Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Florida, from sea to plate, just is not the seafood buffet it once was

In Florida, the Seafood Becomes Less Local
Published: March 30, 2010

ISLAMORADA, Fla. — The postcard Florida experience: sun, fun and plenty of local seafood. It was the latter that brought Gary and Vicki Haller from Kansas to Wahoo’s here last week, with its waterfront views, toucan colors and promise of fresh food “from our docks.”

But the fish in his “belly buster” sandwich actually traveled farther than he did. It was Pangasius, a freshwater catfish from Vietnam. The grouper and tuna were also imports, according to Wahoo’s managers. And the “local” label on the menu? It still applied, they insisted, because their distributor was down the road.

Florida, from sea to plate, just is not the seafood buffet it once was. Reeling from a record, fish-killing cold snap and tougher federal limits on what can be caught, commercial fishermen and charter-boat captains are struggling. Distributors and restaurants are relying more and more on imported seafood — some of it clearly labeled, a lot of it not.

Federal fisheries managers say that a law reauthorized by Congress in 2006 now requires them to take more aggressive action against overfishing. They cut back the legal catch for some kinds of snapper last year, and 11 species of grouper are now off limits from January through April on the Atlantic coast. It is the longest ban on record for grouper and the first to include both commercial and recreational fleets.

In a state that bills itself as “the fishing capital of the world” — with a commercial industry worth $5.2 billion and a recreational one worth $4.4 billion — thousands of anglers are angry.

“For a fisherman that works 12 months a year, you’ve just taken a third of his livelihood,” said Tom Hill, whose family has owned Key Largo Fisheries since 1972. “You’ve also taken away the ability of someone who comes here to enjoy a local piece of fish.”

Last month, several thousand fishermen from all over the country held a “sea party” protest in Washington to demand that federal fishing limits be loosened.

They were especially concerned about a series of proposals that would continue a ban on catching red snapper in federal waters, as well as close off an area from North Carolina through the Florida Keys to bottom fishing for all 73 species of fish in the “snapper grouper complex.”

The proposed area for closing has since been shrunk by the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, but fishermen who depend on the 6,161-square-mile area of water from Savannah, Ga., to Melbourne, Fla., remain fearful of bankruptcy.

Robert Johnson, the owner of Jodie Lynn Charters in St. Augustine, Fla., estimated that if the closing plans are approved this spring, at least 600 boats and 1,800 fishing jobs would be lost — more if bait shops, marinas and dockside bars are included.

“They’re not just saying you can’t catch red snapper; if that was it, we might survive,” Mr. Johnson said. “But when you come in and say you can’t even fish where they live because you might catch one, we can’t.”

Fishermen also argue that the science driving the fisheries’ decisions comes from limited models that exaggerate declines in fish stocks and the role fishing plays.

Jerald S. Ault, a marine biologist at the University of Miami and an expert in statistical assessment of underwater populations, acknowledged that scientists were still struggling to assess the damage from coastal condominiums and houses, which have destroyed many of the mangroves where fish develop.

But he said that peer-reviewed statistical models showed clear reason for concern. Populations of most of the snapper and grouper species once so common in Florida waters are down 30 percent or more from their historic highs, according to recent estimates.

Keeping hooks and nets out of the water is simply the clearest path to improvement, Mr. Ault said. He noted that while the state’s commercial fleet had declined by 11 percent since the 1960s, to about 24,000 registered vessels, the number of recreational fishing vessels had soared to 944,000 in 2009, up from 128,000, in 1964.

“Unfortunately,” he said of today’s fishermen, “certain people have to pay a price for other people not paying attention to the resource.”

The result — and the disconnect between marketing materials and reality — is evident not just on restaurant menus, but at fish houses like Mr. Hill’s.

Sitting on the edge of a marina, it is an open warehouse with melting ice on concrete floors, brochures bragging about Florida fish and very little actual fish from Florida. Workers in white coats were busy on a recent morning cutting snapper flown in from Mexico, and on the blue sign for shoppers, nearly everything came from far away.

Mr. Hill, 59, a serious-sounding man in a flowered shirt, ran down the list. The salmon was from Norway. The yellowfin tuna? Frozen, from Ecuador. And the dolphin, or mahi mahi? Ecuador as well, Mr. Hill said, adding that in about a month, it could be caught locally.

It was a similar scene in the coolers at Independent Seafood in West Palm Beach, where the salmon came from Scotland and the largest crates stamped Florida held frogs’ legs and alligator meat. The food from Independent Seafood will end up on white tablecloths at some of the area’s fanciest restaurants, from South Beach to Palm Beach. But most of it will have come from abroad.

“We’re sourcing stuff all over the world,” said Mike Molina, a co-owner. “If you have product that’s not readily available all the time, the restaurants don’t put them on the menu.”

Does it matter? Some say no. “It’s still good fish,” said Luis Garcia, the owner of Garcia’s, a seafood restaurant on the Miami River that buys its grouper from Mexico.

But others, like Doug Gregory, a marine biologist with the University of Florida, say that overall quality has decreased because of looser regulations in other countries and longer shipping times — if you can even believe what the menu says.

Since 2006, grouper prices have climbed, and it has become one of the most commonly misrepresented food items on Florida menus, with 241 complaints investigated by state inspectors. Even the Eatz Capital Cafe a floor below the Florida Department of Agriculture was found in 2007 to have been selling a “catch of the day” that was supposedly grouper. In fact, it was catfish.

Mr. Gregory said he had almost stopped eating seafood because of the problems. Others, like the Hallers from Kansas, may feel differently. When told of his fish sandwich’s provenance, at first Mr. Haller was appalled.

“Well that’s not good,” he said. Then he took a bite.

“It’s pretty good fish,” he added. And at least he was still in Florida.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Not so sweet

Florida sugar growers sue to stop regulation under Clean Water Act
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Two of the nation's largest sugar growers, Florida Crystals Corp. and U.S. Sugar Corp., are fighting a new push from the federal government to regulate them under the Clean Water Act.
The companies, which own 342,000 acres of land that was once part of the Everglades south of Lake Okeechobee, have filed federal suits that say the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suddenly and improperly began requiring wetland destruction permits to converted their lands to non-agricultural use.
The requirement would allow the Corps to either block new plans or force the companies to pay for "mitigation," the preservation of wetlands elsewhere in proportion to those being destroyed .
It's a sign that federal officials have taken new interest in the future of the farming region, whose lands are seen as critical to Everglades restoration. At the same time, so have rock mining companies and other industries feared to be counterproductive to environmental goals.
In the suits, Crystals argues that the requirement has impeded plans to create a 100-acre ash dump for its cane-burning power plant. The company now trucks the soot 60 miles away. U.S. Sugar complains of the delay in commencement of rock mining by Stuart Mining Industries, which is leasing land from U.S. Sugar and could be paying rent and royalties if work had started.
The lawsuits have profound implications for Florida's 700,000-acre Everglades Agricultural Area, land south of Lake Okeechobee that was flowing Everglades marsh before the government drained it half a century ago to create fertile farmland.
Crystals and U.S. Sugar argue that the implications extend far beyond South Florida's cane fields to the 53 million acres of U.S. farmland that was once wetlands. They call it a major policy shift that deserved public notice and comment.
"We have legislation here that's been promulgated by bureaucrats," said Dan Riesel, who represents Crystals. "They've done it in a way that is sort of clandestine."
Environmentalists counter that the move merely represents an interpretation of existing law. They say the wetland permit is necessary because the Everglades Agricultural Area, unlike other converted wetlands, requires the use of pumps, locks, levees and drainage canals to keep dry. Without active drainage, the land would revert to wetlands, the Corps argues in a 2009 memo cited by the U.S. Sugar suit.
"They're farming a riverbed that is pumped actively to remove the water from the land," said Eric Draper, lobbyist for Audubon of Florida.
The companies disagree and cite a 1993 Corps ruling that said farmland legally converted from wetlands in prior decades would not be subject to Clean Water Act requirements.
"It doesn't mean they can't have a mine and that they can't have a landfill," said Draper. "The real issue here is that there's going to be more mitigation. They don't want to have to mitigate."
In the suits, Crystals says the cost to offset destruction of one acre of wetlands in the region runs about $90,000. U.S. Sugar says the permits can cost, on average, $272,000 and take more than two years to obtain.
Corps and Department of Justice officials declined comment, citing the ongoing litigation

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Support local farmers by asking Florida legislators to endorse the Florida Food Freedom Act, Senate Bill 1900

Guest column: Bill would help small farms
Posted: March 7, 2010 - 12:20am

By Richard Villadoniga
Supporting local farmers by asking Florida legislators to endorse the Florida Food Freedom Act, Senate Bill 1900, will benefit St. Johns Country tremendously.

The Florida Food Freedom Act will allow small family farms to remain profitable and viable by allowing direct sales to consumers. These farms will be exempt from burdensome regulations that the longer, multi-layered industrial food distribution chain should be required to have. The relationship between the small-scale producer and the consumer, including the producer's integrity and the consumer's interest in and knowledge of how the food is raised, harvested, and prepared, provides sufficient oversight

The Florida Food Freedom Act also opens up opportunities for agritourism and other new enterprises for Florida family farms, especially here on the First Coast, where we are fortunate to have a number of sites that reflect our past and current agricultural heritage. The act sparks the entrepreneurial spirit, rather than squashing it with burdensome regulations and fees. Those new entrepreneurial businesses will make Florida a more attractive place for tourists, as well as residents, and create new jobs.

When consumers are able to shop for food with local businesses and farmers, more of their dollars stay in the local community and help farms and ranches remain economically viable. For every dollar spent with a local company (or farmer), 45 cents stays in the community. For every dollar spent with a corporate chain, only 15 cents is reinvested in the local community.

Even the USDA agrees the biggest threats to food safety are centralized production, centralized processing, and long distance transportation. Small farms and local food processors are part of the solution to food safety. Raising meat, dairy, eggs, fruits, and vegetables as close as possible to the kitchens of the end-user, increases our food security. Lessening the regulatory burden imposed by the State of Florida will enhance the economic condition of family farms, improve public health, decrease environmental degradation and build a sense of community. Local food systems are inherently safer and more traceable.

Preserving farmland and open space helps local governments prosper as well. The cost of public services used by open land or farmland is much lower than the cost of public services provided to land used for residential purposes. The median cost for every dollar of revenue raised (taxes collected) for farm/open land use is just 36 cents in public services. On the other hand, for every dollar residential land use provides in taxes, it uses $1.16 in public services.

Given the economic, environmental, and cultural ramifications of this bill for our county, it just makes sense to take a moment and send your representatives a note letting them know you want them to pass the Florida Food Freedom Act, Senate Bill 1900 into law.


Richard Villadoniga is Leader for Slow Food First Coast (, a nonprofit organization that works toward creating a food system based on the principles of quality and pleasure, environmental sustainability, and social justice. He was awarded the Geoffrey Roberts Award ( for 2007 to fund the Endangered Foods Tour project. He previously received two Fulbright fellowships to study in Japan and South Africa.

He is a teacher in the St. Johns County School District and a contributing food and travel writer for The St. Augustine Record.