Tuesday, March 22, 2011

International Boston Seafood Show: The Key To Sustainability

Trying to determine which seafood is sustainable can be a difficult question, yet it is a determination that numerous consumers and purchasers of seafood are trying to resolve. Sustainability is a crucial issue, and it is taking center stage more and more. No one wants to be responsible for driving a species to extinction. We want our descendants to have access to the full bounty of the sea.  But what is the key to assessing whether a specific seafood species is sustainable or not? 

The answer is simple: Information. We need the answers to plenty of questions, from the current population status of any particular species to the specific methods by which a species is caught.  We need to know the source of our seafood as well as the methods of aquaculture, if relevant. Consumers, restaurants, retailers and other purchasers of seafood though have limited time to seek the answers to those questions. So, they need others to do the research for them, although those others must be trustworthy sources.

In a previous post, I mentioned that Sustainability is Prevalent at the 2011 International Boston Seafood Show. Each aisle I walked down seemed to have multiple booths with vendors offering sustainable seafood for purchase. Were those items truly sustainable though?  Fortunately, also found that attendees could locate that key to sustainability: information.  There were several exhibitors offering information and services to help understand the complicated world of seafood sustainability.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the leading sustainable seafood organizations, was at the show offering attendees plenty of information, including the 2009 Turning the Tide: The State of Seafood guide, which provides comprehensive data and details on seafood sustainability.  They also had an updated Buyer's Guide, from February 2011, which was a one-sheet listing the seafood that is a Best Choice, Good Alternative or Avoid. Plus, they provided an 80+ page, recipe book, each recipe using sustainable seafood. In addition, they were promoting their 2011 Cooking For Solutions, a culinary event where celebrity chefs celebrate sustainable cuisine.

I have had issue with the Monterey Bay Aquarium before, essentially the use of their sustainable seafood "wallet cards." I see them as rather simplistic, when the issue of sustainability is very complex. Their website certainly offers all of the detail you might want, but because of the simplicity of those wallet cards, much of that detail can get lost to the average consumer. And those details can be quite crucial.  But overall, Monterey does an excellent job of trying to educate consumers and others as to which seafood is sustainable.  So, it was good to see them presenting at the seafood show, helping attendees, answering their questions, and more.

Traceability is an important element of sustainability, being able to track the chain of custody of seafood, to ascertain exactly where it came from, how it was caught, how it was processed, etc. Sometimes you go to a food market or restaurant, ask the source of their fish and get a blank stare.  Others may be able to provide you some very basic information, like its country of origin but nothing more. But the best places can provide you as much information as you might want.

Trace Register is a company that can provide consumers and purchasers of seafood the traceability they desire, operating an online database that tracks every user in the supply chain. I was fascinated and impressed by a demonstration of this system. Essentially, every product which is part of the Trace Register system has a lot number which can be input into their website, thus garnering detailed information about the entire supply chain. You can track the name of the boat which caught the fish, where the fish was caught, how it was caught, etc. You can see which processing plants the seafood passed through, how the seafood was stored, who imported it, who distributed it and much, much more.

The system is used by over 500 companies, including some major retail chains like Walmart and Wegmans. It is not yet used by many restaurants, though they are acquiring new clients all the time. I think the Trace Register is an excellent system, which strikes at the heart of traceability, offering exactly the intelligence we desire about the sources of our seafood.

There are a number of seafood organizations which provide lists of what they consider to be sustainable seafood, but sometimes those lists may disagree with each other. It can take lots of time to go to each seafood organization's website to compare and contrast what they say about a particular species. But there is a better solution, an impressive answer offered by Fish Choice.

Fish Choice is an online resource, targeting primarily commercial seafood buyers, which aggregates the sustainability information from a number of the major seafood organizations, including: Blue Ocean Institute, FishWise, Marine Stewardship Council, Monterey Bay Aquarium Sea Watch, New England Aquarium, and SeaChoice. So, a buyer only has to consult a single website, and can then easily compare and contrast the ratings of all of these groups. You have the ability to search the website in various ways, such as by name, region, supplier and more. When you bring up the data, it is compiled together in a very user friendly manner, and provides comprehensive information on the sustainability of the seafood.

I think it is exactly what a concerned seafood buyer would want, and it is even better because all of the information is free!  As it is free, a seafood buyer has no excuse not to use this website to help make better and more sustainable purchasing decisions.

Other sustainability organizations were also present at the seafood show, including: FishWisethe Marine Stewardship Council and Sustainable Fisheries Partnership.  So, attendees had plenty of options as to gathering sustainability information.  Thus, the complexities of sustainability can be more easily resolved with proper information, and a number of companies are leading that path.  If you purchase seafood, are you availing yourself of this assistance?  If not, why not? Because it seems rather clear that you should be doing so.

1 comment:

sully richard said...

Great sustainability article covering the deeper issues of the topic. Not enough people see the many layers of this stuff. There was so much of it at the show that I really began to wonder who and what qualifies as sustainable? I was also at IBSS and found interest in the Gulf of Mexico consumer confidence discussion. They talked about a new seafood brand Gulf Wild that is rooted in conservation measures and puts puts a numbered tag on every fish that tracks it back to the very area, fisherman and vessel it was caught on. I've seen several posts on it since Monday, this is one: http://tinyurl.com/4fpn8hw