Traceability was key to easing consumer fears after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and that could offer Tohoku’s struggling fishermen a way to deal with the Fukushima nuclear disaster, says the Texas fisherman who took the initiative in introducing the system.
According to Buddy Guindon, it wasn’t easy to assure seafood buyers and consumers around the world who knew little about the fact that the area affected by the giant oil slick caused by BP’s blown well was relatively small compared with the entire Gulf.
“We had a lot of people calling us asking if there were oil on our fish,” Guindon, executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance, said in an interview Thursday.
The Texan is on a five-day trip to Tokyo at the invitation of the Japanese government to talk about his experience dealing with the worst offshore oil accident in U.S. history, which caused an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil to gush out of the seabed over nearly three months.
Alarmed, members of the alliance started tagging fish under the Gulf Wild program. The tags, about the size of a guitar pick, have serial numbers that can be checked on the Gulf Wild website to see who caught the fish, where, from what vessel and how it fared in safety tests.
“We could show that we weren’t fishing near the oil spill area and stayed out of waters where it was closed by the federal government,” Guindon said. “It gave consumers the confidence that they were getting a good product”
For the fishermen in Japan’s northeast who are struggling to revive the industry, a system like this might appear costly.
“There are costs but what we see in the other end is that there is so much increase in the economic benefit that outweighs the cost,” said Kate Bonzon, senior director of oceans at the nonprofit organization Environmental Defense Fund, another participant in the state-sponsored visit.
Thanks to the traceability system, Guindon and his fellow fishermen didn’t take a big hit to their sales, he said.
But what was even more challenging for Guindon was spearheading a move in 2007 to introduce the catch share system, an individual fishing quota, to stem the depletion of red snapper.
The system imposed quotas, but fishermen were allowed to harvest all year round, stabilizing the supply and thus prices. Previously, fishermen were allowed to fish in the first 10 days of the month without limit, eroding both stocks and prices.
Like many others, Guindon was reluctant to try the system. He even voted against two referendums on it as he didn’t understand the benefits.
“For me, it was the best vote I’ve ever lost,” he said, laughing.
Under the catch share system, supplies of red snapper in the region have tripled and fleet-wide revenue and fishing limits have more than doubled.
Asked if he wants his children to succeed him, Guindon said, “Now I do.”
Word of the success story spread to Japanese officials and politicians, who are eager to revive a fishing industry that has been plagued by declining stocks, including bluefin tuna and eel.
Since bluefin migrate, Guindon’s story may not immediately help. But it might offer clues on how to revive other depleted species in Japan, said Douglas Rader, chief oceans scientist at EDF.
“The important thing is for local leaders (like Guindon) to take the initiative” instead of the government ordering them to do it, said Thomas Grasso, also senior director of oceans at EDF.