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Who Gets to Define Seafood Sustianability?

Who Gets to Define Seafood Sustianability?

WHOLLY SUSTAINABLE MACKEREL. Seafood caught by fisheries that have been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council as operating in a sustainable manner get to use the organization's blue ecolabel on their products. To date, 22 fisheries marketing over 130 labeled products in the United States have received MSC certification.


Are there enough fish in the sea? The answer, increasingly, seems to be "no."

This message has now found its way to consumers already worked up over dry-land sustainability issues, and fish and other fruits of the sea have joined the parade of food-related ethical and health-related causes foodservice operators must deal with.

So where do operators wishing to practice sustainable seafood strategies turn? The answer, unfortunately, is not as simple as one might think.

Arguably, the modern sustainable seafood movement started in 1997, when the Monterey Bay (CA) Aquarium opened an exhibit called "Fishing for Solutions," which tackled the at-the-time-little-known problem of overfished species.

The exhibit included a list of species to "avoid" and "good alternatives," giving consumers essentially the first real guide to what to eat when it came to seafood. Monterey Bay Aquarium's exhibit ran for two years and birthed a permanent program now called Seafood Watch.

And 1997 was also the year food conglomerate Unilever Corp. inked a partnership with the World Wide Fund for Nature (better known in the U.S. as the World Wildlife Fund) to launch an organization called the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) that would certify fisheries that operated in a sustainable manner. (In 1999, MSC severed ties with Unilever in order to distance itself from any commercial interests and it now operates as an autonomous nonprofit body.)

While Seafood Watch and the MSC share the broad goal of ensuring a sustainable future for fish and other sea creatures, they are representative of quite different approaches to get there.

Seafood Watch focuses on individual species, and its programs emphasize consumer education and grass-roots advocacy.

With its color-coded wallet cards and posters listing "best choices," "good alternatives," and "avoid," it has become the most prominent source of sustainable seafood information for consumers. Many foodservice establishments seeking seafood sustainability credit from customers also use Seafood Watch's list as their guideline on what to buy (and, perhaps more importantly, what not to buy).

MSC's approach, meanwhile, focuses on individual fisheries instead of species. It uses an independent third-party organization to certify fisheries whose operations meet its sustainability standards. These are based on the standards adopted by the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization.

Fisheries that meet these standards get to use MSC's blue ecolabel on their products. To date, some 130 products from 22 certified fisheries bear the MSC ecolabel in the United States.

In the foodservice channel, MSC has also been working on certifying the "chain of custody" of seafood product in order to ensure that the fish caught sustainably at sea is the same fish that lands at the operator loading dock. The chain includes fisheries, processors, wholesalers and distributors.

MSC deals only with wildcapture fisheries. Another body, the Aquaculture Certification Council (ACC), uses the same approach—certifying individual producers that meet its standards for sustainable operation—with the fish farming industry.

One sobering fact: irregardless of which approach is superior, the task of ensuring a sustainable future for seafood remains an enormous challenge.

Both Seafood Watch and MSC operate almost exclusively in developed world markets, but more than half of the worldwide open-sea fish catches are made by fishers operating out of developing world nations where regulations are lax or nonexistent. As a result, a quarter of the world's annual catch is illegal and/or unregulated, Seafood Watch estimates.

That's not an encouraging statistic, especially when coupled with the estimate (Seafood Watch again) that three-quarters of global fish stocks are currently either at capacity or already depleted.

Photo: Marine Stewardship Council

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