Greeting us at the door wearing a denim apron with a pocket for his thermometer, Robert E. Jones’ level of preparedness would put any Boy Scout to shame. He’s already got saffron threads steeping in cream and white wine on the stove; sourdough muffins baked (from a starter named “Seymour”) and standing by; homemade basil ice cream chilling in the freezer; lobster cooked this very morning from a crate he personally brought from Maine on the airplane two days before; and red snapper — flown in overnight from Galveston — already gutted, gilled, scaled and ready for the grill.
Today is another day in the triple-digit heat wave known as August-in-Austin, but that’s not about to stop Jones from cooking the whole fish on the grill on his back deck — in full sun, no less — while his chickens, Nina and Simone, lounge in the shade beneath raised herb beds. It’s a dish that’s near and dear to his heart, having grown up on the coast in Rockport and as a lifelong recreational angler.
And it’s also near and dear to his profession: He’s a director for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) heading up the Gulf of Mexico Oceans Program, and his work revolves around making sure fish populations, such as red snapper and grouper, are fished sustainably via a market-driven system that benefits all stakeholders in the supply chain. “I fish all the time … it’s one of the perks of my job. So normally, I would be cooking red snapper that I caught, but this works out perfectly, because I know where they came from and that they are sustainable.”
Jones isn’t stretching the truth when he says he knows where the fish came from. As he chops mango for the cold lobster salad he’s preparing as an accompaniment to the main dish, he explains that these fish have “Gulf Wild” tags on them with a QR code that allows consumers and others to trace the seafood. “It’s a system that we worked on with the fishermen, so you can trace your seafood; you know where it came from. When you click on that tab, you can see the captain who caught it; where, approximately, through GPS; what kind of bait was used; what day it was harvested. It’s a way of knowing there’s no seafood fraud — that it’s American-caught, wild-caught, not frozen from China.”
While the “real” Nina Simone croons in the background, Jones clarifies that the need for such granularity stems from the fact that both commercial and recreational anglers have been overfishing for decades. The kind of system that Jones and EDF have put into place for grouper and snapper have allowed those populations to rebound. “Red snapper is a really big conservation success story. It was completely collapsed by 2002,” he says. But just this year, the species came off the overfished list, thanks to EDF’s efforts to work with commercial fishermen, fisheries and government entities to change the way the Gulf is fished. “Instead of having seasons, where everybody rushes out at the same time and fishes as hard as they can, as fast as they can, each [commercial] fisherman gets a separate allocation of fish and they can go out and fish whenever they want. But in exchange for that kind of flexibility, there’s a lot more accountability.”
As Jones talks about all the data generated and analyzed that makes for such a sustainability success story, it’s obvious that he’s very excited about science — and cooking. Finished with the lobster salad preparation and about to plate (“I have grand visions of putting this salad into a stack”), he pulls out a stainless-steel whipper and, almost incredibly to everyone in the room, proceeds to apply saffron foam to the dish. “I like to cook,” he says with a smile after noting the reaction to this level of culinary prowess. “When I’m not hunting or fishing, I’m usually in the kitchen cooking what I’ve caught or harvested.”
Jones prepares the snapper for the grill by inserting rosemary sprigs and lemon slices inside the fish. “Part of the reason I love my job is educating people — there’s a lot of people whose instinct is to take care of natural resources. There’s just a lot of complexity with marine resources that they don’t realize.”
(Incidentally, we later learn, via the Gulf Wild tag, that the red snapper we ate today was caught by Captain Kenny Guindon on the Falcon, a 42-foot, dual-rigged, longline bandit vessel targeting grouper, snapper and reef fish. Guindon used a vertical line to fish the red snapper using squid as bait.)
Share the Gulf is a coalition of recreational and commercial anglers, restaurateurs, restaurant associations, chefs, grocers, seafood processors and distributors, conservationists and regular consumers who all agree on the need to educate the public about sustainable fishing practices that enable fair access to all — for generations to come.
Robert E. Jones, Director of the Gulf of Mexico, Oceans Program for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which is also a member of the coalition, explains that, “everyone who is involved in the Gulf-sourced fishing supply chain, including the environmentalist and the scientist, came together to make it clear that [the Texas Gulf] is a shared resource that the nation owns. Whether you live in Minnesota or Texas, you own the fishery in the Gulf of Mexico.”
As consumers, part of what we can do to ensure the long-term sustainability of our fisheries, including red snapper, is to contact our representatives to demand the continuation of science-based management that adheres to catch limits. “We’re in an age where science is not popular,” says Jones, “so it seems particularly important in the last couple years to step up and make sure members of Congress and decision-makers in the administration know that making short-term decisions that might benefit one user group tomorrow, at the expense of these huge stocks of fish that it took twenty-five years to rebuild … we need to keep our eye on the long-term vision.”
Some of the Austin members of the coalition include:
• Contigo Austin
• Curra’s Grill
• Dai Due
• Hillside Farmacy
• Mongers Market & Kitchen
• Perla’s Seafood and Oyster Bar
• Quality Seafood Market
For more information, visit sharethegulf.org
By Anne Marie Hampshire • Photography by Nathan Beels