Sustainable Seafood: Part 4 - Can sustainable seafood guides help protect the environment?

Part 4 in a series of posts about sustainable seafood.
Part 1 - This is the post that started me thinking about the problem.
Part 2 - Sustainable Seafood: Part 2 - What is sustainability?
Part 3 - Sustainable Seafood: Part 3 - How does sustainability relate to seafood?

I described in previous posts what sustainability is, and how it relates to seafood. In this post I want to talk about guides to buying sustainably produced seafood.

When we buy a product we become a party to the production of that product. When we choose one product over another, we are indicating that we think that the product we have chosen is better (in some way - appearance, quality, cost, environmental footprint etc) than the products that we didn't choose to buy. We can influence the behavior of the companies that make the products that we buy by making it more profitable for them to produce products in a way that we agree with.

Because I am concerned about the negative effect that humans can have on the natural environment, I like to choose products that are produced to minimize their environmental impact. One way I try to do this is by buying food that is produced as sustainably as possible - food that "...meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

As I mentioned in my first post on this topic, when shopping for seafood in Australia I would rely on the Australian Marine Conservation Society's Sustainable Seafood Guide to help me make seafood choices that weren't encouraging unsustainable fishing practices. When I moved to New York I found the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch site easily enough, and started using their Sustainable Seafood Guide to make sustainable choices when shopping.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium isn't the only organization which produces a sustainable seafood guide though - the following website all have guides to help consumers select seafood in a way that isn't contributing to damaging the natural environment:
Blue Ocean Institute
Earth Easy
Environmental Defense Fund
Seafood Choices Alliance
and I'm sure there are many more that I haven't listed too.

The problem is, even with a sustainable seafood guide in your pocket, it still isn't all that easy to make the right choices when you get to the supermarket. Not ony do you need to know which species you are seeing at the fish counter, but you also need to know how it was caught (long line, pole, purse-seine or trap?). Jennifer Jacquet (of Shifting Baselines) recently wrote an article describing how many illegally caught (or unsustainably raised) species are renamed as completely different species for resale in order to fool consumers who are trying to make sustainable seafood choices. The examples she gives include Hake (labeled Tilapia), Red Snapper (75% of fish sold with this label are entirely different species), Shrimp (farmed shrimp labeled as wild-caught), Cod (labeled as Ling) and several others. Several of the guides listed above also contain contradictory advice - species listed as an okay choice on some lists and a bad choice on others.

I experienced a case of deceptive labelling recently when I ordered scallops off the menu at a local restaurant. Ordinarily I only eat scallops if they were collected while diving by someone I know, because dredging for scallops disturbs large areas of the seafloor - especially when the scallops are collected by commercial fishermen in their large boats with enormous heavy dredges. The scallop dish on the menu at my local restaurant was advertised as "Fresh Diver Scallops" though, and when I asked the waiter he confirmed that, yes, they were collected by divers on scuba and were less than a day old.

When the scallops arrived they were large and sweet and delicious. So large in fact, that I asked another waiter where they had come from. This second waiter told me that they were actually from the Gulf of Mexico, and when I expressed surprise he said that they were dredged down there and then collected from the dredge by divers so that they could be sold as "Diver Scallops". This makes me really angry, for two reasons:
1: Because the fishermen were cynically continuing to destroy large tracts of seafloor while fishing, but were then acting in a sneaky fashion to avoid being punished by consumers for this bad behaivour; and
2: Because the restaurant was not only going along with this charade, but was cynically perpetuating the sneakiness on their menu.

What can consumers do when producers and retailers are cynically gaming the system like this? One organisation is attempting to solve this problem through detailed auditing of seafood products, from the ocean to your table. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an independent, global, non-profit organisation which was set up to find a solution to the problem of overfishing. They have developed an environmental standard for sustainable and well-managed fisheries. This standard was put together following worldwide consultation with scientists, fisheries experts, environmental organisations and other people with a strong interest in preserving fish stocks for the future. The MSC rewards environmentally responsible fisheries management and practices with a distinctive blue product label. If you see a product with the blue MSC oval on it, you can be fairly sure that that product is definitely produced sustainably. A list of all of the products certified so far, and where to buy them can be found on the MSC website.

Why should we have to rely on a charity organisation to tell us which products are sustainable though? Why aren't all of the products sold in modern first world countries produced in a sustainable manner? Whay aren't we all "...meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs"?

1 comment:

  1. While the MSC certification is excellent I must admit I often get frustrated and have to wonder how long it will take to make a dent.
    Here the local grocer carries slimehead, swordfish, shark steaks and daily people eat them some even knowing the issues ("I know, but it's so tasty, and it's already dead you know."). The attitude of the grocer is as long as people want it, and his distributor has it, he will stock it. So where do we focus attention? We have to get a vocal majority or a significant $$ impact on the grocer before he says no to those products. Do the distributors take the same attitude? As long as there are buyers we'll keep sourcing it?

    The problem I see is the lack of a sense of personal and corporate responsibility or purpose besides greed.