FIG chef Mike Lata is not known for being a political firebrand. He's known for his James Beard Award-winning approach to Lowcountry cuisine and the locavore ethic. But when U.S. Rep. Tim Scott staged a press conference about fishing at a dock on Shem Creek Tuesday, Lata stopped by to offer his two cents.
Scott, a freshman congressman from Charleston and darling of the Tea Party movement, was at the Geechie Seafood dock in Mt. Pleasant giving one in a series of talks based on the premise that excessive government regulation hurts businesses and puts a pinch on taxpayers. Lata spoke toward the end of the event, just before cooks from The Boathouse Restaurant served up a lunch of fried vermillion snapper. He kept things brief.
"As I travel through the various places I go cooking and representing our city as a chef, one thing that I hear more often than not is that when we come to Charleston — this is what the people that have eaten here will say — we get a true sense of place through the food that we eat," Lata said.
By the time Lata rose to the lectern, several speakers with an interest in commercial fishing had spoken critically about the research behind the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the main piece of legislation governing fishing practices in the U.S. Lata said he did not want to make "a big political statement," but he said he supported efforts to find more current data to support controversial figures like the Magnuson-Stevens-mandated annual catch limits for certain species. The limits are meant to prevent overfishing, but many fishers are skeptical about the methods for setting those limits and monitoring fish population levels.
This year, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council put the kibosh on commercial fishing of black sea bass all the way back in July, when the yearly quota of 309,000 pounds of the fish had been caught. This left some fishers and charter boat captains without a major source of profit. But Paul Godbout, a commercial fisherman and salesman from Summerville who attended the event, said that species was still abundant in South Carolina waters when the prohibition went into effect. "We're seeing more and better blackfish than we've seen in years and years," Godbout said.
Lata didn't get into the annual-catch-limit politics, but he did present a dilemma that he says many restaurateurs face: Even when local fishers stop producing, chefs have to put something on the table. So they look elsewhere on the Eastern Seaboard, sometimes as far as New England.
"I promise you, if you were to add up all the dollars that leave Charleston from purchasing seafood ... that number, I bet, would be staggering," Lata said.