely on only one healthy stock.

"I don’t see fishing as a right. Fishing is a privilege."

My boat is named ‘Proud Mary,’ after my wife. It can carry 50,000 pounds of fish. Sometimes we fish just a couple miles from the harbor. Or we might be 50 or 60 miles offshore. We set the nets just prior to daylight, when there is a little pink showing in the sky. We’re back home by 5 or 6 o’clock at night. My entire 40-year career, I have been fishing the same waters I fished with my grandfather.

I am a full-blown commercial naturalist. I appreciate all components of the wild. I marvel at the epic migrations, how the species in our waters change with the seasons. There is something infinitely more rewarding about being a fisherman when you give in to the greatness of your surroundings, when you realize you are only a small piece of everything happening on the ocean. I am 58 years old. If I don’t learn something every day, it’s my own fault.

John Rae
John Rae

Today, the ocean is very different than it was in the 1960s. We have mid-Atlantic species that are our dominant stocks now. The old standbys have moved off. It’s kind of sad. We’re still successful, but it’s because of our willingness to adapt. The fishery suffered from overfishing. Bad regulation encouraged waste. It hit the fan in the 1980s. The government allowed the seafood industry to invest in itself, with them as a partner, and we were suddenly awash in new stern trawlers. It created a generation of fishermen who didn’t understand stewardship. By the early 1990s, fish were incredibly scarce. 

To save the fishery, we had to reverse the culture of disregard. We found a better way to fish. We can make money – and protect the fishery. We have a yearly quota for a number of fish species. We can trade quota. We can buy quota. It diminishes the incentive to be wasteful. Stocks are rebounding, but there’s more work to be done.

John Rae
John Rae

Chris Brown, Rhode Island fisherman

We have to increase accountability. We have to be more transparent about which fish we are catching, and how many we are catching. We need better monitoring. I am doing that by installing a camera system on my boat. When I haul the nets back, the cameras turn on and record the catch. It increases the value of the data coming out of the fishery. There is certainty about what you are fishing for, what you are landing, what you are discarding. Our goal with Seafood Harvesters of America is to develop sustainable fisheries, using accountability as the sword and shield. We are the fishermen who rose out of the ashes of overfishing. We see a pathway to prosperity and environmental health. We have an obligation to the planet to make wild-caught fishing a viable, enduring, dependable source of food. Accountability leads to success over time. It is the common element found in all great fisheries. 

Chris Brown was named a White House ‘Champion of Change’ for sustainable seafood in 2016. The Walton Family Foundation supports the Seafood Harvesters of America’s efforts to increase transparency and accountability in the nation’s fisheries. 

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