Sustainable Fish Tales

Let’s talk about fish. Sustainable fish.

The scourge of industrial meat, and its horrific implications for animal welfare, environmental protection and human health, have been dissected and exposed for years for everyone to see. Although people still buy antibiotics-stuffed bacon and corn-fed beef out of convenience, habit or taste, noone by now has been sheltered from the public debate about grass-fed (or, even better, “pasture-raised”) v. CAFO meat. The plight of the oceans’ residents, by contrast, has remained hidden from view. All of us have heard time and time again that 70 percent of the world’s fisheries are being harvested at capacity or are in decline, and know about the damaging impact of pollution (especially mercury) and of warming temperatures on wild fish. But unless we’ve been touched by a personal close encounter in the wild or in a well-staged exhibit (the Monterey Bay Aquarium comes to mind), this general knowledge has had little ripple effect on our consuming habits.

In fact, if a recent consumer survey in the United Kingdom is any indication, 70 percent of shoppers claim that buying sustainable fish is important, but only 30 percent say that they are “actively” seeking sustainable fish—which translates into an unknown, yet assumed-to-be much lower score at the cash register.

Among the barriers to actively-seeking-sustainable-fish, habit weighs in for 24 percent, in equal amount to the price premium factor, according to “Attitudes and Behaviours around Sustainable Food Purchasing”, a report published this month by the U.K.’s Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

However, I was somewhat encouraged to learn that for almost one shopper in two, ignorance of the existence of certification labels for sustainable fish[1], and lack of availability at the local store, are the main barriers to purchase. On top of that, 84 percent of all respondents agree that retailers bear a big share of the responsibility, and should ensure that the fish they sell is from sustainable stocks.

If these stats accurately reflect reality, it means that not only better consumer education could make a difference, but that retailers and their suppliers may want to look at the budding market opportunity within their reach: certified sustainable fish that is loudly advertised as such.

Now, here is some good news: both governments and retailers are finally beginning to heed consumers’ sentiment.

Many of you may argue that responsible consumers who are intent on making the “right” choice have had tools at their disposal for years. To be sure, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program (California), the Marine Conservation Society’s FISHONLINE website (UK), and the Australian Marine Conversation Society’s Sustainable Seafood Guide, to name but a few, give us access to the latest information available about what to buy and what to avoid. But standing at the fish counter still remains a challenge–even with the latest smart-phone seafood guide app in hand. Between species, geographic origin, production method, and fishing technique, the conscious consumer has many variables to investigate which, in the absence of clear labels, typically requires a conversation with a too-often less-than-well informed attendant behind the counter. Oh, and did someone mention health concerns? As it turns out, none of these guides mention the level of risk linked to mercury or organic pollutants contents–for that, one needs to check other sources.

At any rate, rushed or self-conscious shoppers don’t bother with all the trouble–and that’s most of us most of the time.

Whole Foods sustainable seafood rating program.

Always keen to gain a new differentiating competitive advantage, the American “organic” retail chain Whole Foods started last September to provide fish-loving consumers with peace of mind: a color-rated sustainability program, designed in partnership with Blue Ocean Institute and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “The sustainability status information has opened a terrific dialogue at the seafood counter. Shoppers are flexing their buying power to prompt change and help reverse trends of overfishing, exploitation and depletion in so many fisheries,” said David Pilat, Whole Foods’ global seafood coordinator, in a press statement. The company just confirmed that it will achieve its goal of phasing out the sale of “red-rated” tuna and swordfish species by Earth Day 2011, next April 22.

In California, where fishing communities are struggling between decreasing resources, increasing demand (both local and out-of-state), and shifting regulations, the push is on, from industry, NGOs, and the public sector, towards establishing sustainable fishing as a thriving industry.

The Monterey Fish Market, a San Francisco-based sustainable-fish wholesale operation launched over 30 years ago by famous sustainability pioneer Paul Johnson, has become a stronger link than ever of the regional seafood supply chain, as more and more restaurants (albeit still too few) are shifting their procurement strategy in order to seduce the local food-conscious crowd.

Their work should be made easier by the California Fisheries Fund, a non-profit launched in 2009 by the Environmental Defense Council that offers loans to help establish or grow sustainable fisheries on the West Coast of the United States.

Finally, the State itself is now involved in encouraging fisheries to choose the sustainable route: the California Sustainable Seafood Initiative was established last year in the wake of the passage of Assembly Bill 1217, that “requires the Ocean Protection Council to develop and implement a voluntary seafood promotion program for California fisheries”. Its intent “is to encourage California fisheries to seek certification in accordance with internationally accepted standards for sustainability and to promote the purchase and consumption of certified sustainable California seafood.” It floated a draft proposal, opened to public comments until January 18, 2011–to be continued.

Not to be outdone as the focus of this increasing frenzy of interest from various parties, fishing communities are organizing out of Monterey, California, to have their voice heard in the growing debate.

Ad for a class at the Ger-Nis Culinary & Herb Center, Brooklyn, NY.

As always, let’s remind the consumers that we are that we have a role to play. It’s especially difficult when it comes to seafood sustainability, given the fact that “we know less about the world’s oceans than we do about the moon. The oceans are complex; its inhabitants are hidden below the surface, and the science is young,” in the words of Paul Johnson. In fact, the various institutions that maintain their seafood guides “often find themselves at odds in their assessment of individual fisheries,” he asserts. So let’s keep educating ourselves, and, when in doubt, stick to the few uncontroversial “safe” choices available to us. Or abstain.

[1] since the late 1990s, the Marine Stewardship Council, an international organization that is headquartered in London and has offices in ten other countries, has been sheperding a sustainability certification program through third-party certifiers. There were 7,220 seafood products available with the MSC ecolabel, and sold in 74 countries, as of October 2010.

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2 Responses to Sustainable Fish Tales

  1. where do you stand on aquacultured fish.

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