The Fisher King

By Kris Frieswick | Boston Magazine |

ROGER BERKOWITZ SAYS HE’S fully committed to sustainability. He supports practices that foster a healthy fish population, because a fished-out ocean means the end of Legal. But, he insists, having cod and haddock on any list of fish to avoid is “the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard of.” And what about catch quotas, which are ostensibly set to prevent overfishing? Poorly thought out, he says, because the complex government-imposed catch-share system for New England fishermen means there aren’t even enough boats on the sea to hit the annual quota that’s been set.

But that’s just the beginning of the things that piss Berkowitz off. (Or, as he prefers, “things I’m passionate about.”) He really doesn’t like the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list — a widely accepted guide to endangered fish populations that consumers should avoid — because he believes it’s based on faulty data.

Then there’s the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, which is responsible for tracking the fish stock and setting catch limits. To do this, NOAA uses trawlers to drag nets through a section of the ocean for a period of time, then counts what comes up. Berkowitz insists that this is a ludicrous methodology for keeping track of species of fish that move around and may not be where the trawlers happen to be. So when Berkowitz was invited in 2009 to tour a marine laboratory in Nahant run by Northeastern University, he began chatting with a scientist who was doing low-frequency sonar research there for Homeland Security. He asked if the sonar she was using could pick up fish. “She answered, ‘Oh, yeah. Because the sonar acts off the bladders of the fish, you can identify the species based on bladder resonance,’” Berkowitz recalls. The scientist said the sonar could also calculate biomass, or the total volume of fish in a given area. Berkowitz recognized that if this sonar could do what the scientist said, it might be the holy grail of fish-stock estimating — accurate, fast, and wide. So to generate support for it, he reached out to Ann-Margaret Ferrante, a state representative from Gloucester who has been fighting catch quotas and limits, as well as Attorney General Martha Coakley and Senator John Kerry. (The politicians are trying to bring the sonar technology to the attention of NOAA for some kind of commitment, but progress has been glacial.)

The issue came to a head last January, when the Culinary Guild of New England asked Berkowitz to host its upcoming dinner. Berkowitz — eager for an opportunity to prove just how stupid the seafood watch list is, and to talk about the new sonar technology — billed the event as a “blacklisted” fish dinner. The menu, he announced, would feature selections from the Monterey watch list.