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Fishin' with the Commish'

Adam H. Putnam, a.k.a. The Commish’, is the commissioner of agriculture for the State of Florida. A Florida native and outdoorsman, his connection to sustainable seafood is both professional and personal.

GHM: Commissioner Putnam, you’re settling into Tallahassee as the head of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services after five congressional terms in Washington. Your record in Washington, and prior to that in the Florida legislature, reflects continual involvement in agriculture issues, not to mention that you are a fifth-generation Florida rancher and citrus farmer. It seems obvious you have a strong connection to our natural resources and a passion for helping manage, promote, and protect them. Tell us what you hope to accomplish in your new role that you’ve not had an opportunity to do before.

AP: I do feel a strong connection to our natural resources.You mentioned I’m a fifth-generation cattle rancher and citrus grower. I also grew up outdoors, fishing and hunting – and I’m giving my children the same experiences. As Florida’s commissioner of agriculture, I’m focused on a number of initiatives, including improving nutrition in schools and public assistance programs, expanding opportunities for renewable energy production, and helping to conserve Florida’s water quality and quantity. In response to last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Department is also focused on raising awareness for the proven safety of Gulf seafood.

GHM: The Department of Agriculture’s stated mission is to both promote healthy industries and to protect consumer interests. How is this playing out in the realm of Florida seafood and what kinds of things does the Department do to benefit those of us who love to catch and consume Florida fish?

AP: Promoting Florida’s seafood industry and ensuring consumer confidence really go hand- in-hand. A great example of this is the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which sent a shockwave through Florida’s seafood industry. Seafood sales in Florida, and across the nation, plummeted immediately after the event and consumer confidence still remains low. While there is currently no evidence that oil from the spill has tainted Florida’s seafood, nearly every fisherman, oysterman, wholesaler, retail owner, and restaurateur has experienced losses due to public misperceptions.

Through the Department’s testing and marketing efforts, we are working to not only ensure the safety of Gulf seafood, but also bolster consumer confidence in its safety and abundance. Florida’s Gulf coasts are clean and open for business, and through an aggressive marketing campaign, we are translating this information not only to Floridians, but also to consumers in other states and countries.

GHM: You’ve mentioned the Department’s testing and marketing efforts in response to the oil spill. Can you be more specific about what that entails?

AP: The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is responsible for testing seafood harvests from the Gulf of Mexico to ensure they are safe to eat. Since the oil spill, the Department’s Chemical Residue Lab has collected and screened samples of seafood for oil contaminants and dispersants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).To date, the lab has screened samples of seafood and none have shown levels of concern for public health or consumption.

The Department’s marketing division is also working to get this information out and reestablish public confidence by raising awareness for the proven safety of Gulf seafood.This includes the “Gulf Safe” campaign, which was launched in August 2010 to assure customers that Florida seafood is safe to eat.The campaign encourages restaurants and retail stores to label their products, and airs ads across the region to raise awareness for the proven safety of Gulf seafood.

GHM: In regard to testing, can you tell us how much has been done so far, and if testing will continue for the long term?

AP: To date, the lab has screened 278 samples of seafood, including finfish, shrimp, crabs, lobsters, and oysters, and less than 13 percent were found to have any trace of PAHs. All findings were less than 1/1000th of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) levels of concern.

We will continue to monitor seafood coming from the Gulf for long-term effects of the oil spill.With $10 million in additional funding from BP over the next three years, the Department will be able to enhance the capabilities of its laboratories to conduct and analyze up to 80 seafood samples per month.This routine testing for oil, dispersants, and metals will assure the safety of Florida’s seafood for several years to come and further restore public confidence in these products. Consumers can visit www.freshfromflorida.com/fs/ to find the latest summary of test results.

GHM: The focus of this special edition of Guy Harvey Magazine is seafood sustainability. We’ve talked about the immediate issue of the BP oil response, but looking further down the road, can you also tell us about other activities the Department of Agriculture is involved in that will help ensure long-term productivity of Florida fisheries?

AP: To protect the target population of a variety of seafood, the National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has established quotas that limit overfishing and the harvesting of more fish than the species can naturally replenish.Yet, the market is also a driving force in ensuring seafood sustainability. Because consumer preference is leaning more and more toward sustainable products, supermarkets and restaurants are buying more sustainable products.The increased demand gives fishermen the incentive to practice sustainability.

One thing the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has done is to partner with groups like the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholder’s Alliance, through their Gulf Wild program.Thisprogramusesatracking system that ensures the safety of seafood through traceability. Fish tag identification numbers allow consumers to track when a fish was caught, where it was caught, and even at what port the fish landed. Consumers simply enter the fish tag I.D. online at www.mygulfwild.com to access the information.The capability for consumers to access information about Gulf seafood empowers them to make choices that promote sustainability.

GHM: Increasing aquaculture production would seem to be a significant part of moving toward sustainable seafood. How is the Department helping to foster aquaculture activities and what challenges does this segment of the seafood industry face?

AP: The Department’s role is to ensure the safety of Florida’s aquaculture harvesting areas in order to preserve the long-term sustainability of shellfish. Pollution can contaminate shellfish harvesting areas, impacting the health of the seafood product. The Department routinely monitors water quality parameters in each of Florida’s shellfish harvesting areas. Sub-surface water samples are collected, placed in ice-filled coolers, and shipped overnight to a certified laboratory. Within 24 hours, our teams are able to analyze the samples and determine the level of bacteria. If contaminants present a health hazard, the area is closed for harvesting until it is determined safe. Additionally, the Department partners with the industry to educate harvesters on how to prevent contamination and closure of shellfish beds.

As for growing the aquaculture industry in Florida, a critical component is educating consumers about the value of the product, especially from a public health perspective.The Florida seafood industry abides by the state’s high environmental and safety standards. Unfortunately, standards of production for these activities vary widely across the globe. For example, some of the seafood aquaculture products imported into this country have been raised using high doses of antibiotics to mitigate the bacteria that form in overstocked ponds, whereas use of antibiotics in this country is only permitted in low doses and is closely monitored.

Purchasing “Fresh from Florida” seafood products not only ensures consumers they are eating safe and sustainable products, but is also an opportunity for consumers to support the Florida economy.The shellfish aquaculture industry has proven to be economically important to rural, coastal communities. Hard clam farming, for example, generates a statewide economic impact of about $50 million each year for communities such as Cedar Key, Sebastian, and Pine Island, derived from nearly 2,250 acres of leased public lands.

GHM: Commissioner, thank you for your time. Bringing this conversation full-circle, it’s evident there are powerful forces at work in the world of seafood, from government to commercial and recreational industries, to fish farmers and the markets and restaurants they sell to, and each has an interest in sustainability. What role do consumers have and can our voices be heard?

AP: Consumers can really create demand by making informed purchases when buying seafood and asking for sustainable seafood. After all, restaurants and supermarkets are in the business of carrying what customers want. Raising the consumer demand for sustainable seafood is one of the easiest and most effective ways you can help protect our fishery resources. If you’re a seafood consumer, you can support environmentally- friendly fisheries and aquaculture practices. The best seafood choices include fish that are harvested in a sustainable way using gear that allows for the least harm to the species’ population and to the environment.

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