Food & Drink

A Good Catch

How the National Aquarium’s first-ever director of seafood sustainability is shaking up the industry.
November 2016 Dept Tj Tate 5
Seafood sustainability director Tj Tate. - David Colwell

Inside Mt. Vernon Marketplace, Tj Tate walks up to the counter at The Local Oyster and peruses the menu. 

“Where are your shrimp from?” she asks in an accent still colored by her Kentucky roots. “Gulf of Mexico,” the woman behind the counter replies. “That’s what I thought,” Tate says, “and I bet I know the fisherman who caught them.”

If Tj Tate had her way, we’d all be asking where our seafood comes from—and we might even know the name of the fisherman who caught it, as well. Tate is the National Aquarium’s first director of seafood sustainability. She was hired more than two years ago to get the word out that, yes, seafood tastes great and is good for you, but more importantly, if we keep harvesting fish as we have been doing, there won’t be enough left for our grandkids to enjoy.

“When you think about the number of people who are going to be on this planet and what they’re going to eat in 20 years, some people are going to be lucky enough to still be eating shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico,” she says. “We’ve got to start working toward a system of sustainability.”

Highlighting sustainability—in this case seafood that is either caught or farmed in ways that consider the long-term vitality of species and the health of the ocean—is a decidedly different tact for the National Aquarium, an organization better known for educating visitors about marine life than advising them on which fish they should be eating. Until Tate started her job in March 2015, the institution had no programs to instruct its 1.4 million annual visitors on what to do about it. Dubbed Seafood Smart, the aquarium’s new program hopes to create a sustainable seafood movement on the Chesapeake Bay and beyond.

“There was a need for someone to reach the consumer, to fill the gap, to work with industry and watermen. The National Aquarium had the position to be that unbiased voice for a really big region,” Tate explains.

 Aquaculture, the honchos at the aquarium believe, is the best way to preserve our wild fisheries. “Aquaculture is a way to ensure our oceans are healthy and our people have sustainable protein,” says Kris Hoellen, the aquarium’s chief conservation officer and Tate’s boss. “That’s a different place for the aquarium—it’s about making conservation relevant.” 

If Tj Tate had her way, we’d all ask where our seafood comes from.

What that means for Tate is working to shift the entire regional seafood supply chain, from the watermen who catch or grow it to the seafood distributors who sell it to the chefs who cook it, and, ultimately, to the consumers who demand it. But, if there’s one thing Tate has already learned, bringing new ideas to a region steeped in tradition is easier said than done.

Back at The Local Oyster, Tate squeezes lemon juice on a half-dozen Skinny Dipper oysters, grown in St. Mary’s County. She adds a dollop of cocktail sauce to each one and slurps them out of the shell like it’s second nature. With her long strawberry blond hair and a quick smile, Tate has the easygoing manner of someone who’s spent the last 20 years on boats.

At 48 years old, she’s a salt-sprayed ball of energy, talking about her 6-year-old daughter one minute (“The only fish she’ll eat is halibut. Halibut!”) and firing off statistics the next: “There are more than thousands of types of seafood that we could be eating, but most people typically only eat five to 10 of some species—that’s just silly.” She seems as if she could get along with anybody, which, in this job, might be her most important asset.

“To be able to communicate what’s important about sustainable fisheries to watermen and the folks in the seafood industry is super important, but it’s a different conversation than one you have with a chef or someone wandering into the aquarium,” says Patrick Hudson, co-owner of The Local Oyster and the farmer who grew the bivalves Tate is eating. “She’s got to wear different hats and make some progress on sustainable seafood in the Chesapeake Bay, which is sometimes much more of a battle than people realize, particularly in Maryland where you have a really conservative group who have been in the industry for generations.”

Tate didn’t grow up around the water. She was raised in a small town in western Kentucky, miles from the sea. The first time she went fishing with her father, she caught a tire. As a teenager, she thought about becoming a marine biologist, but instead majored in communications and worked at a radio station in her hometown. (“Yes, I was known as Tj the deejay,” she quips.)

But something about the ocean, where she vacationed every year as a kid, kept calling. She decided to go back to school for another bachelor’s degree in biology and then a master’s. She settled in Florida and worked for an environmental consulting group before taking over as executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance, an organization that works to protect sustainable fisheries and the fishing industry in the Gulf. There, she made a name for herself as a savvy advocate, one who helped defeat a Florida congressman who wanted to reallocate fishing rights held by commercial fishermen to recreational anglers. She also helped start Gulf Wild, a national initiative that let consumers trace a tag on a fish to learn exactly where it was caught, who caught it, and by what method.

“Organizing fishermen is harder than herding cats,” says Buddy Guindon, a fisherman out of Galveston, Texas, and president of the alliance board, which hired Tate. “She was able to coordinate the fishermen, implement sustainable fishing practices, and create change in the Gulf.” 

But like anyone who stirs up the pot, she made a few enemies along the way. Disgruntled fishermen accused her of “stealing quota,” which refers to the amount of a particular fish watermen are allowed to catch in the Gulf. Someone tried to spread a rumor that one of her board members had fathered her child. Through it all, Tate remained resolute. 

“Fishermen are either the biggest part of the solution or the biggest part of the problem,” notes Tate. The problem in the Chesapeake Bay is a general distrust by watermen over rules and regulations restricting the catch. And sustainability remains a dirty word among some watermen.  

Robert T. Brown, head of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, says that regulators base catch limits on “guesstimates” of fish and crabs, rather than hard science. It’s the watermen, who have plied the bay for generations, he says, who know best about the fishery—and how to sustain it. “The scientists are doing the best they can with what they’ve got, but the problem is, it’s still a guesstimate. We do have a sustainable fishery. If we didn’t, we’d be out of business.”

For her part, Tate says her position at the aquarium doesn’t involve being an advocate or taking sides so much as being a facilitator or an educator. “Now I don’t feel like I’m pushing an agenda,” she says. “I feel like I’m protecting a whole area. We want to help people make better decisions. To me that’s the coolest thing. Nobody wants to throw stones at an aquarium.”

When Tate arrived in Baltimore, it didn’t take her long to assess the state of affairs in the bay. “You’ve got amazing seafood and an amazing cultural heritage, but you’ve got a lot of consumers who aren’t eating the seafood,” she says. “They think crabs and that’s it. You’ve got a watermen community that’s fractured—they want to be doing the best for the bay because they want to have a future—but they are still trying to figure out what that means.”

When it comes to sustainability practices, Tate estimates the Chesapeake is about 20 years behind the Gulf, which in turn, is about 20 years behind methods employed on the West Coast. “I expected more people to be on the seafood-sustainability bandwagon a bit, but they’re just not thinking about it,” she says. “Even though there’s all this great seafood, there’s a disconnect. [In Baltimore], you don’t have a lot of fish houses lined up where people see the commercial boats like in Maine or the Pacific Northwest. You see shrimp boats in the Gulf all the time, so you think seafood. One reason why farm to table is doing so well is you see farmers at farmers’ markets, you see the farms. You don’t see fishermen.”

Tate is working
to shift the entire regional seafood supply chain.

In her first few months on the job, Tate met with key players to see how they could work together. And along the way, she’s helped watermen like Billy Rice, who fishes blue catfish on the Potomac River, get a better price for his haul. Blue catfish is an invasive species, so, as Rice says, “It’s actually something [the Department of Natural Resources] wants us to get out of the water.” Tate arranged for chefs and wholesalers to go out on Rice’s boat to witness his work, establishing the kind of relationship that farmers have with buyers of their produce. “She’s been a huge help,” says Rice. “The Chesapeake needs someone like Tj. She can take the message to watermen that you can’t do business like you did 30 years ago.”

Getting chefs, supermarkets, and consumers to demand the bay’s less popular seafood will help create new markets for watermen, while taking pressure off the celebrated species like rockfish. “We put a lot of stress on serving the sexy fish populations, but we fish them to death,” says John Shields, who loves putting what he calls the “trash” fish of the Chesapeake—yellow perch, hardhead catfish, white perch—on his menu at Gertrude’s periodically. He believes other chefs shouldn’t be afraid to follow his lead, particularly when it comes to serving blue catfish. “There’s a percentage of chefs who are already on board, but many chefs, they’re already stretched to the limit. They’re happy if they can get the salmon in, much less worry about where it comes from. But as they learn more about the issues involved, they’ll get on board.”

With recent news reports about slave labor used in Asian fisheries and health and safety concerns about aquaculture overseas, overcoming the stigma of farmed fish is another challenge facing Tate. Up to 90 percent of our seafood is imported, she says, yet the United States has some of the world’s largest wild fisheries and some of the best-managed fish farms. But Americans like their cheap imported fish. Sustainably caught or grown fish will cost more, explains Hudson, who says he has to charge more for his Skinny Dipper oysters than watermen harvesting the wild varieties. Tate will have to convince chefs and consumers the expense is worth it, and convince watermen that the added investments will pay off.

For chefs like Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen, paying more—and charging more—is a no-brainer. “We have some of the best fish and shellfish in the world and it should command a premium,” he says. “Anything that’s higher quality that requires more work to get, that value should go back to the watermen.”

For now, oysters are the primary crop for aquaculturists around the bay, but Tate says there’s no reason rockfish or other species couldn’t be farmed. Hudson, who at age 31 represents a new breed of forward-thinking farmers, is experimenting with seaweed and soft-shell clams, while he and his father are helping to raise tilapia in an aquaponics facility in Bel Air.  “It’s an ‘and’ not an ‘or,’” says Hoellen. “It’s aquaculture and wild-caught because if the wild-caught can’t be consistently supplied in our restaurants and retail outlets, then it doesn’t stay on the menu. You need both to keep both industries moving.”

Now all Tate has to do is convince people to ask for sustainable seafood. “Nobody is going to do it unless you have someone lighting that spark,” says Shields. “If there ever was a cheerleader for this region, it’s Tj. She was a very good catch.”