NATIONAL REPORT—Almost exactly a year ago, McDonald’s USA announced it would become the first national restaurant chain to adopt the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) blue ecolabel on its fish packaging in restaurants in the United States. McDonald’s made a similar commitment in Europe in 2011. McDonald’s decision has had significant impact on the fishing industry; more than 14,000 McDonald’s restaurants across the United States have met the MSC Chain of Custody standard for traceability, which is the ability to track the fish all the way back through the supply chain to the fishery.
While what McDonald’s has done with its wild-caught Alaska pollock for its Filet-O-Fish sandwich has had a significant supply chain impact, the global fishing industry is still, for the most part, a very unregulated market outside of the United States with practices very often harmful to fish stock and the environment in general. According to a recent report issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), in order to put wild-caught seafood on dinner tables, more than 650,000 marine mammals are killed or seriously injured every year in foreign fisheries after being hooked, entangled or trapped in fishing gear. The NRDC says enforcement of a U.S. law to protect marine mammals could help prevent tens of thousands of these “bycatch” deaths.
For those in the position of having to purchase fish, knowing what is sustainable or not can be a challenge. There is a lot to consider: where the fish came from, how it was caught, and whether or not it was wild or farmed. Knowing what a certification means is also vital. Complicating things for those in purchasing positions in the United States is the fact that about 90 percent of fish is imported—from places the NRDC says is not held to the same standard as American seafood.
Seafood Trade Imbalance
“People don’t understand what goes into where their seafood has come from,” says Elizabeth Fitzsimons, outreach coordinator for the New England Aquarium, a global leader in ocean exploration and marine conservation. “We have an enormous amount of seafood that is imported. It is the second largest trade imbalance that we have in this country. People don’t demand seafood from the United States.”
Fitzsimons adds that one half of seafood consumed is tuna, shrimp and salmon. Those are not produced in “any significant quantity in the United States,” she says. More than 50 percent of seafood that people eat is farmed. Less than 3 percent of seafood is farmed in the United States. Most farmed fish is tilapia and it comes primarily from China. Asian countries produce most shrimp, and salmon primarily comes from Europe and South America. “Almost all trout we eat here is farmed in the U.S.,” Fitzsimons says.
The farming of fish, also known as aquaculture, is not necessarily more sustainable than catching fish in the wild although it certainly can be. There are various types of aquaculture: ocean farming along the coast, farming in the open ocean, and farming in ponds or even warehouses. Shellfish are farmed coastally in bays on trays or flats.
“There is no end to the amount of farmed shellfish we should be eating,” Fizsimons says. “They have a low environmental impact and are filter feeders.”
While avoiding overfished species and those notorious for leading to wasted bycatch is important, so too is avoiding fish higher on the food chain. Shark and tuna are at the top of the food chain. They reproduce slowly and mature slowly. “Fish lower on the food chain are great options,” Fitzsimons says, citing sardines as one good example. Fish that are not protein eaters—carp, catfish and trout—are also favorable options from a sustainability standpoint.
Species in Danger from Seafood Exports
The unintentional capture of animals in fishing gear, or bycatch as mentioned earlier, is pushing some marine mammal populations to the brink of extinction. According to the NRDC, the species most affected by seafood exports for American markets include:
• North Atlantic right whale: at risk from Canada’s lobster and crabbing practices;
• New Zealand sea lion: at risk from New Zealand’s squid industry;
• Mediterranean sperm whale: at risk from Italy & Turkey’s lack of enforcement;
• Vaquita: at risk from shrimp fisheries not complying with Mexico’s regulations;
• Spinner dolphins: at risk from India and Sri Lanka’s tuna industry;
• Baltic and Black Sea harbor porpoises: at risk from inadequate regulatory measures;
• J-Stock minke whale: at risk from a range of Japanese and South Korean fishing practices; and
• False killer whale: at risk from Pacific Ocean tuna, swordfish and marlin fishing practices.
The NRDC adds that the key types of fishing gear that threaten marine mammals around the world include:
• Gillnets: mesh nets that can be set on the sea floor or floated in the water column depending on the targeted species. Marine mammals that dive for food around gillnets tend to become entangled and drown when they are unable to surface for air.
• Purse seines: nets that hang vertically in the water column using weights at the bottom and buoys at the top. They can enclose marine mammals in the nets, along with fish.
• Trawls: funnel-shaped nets that are dragged behind boats at different depths, depending on target species. Marine mammals are attracted to trawls, which they become entangled in, because they often target the species that mammals prey upon.
• Bottom-set traps: (commonly called “pots”) crustacean traps with ropes that connect them to surface buoys and to one another. Large whales are particularly prone to getting entangled in the ropes, which wrap around their bodies, making it difficult for them to move or feed.
• Longlines: baited hooks on lines varying in length from 15 to 100 kilometers set with floating buoys or sunk with weights depending on the targeted species. Sea lions, fur seals, toothed whales, and other marine mammals can get caught on the hooks or tangled in the lines.
The NRDC says there are smart and targeted methods that can be employed to reduce risk and harm to marine mammals from dangerous gear, including time and area exclusions, warning systems, and gear modifications that make escaping entanglement more likely. An aggressive, science-based plan adopted by the United States in 1994 has reduced marine mammal bycatch by nearly 30 percent over 20 years and put special measures in place to save populations at highest risk.
Two Certifications to Consider
Fitzsimons says that because there is often very little visibility into the supply chain, certification programs can help. “The Marine Stewardship Council began in Europe and is particularly focused on wild seafood—not farmed,” she says. “They have a robust system for looking at the health of the fish stock, the management of it, and bycatch. You will see it at certain grocery stores. There are a number of other wild-catch certification programs as well. The Aquarium here is one of the founding members of an industry collaboration that will be benchmarking these certifications.”
The Aquaculture Stewardship Council is just beginning to certify fish farming operations.
“Certification is going to be increasingly important in the future,” Fitzsimons says.
The hospitality industry can play a significant role in driving demand for more sustainable fish. Given that most people eat their seafood at restaurants, there is a platform to introduce fish that people do not know as much about—redfish, hake, and Atlantic pollock, for example. “The idea of diversifying the seafood palette is important,” Fitzsimons says. “People will not go to the store and buy a fish they have not heard of before. It is easier for a server to tell that story.”
Aquarium Worked First with Grocery Chain
The New England Aquarium began working on sustainable seafood a little more than a decade ago. At that time it formed a partnership with a grocery store chain that perceived a risk to their business model. They were concerned about aquaculture and seafood. Out of that partnership the Aquarium’s sustainable seafood program was born. Today, one of the Aquarium’s tasks is visiting salmon and shrimp farms.
“It’s now very common for stores and chains to have partnerships with conservation organizations,” Fitzsimons says. “We advise them on everything in their supply chain. Where are the areas of high environmental risk? We help our partners create buying power. We do a lot of outreach to the public. Our corporate partners are the very large seafood buyers. We are trying to engage with smaller buyers. We collaborate with chefs and highlight those who are making good choices.”
While the carbon impact of a fish is also part of its sustainability story, Fitzsimon says that just because one fish’s place of origin was farther than another does not mean its carbon impact was higher. “Moving frozen fish is relatively low impact,” she says. “Moving fresh fish is higher impact.”
There are many different organizations that provide useful advice regarding sustainable seafood purchasing. They include the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions, Monterey Bay Aquarium, FishChoice, Chefs Collaborative, and Blue Ocean Institute. The Marine Stewardship Council, mentioned earlier, has an ecolabel program for restaurants interested in being officially recognized for serving sustainable seafood. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program offers a Consumer Guide to help one make wise purchasing decisions. The FishChoice website includes a searchable supplier directory. Green Chefs/Blue Ocean is a comprehensive, interactive online course and a sustainable seafood training program with a goal to educate and motivate chefs to buy and cook with sustainable seafood and ensure a seafood supply for the future.
Glenn Hasek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.