Monday, March 12, 2012

International Seafood Show: A Sustainability Primer

"All men are equal before fish."
--Herbert Hoover

As I have already mentioned, Sustainability is Prevalent at the 2012 International Boston Seafood Show (IBSS). It almost seems like you can't walk more thirty feet without encountering something related to seafood sustainability. That is certainly very positive but it is also partially a disadvantage as it is impossible, even during three days, to be able to visit all of the various seafood sustainability seminars and talk to all of the exhibitors who are involved with sustainability. Thus, you must carefully pick and choose your stops, trying to gather information on the big picture, while also trying to touch on some of the most compelling and interesting details. That is a challenge but any passionate writer will welcome the opportunity to face this obstacle.

In the Sustainability Conference Track alone, there were six seminars such as A Retailers’ Guide to Sustainable Seafood, Making Sense of Seafood Sustainability through Positive Engagement, and Implementing a Sustainable Seafood Program for your Restaurant-How to Navigate through the Sea of Conflicting NGO Information. But other Tracks also had some sustainability-related seminars and there were even a few independent conferences touching on these issues, including U.S. Achieves Monumental Goal for Sustaining Wild-Caught Seafood and Achieving Cargo Security, Food Safety and Sustainability in the Seafood Supply Chain. As each conference lasts from 60-90 minutes, they can eat up your time at the show. I selected several conferences to attend, garnering some valuable and fascinating information.

In the main exhibit hall, there were numerous organizations devoted to sustainable issues, such as Monterey Bay AquariumTrace RegisterMarine Stewardship CouncilFish Choiceand Seaweb, and each of them possesses valuable intelligence. But, if I chose to sit and chat with each and every one of them, it would have eaten up much of my time at the seafood show. That doesn't include all of the many dozens of seafood purveyors who sell sustainable seafood. Fortunately, you can easily and quickly gather contact information for all of these companies so that you can follow up with them at a later date, when you have much more time to devote to seeking answers to your sustainability questions. I spoke to several of the sustainability organizations and a number of seafood vendors, and will be discussing these issues with more companies and vendors tomorrow.

From all of the information I gathered, as well as from using knowledge I have previously acquired, I think we can break the issue of seafood sustainability down into three key points. In various forms, I heard these three items continually repeated by everyone I spoke to, though no one stated them in the exact manner that I am about to do. I want these three key points to be easy enough for everyone to understand, including consumers who know little, if anything, about sustainability. Yet I wanted them to possess depth as well, so that those well educated in sustainability issues will find reason to embrace these three keys.

1. Seafood sustainability is vital.
Not a single person mentioned that we can safely ignore sustainability. Everyone said it was a vital issue, one which we must embrace or the repercussions could be dire for the entire world. Obviously, the prominence of sustainability at this show is indicative of its great importance. Kerry Coughlin of the Marine Stewardship Council put it well when she stated that "seafood sustainability is a food security issue and not a luxury." It is not something just for wealthy, white suburbanities but is an issue that cross all racial, economic, and class lines. Sam Rauch, the Acting Director of NOAA, stated "Fishing is business, it is jobs, it is money, it is food." It is an integral part of our economy, and without the fishing industry, there would be significant adverse economic ramifications.

Consider the statistic that approximately 115 million tons of seafood are consumed annually on a global basis. It is predicted that by 2030, our ever-growing population will need about another 40 million tons of seafood. The only way we will be able to meet that future need is by ensuring we do not diminish or destroy fish species now. If we want our children and grandchildren to be able to enjoy the diversity of seafood we currently enjoy, then we must preserve fish species. No one wants to be responsible for driving a species to extinction.

2. Seafood sustainability is complex.
Everyone also agreed that this issue is very complex, and you can easily find experts who will differ on numerous specific issues. For example, various sustainability organizations have promulgated lists of which seafood species they consider safe and which are not. Yet those lists can differ from organization to organization, further confusing consumers. For example, Sam Rauch, the Acting Director of NOAA, stated during his conference that when a fish is caught by a U.S. mandated fishery, then it is sustainable, considering the fact that the U.S. fishing industry is the most highly regulated in the world. Yet other organizations disagree, failing to accept that all such fish are sustainable.

For example, Santi Roberts of the Monterey Bay Aquarium agreed that their Seafood Watch wallet cards oversimplify a very complex issue, though he feels they serve a purpose for some consumers. It doesn't help that sustainability is very dynamic, and there are often changes, as science improves, as fisheries takes measures to remedy their problems, and more. Consumers are rightfully puzzled by this issue. Santi mentioned the difficulty of keeping up with all of these changes, which requires frequent reworking of their seafood recommendations.

During one of the conferences, Japanese Seafood for the Evolving American Palate, there was a short discussion on ways to save the endangered Bluefin Tuna and it pointed to the diversity of opinions in such matters. Jiro Morishita, Counsellor of the Fisheries Agency of Japan stated that he felt Japanese were eating too much tuna but that international management is needed to protect it, that global quotas should be better directed toward protecting the species. He put much less responsibility on the shoulders of those who eat bluefin. On the other hand, Chef David Bouley had a more radical solution, that bluefin should be taken completely off the global market for at least 5-6 years to give it adequate time to recover. He feels that the situation of bluefin is dire and drastic measures are now required. He stated that "technology is too efficient for fishing," that it is too easy to capture many tons of fish in a short time, too easy to decimate a species without any controls.

3. Seafood sustainability is in the details.
So how do you know what is sustainable or not? The answer is found in the details, in all of the questions that should be asked to determine the diverse factors involved in this complex issue. For example, we need to know matters such as the source of the seafood, an assessment of the fish's population, the method by which it was caught, traceability throughout the chain of custody, and much more. Even if consumers knew all of the questions, not all of them would be willing to take the time to ask them, and even if they did, they might not get all the answers they desire.

As deriving these answers and details is not easy, it is fortunate that certain organizations exist who can fill in the gaps for consumers. Consumers need to understand that because of the complexities, because they often can't learn all of the details on their own, they need to build trust in others, from the chef at their favorite restaurant to eco-certifying organizations like the Marine Stewardship Council. Building that trust is likely much easier than the consumers trying to get all of the answers to their sustainability issues each and every time they purchase seafood, whether at a restaurant, supermarket or elsewhere.

Like the endangered Giant Panda, many fish species need protection, to ensure future generations will not grow up in their absence. In some respects, this is an easy issue, though in other respects, there is vast complexity which must be overcome. This post was more of a fundamental essay on seafood sustainability, and future posts will go into greater detail and complexity. But, such basics are vital as consumers play such a significant role in sustainability and they need simplicity. That seems to me to be a very Japanese mindset, one of simplicity concealing vast depths of meaning.

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