Tuesday, March 24, 2015
SENA15: The Evolution Of Seafood Sustainability
--Jacques Yves Cousteau
While walking down the many aisles of the Seafood Expo North America , enjoying seafood samples, you cannot fail to notice all the attention given to sustainability. I've already mentioned the prevalence of seafood sustainability at the Expo. Many of the exhibitors tout the sustainability of their products, though, in the darker corners of the hall, there are items which are more questionable, such as Shark Fin, though fortunately only a single exhibitor had that item. Each year, SENA seems to become more an more sustainable.
Besides the seafood purveyors, you'll also find organizations devoted to sustainable issues, such as Aquaculture Stewardship Council, CleanFish, Fish Choice, Global G.A.P., Marine Stewardship Council, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Seaweb, Trace Register and others. These groups are a wealth of information concerning seafood sustainability, and are more than willing to share all they know. Besides the exhibitors, there was also a Seafood Sustainability track in the conference sessions, presenting five different seminars (2 less than last year) on sustainability-related issues.
The relative rapid evolution of seafood sustainability has unfortunately been an obstacle in some regards to the average consumer. Due to the complexities of sustainability, and its rapid changes, consumers get overwhelmed, failing to properly understand the issues. Instead, they often tend to rely on sensationalist media reports, usually outdated, mentioning the dangers of seafood. Consumer education though is starting to be addressed, as well as the development of ideas which will make it much easier for consumers to understand what is most important. As my own contribution to correcting the misconceptions of consumers, I want to address some of the key points of the sustainability issue as it presently stands, pointing our some of its evolution as well.
This is a fact that has not changed over the years. If anything, it has become stronger as new studies are conducted. As I mentioned in a previous post, by the mid-2040s, it is projected that the world population will grow from 7 to 9 billion, requiring us to double our food supply. The UN also reported that 90% of wild fisheries are being harvested at their sustainable limit. Without seafood, we won't be able to feed the world's growing population. In addition, the extinction of species and the destruction of their environment could have cataclysmic consequences for us all. Sustainability in all industries is a vital element, and the seafood industry is definitely not an exception. Consumers need to consume sustainable seafood, and contribute to our future. There is no valid argument that sustainable seafood is unnecessary.
Despite the vital nature of seafood sustainability, it still is not a high priority for the majority of consumers. Various seafood purveyors have indicated to me that their customers rarely ask about sustainability. Other seafood articles have repeated this sentiment, indicating that consumers care far more about cost, ease of prep and taste than sustainability. However, those same consumers, in other studies, indicate that they equate sustainability to quality, but they just are not motivated sufficiently to opt only for sustainable seafood.
What helps to drive sustainability in the marketplace is that there is a small yet vocal and powerful minority of consumers who want seafood sustainability. They are the ones who demand to know the source of the seafood they purchase, who question their restaurant servers about sourcing. Retailers are listening to these people, even though they are a minority, as they understand that the number of consumers seeking sustainable seafood is growing, even if it is slow. They see the future, knowing that the consumer base is evolving, getting more educated about these issues. Hopefully, in the near future, a majority of consumers will be concerned about sustainability.
No one is 100% sustainable, and as Michael Tlusty, the Director of Ocean Sustainability Science at the New England Aquarium, said, anyone claiming otherwise is merely ego. Sustainability is a journey, and everyone falls somewhere on the spectrum, hopefully moving closer to an ideal destination. At the Marine Stewardship Council meeting, it was noted that even when their fisheries received sustainable certification, they continued to work towards improving their practices, trying to become even more sustainable. Every seafood-related organization needs to constantly endeavor to better themselves, to improve any aspect which is less than perfect, even if they will never reach that ideal goal.
Sustainability is often about trade-offs, a balancing of competing interests. For example, though the Maine lobster fishery is considered sustainable, it is also an industry that is very energy intensive, far more than many other types of fisheries. The industry needs improvement, despite being sustainable in one sense. Consumers must learn not to be too judgmental about seafood sustainability, and understand that no one is perfect, and those dedicated to working hard towards sustainability deserve their support.
In understanding something, starting with its definition is often a good beginning. With sustainability though, there is no single, agreed upon definition. Tania Taranovski, the Director of Sustainable Seafood Program at the New England Aquarium, previously noted that with sustainability, "we are trying to do too much with one word," over simplifying a very complex issue. As such there has been an evolution for some away from that term, choosing to refer to it instead as "responsibly sourced" seafood. This growing movement could potentially be the wave of the future.
Determining whether seafood is sustainable or not depends upon a plethora of questions, including where the seafood was harvested, how it was harvested, who harvested it, the health of the specific fishery, and so much more. Few consumers have the inclination to ask their local seafood purveyor or restaurant the necessary questions to determine the sustainability level of the seafood they wish to purchase. Fortunately, the evolution of seafood sustainability has seem some potential solutions to this consumer confusion.
To combat consumer confusion about seafood sustainability, consumers need to rely on trust, to allow other to indicate which seafood is sustainable. One important way to provide such information is through third party certifications, such as that of the Marine Stewardship Council and Aquaculture Stewardship Council. Such organizations ask the necessary questions, and take it further through a thorough examination of the issues, ensuring the sustainable of any fishery they choose to certify. For consumers, all they have to do then is to look for a certification label or logo on their seafood. It couldn't be much easier. However, consumers must first trust these organizations,
That element of trust extends to other seafood companies, restaurants, markets or more. Consumers need to rely upon trusted people to determine what is sustainable seafood. I have often heard chefs tell me that the first step for consumers to do is to find a trusted seafood purveyor. Consumers can rely upon some elements of the media, friends, and word of mouth to help determine who is worthy of their trust. I have previously written about seafood businesses which I believe are worthy of your trust. Having that trust makes the issue of seafood sustainability much easier for consumers.
Some consumers have a knee-jerk reaction against aquaculture. It is a strange double standard though as they might refuse to eat farmed salmon but will gladly partake of factory farm chicken or pork, both which are far more questionable than farmed salmon. Consumers have been deluged with negative media depictions of farmed farm, and don't understand the realities. During the last forty or so years, aquaculture has made significant strides in technology and progress, and continues to do so all the time. Many of the criticisms lodged against aquaculture are no longer valid, yet those criticisms continue to circulate.
Approximately 50% of the seafood in the world now comes from aquaculture, and that percentage is likely to grow in time. As I mentioned earlier, our population is growing and the only way we can feed the additional billions will likely be through additional aquaculture. Land based agriculture already uses 70% of our water supply and 30%-40% of our land, so there is little room, if any, for growth. As 90% of our wild fisheries are at their peak, there is little room for growth there either. Aquaculture though is not at its peak, and its potential is quite higher. Consumers need to understand that aquaculture can be sustainable, that it constantly improves, and that it is necessary to feed future generations.
Most Americans are boring. Consider that though there are more than 100 seafood species available in U.S. markets, a mere 6 species account for 91% of the seafood consumed here. There is an abundant bounty of available seafood species, but many Americans won't venture out to try all of these delicious and interesting species. By consuming such a small number of species, we put undue pressures on the stocks of those fish, causing sustainability problems. It's easy to resolve this problem, by Americans simply expanding their palates and eating other, less common species.
You might have heard about "trash fish," though some in the seafood industry cringe at that term, and it refers to those species which Americans rarely eat, and which fishermen find difficult to sell. However, many of those species are delicious, and people would enjoy them only if they gave them a chance. I've written before about a local effort, Red's Best Seafood, to make those less common fish available to consumers. As I walked the aisles of SENA, I saw a wide variety of seafood which will end up on local store shelves and on restaurant menus, so there is hope that Americans can break out of their boring seafood eating habits. You should also check out this new article in the Wall Street Journal about this very issue.
Initially,seafood sustainability was primarily about the fish and their environment, the water. The concern was whether there were sufficient stocks of a particular fish, or whether fishing gear was damaging the bottom of the sea. As this type of sustainability became more prevalent. as it started becoming more commonplace in the marketplace, people started to ask whether there was more to sustainability. Some sought a new competitive edge while others were truly concerned about expanding the scope of sustainability.
Now, more and more seafood organizations are talking about sustainability and social issues, especially after all of the publicity last year from the Thailand scandal concerning slavery and the seafood industry. Some third party certification bodies, such as Aquaculture Stewardship Council, have social issues within their sustainability criteria. In time, it is very likely that all of these certification groups will include social criteria. It's no longer sufficient to care just about the fish and the oceans, but you need to be concerned about the people involved too.
Besides extreme cases like those of Thailand, there also needs to be a concern for local fishing communities and their economic well being. There needs to be a balancing act between strict fishing regulations and protecting the livelihood of fishermen. It is far from an easy task and the important point is that we need to consider these social issues in seafood sustainability discussions.
“There are fish in the sea better than have ever been caught.”