By Rich Garcia, award-winning chef and industry leader for his sustainable business practices. Crossposted from his blog. Follow him on Twitter @ChefRichGarcia.

Garcia_RojasI’ve had a week to reflect on why exactly I decided to be a part of EDF National Outreach Day in Washington D.C. and it was not just to have a unique experience on Capitol Hill that many people don’t get to experience.

I was invited to join a very small group of local New England Chefs and Fisherman to meet with both our Congress & Senate representatives. I was humbled to be included by Chefs Mike Leviton & Sam Hayward representing a local chefs point of view but more importantly from a united communities point of view. Also representing their States were Chefs Rick MoonenKerry HeffernanWilliam Dissen Andrea Reusing.

We started the day in Senator Elizabeth Warrens office and from their had the opportunity to meet with and discuss our ideas individually with Congressmen William Keating, Joesph Kennedy, Edward Markey and John Tierney all whom were very knowledgeable and in some cases experts on issues from seafood fraud to underutilized species. The message from us was clear, science needs to be a huge part of the solution but that takes time and the trust in today’s science is far from acceptable. What is more important is what can we start doing today? And a few suggestions we brought to the table which were very well received in all of our meetings were…

1) Underutilized Species – we know we have them, we know they are delicious and we know by catching them and creating a market for them we can help lessen the pressure on the fisherman who mostly target ground fish whose quotas have been slashed. We asked for more science in helping us determine whether the underutilized species we want to market to New Englanders are in any way vulnerable. Will we have a “Monkfish” issue? We also asked for help in marketing these species to our region in a way that can help create demand and increase the value of those underutilized species and keep our fishing communities working.

2) Education – we asked for support in funding educational programs for kids, to teach them about the value of local New England Seafood, teach them to expand their knowledge outside of cod and haddock. We asked for help in funding seafood cookery programs for the general public. Most people in our region still don’t eat fish regularly, and many of them would like to prepare more fish at home but just don’t know how.  This could be a great tool that just drives awareness of the issues we face but also gets our communities to want to buy more local seafood.

3) Disaster Relief – We need to help our fishing communities fast. President Obama has already declared many fisheries disasters. But yet none of those disasters have seen any money. Now take for example the drought the hit the middle of our country hard in 2012. Many of our nations agricultural farms didn’t even have a season, and quickly it was determined a disaster and money was allocated and distributed almost overnight. Now here in lies the problem. The majority of the Senators and Representatives represent land locked states, so we need to convince them that their vote matters to them, matters to their economy and matters to their citizens. We need to convince them that the disaster that happened in their states is equally as important as the fisheries disaster. We need to support each other as AMERICANS not as individual states.
We need the money to be able to allocate and distribute accordingly to keep families afloat, get the education piece going and fund the science needed to make better decisions.

I will tell you that meeting our nations leaders and discussing the state of the industry with them from our point of view was an amazing experience that I hope will at the very least encourage discussion in DC, BUT my favorite and most humbling moment was having the day to spend with two local New England Fisherman…..

Captains Tim Barrett and Toby Lees are amazing, experienced fisherman with the courage to stand up against many of their peers. The stories they told me were from the heart and the heart they have comes from the oceans they fish. They are men who risk everything on a daily basis, they are men who are part of our fishing history, men who have helped shape the New England Fishing Industry, men whom I want to help stay on the water. Realizing that these men AND their stories could be gone forever, these men have fished to the edge of the horizon with their skill, courage and as Tim told me on the flight home, luck, the little bit of luck that brings them home safely.

I tell you this and have absolutely no problem saying that If push came to shove I would purchase fish from these two regardless of what those “Seafood lists” say, I would purchase fish from them regardless of what color is listed next to the species they catch in order to make sure that their tradition, history and don’t forget…livelihood are protected.

How have we become a nation that cares more about the non-human element than we do about the people whose occupations helped build what we know is the USA?

With that said, we’re lucky to have these fisherman who realize that change needs to happen and they are first in line to see to it that we New Englanders look to other solutions including finding a way to first verify that underutilized species are healthy from a stock perspective. Then find ways to catch these species in a sustainable manner. We need to create a market and demand, and  pay a fair price to these fisherman and the communities that support them.

Can we as a community help turn Trash Fish into Cash Fish?

I know I’ll keep trying and hope that you will join us on March 10th at Area Four in Cambridge as we, a community of chefs gather to show you the wonderful bounty of seafood we have in our local waters.