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The Gospel of Seafood

A great looking seafood display from a store in Mississippi.

Seafood shoppers have a lot of information to consider these days when making healthy food choices.

I put my money where my mouth is. If you like healthy, fresh, available year round, great tasting salmon, try Atlantic.

But opponents of fish farming, like the David Suzuki Foundation, want to you use your wallets to shun farmed fish.

Learn more about the seafood you like to eat. Get familiar with the online sustainable seafood guides, provided by SeaChoice or Seafood Watch to help inform your choices. Your actions in the marketplace can help realize urgently needed fisheries-policy reforms to end overfishing and habitat-damaging practices.

But what is the alternative? If you want salmon on the table, and you are told not to buy farmed, then you need to buy wild. Save the wild salmon by eating them. This does not make a lot of sense to me, but, if you are going to buy wild, what are your options for putting fish on your table?

Canned fish comes from wild caught sources. Some frozen prepared fish (fish sticks etc.) come from wild sources, but fish like tilapia are farmed. Trout, Atlantic salmon and tilapia found in the fresh seafood section are farmed but most of the rest is wild. Most of the pacific salmon available in the grocery stores in Canada are caught in Alaska. Is farmed fish “bad?” Is Alaskan salmon really wild? How do we know for sure what the best choices are for the oceans?

We all know that we should care for our oceans and that overfishing has caused many problems in the last few centuries (whale hunting and cod fishing immediately spring to mind). How do we choose which fish we should buy? There are many different labeling systems currently in use across the world. Marine Stewardship Council or MSC is one of the most global and well known certifications. Also, there are at least 4 different ones across North America. So we just look for a sticker that implies a “sustainable” fish source, buy it and feel good about what we are putting on our plate for dinner, right?

Labels like gospels

People promoting these labels expect us to accept them like gospel truth.

But how much faith can we put into these labels? Are they reliable? Consistent? Do they have motivations that go beyond the health of our oceans?

MSC is based in London, England and only certifies fisheries, not farms. They have offices worldwide and seem to have a very thorough process.

Eco-labeling programs evaluate the production process of a fishery with regard to established environmental standards set by an independent third party. If the process meets these standards, the producer or marketer may buy a license to use a specific eco-label in marketing efforts. In effect, the label conveys to the consumer information concerning a product’s environmental impact. The consumer is then able to choose among product alternatives, eco-labeled and not. In theory, if the consumer perceives benefits from seafood from sustainable fisheries, then the consumer will pay a premium for that product, creating a marketbased incentive for the fishery to become and remain certified, and for other fisheries to do the same. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) was created in 1996 through a cooperative effort of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Unilever, a multi-national corporation. The goal of the partnership was to provide a standardized mechanism for certifying and labeling sustainable seafood products from wild fisheries worldwide, thereby providing a market-based incentive to maintain sustainable fish stocks. The MSC has been independent from WWF and Unilever for several years.

However, Alaska fisheries recently announced they were no longer going to seek MSC certification. If one of the largest salmon fisheries in the world doesn’t want to be MSC certified what does that say?

And there are other critics:

“Does the MSC label provide sufficient information for the consumer to make a wise choice?  Typically it does not.  There are 5 choices of text that MSC provides to accompany their blue eco-label.  None of these contain any information on the geographic stock location of the fishery, the scientific name of the species, or the fishing gear used.  There is also nothing to distinguish fisheries that have conditional sustainability certification from those that meet all the MSC criteria.  Consumers must take the MSC eco-label on faith or visit the MSC website and do their own research to determine these important details. (1)

“Sustainable fish customers ‘duped’ by Marine Stewardship Council

Certification granted to controversial fisheries has prompted severe criticism of the sustainable fisheries organisation

Richard Page, a Greenpeace oceans campaigner, said decisions to certify some fisheries “seriously undermine” the MSC’s credibility. “I will go as far as to say consumers are being duped. They think they are buying fish that are sustainable and can eat them with a clean conscience.”

… Chris Pincetich, a marine biologist with the Turtle Island Restoration Network, said: “The MSC has rushed to accept applications from hundreds of fisheries around the globe in order to grow their business and network. Many of those are actually viewed by scientists as unsustainable. They should really take a closer look before they even engage with those fisheries.” (2)

“Greenpeace is of the opinion that no fully credible certification system for sustainable seafood currently exists. Although Greenpeace acknowledges the MSC’s professional operation and its transparency and stakeholder involvement at all levels, Greenpeace does not currently endorse the MSC. (3)

Greenpeace is vehemently against certain fisheries around the world but they don’t have much to say about salmon fishing. They are against fishing in BC because of the damage they claim the logging industry has caused to the “great bear rain forest.”

However, they do mention fishing in the North Pacific Ocean and the problems associated with it:

The Bering Sea seems so remote for most of us. However, the waters between Alaska and Russia are a rich marine environment home to a diverse array of wildlife.

Polar bears, seals, sea lions, walruses, whales and millions of seabirds make their home here. It is also one of the most productive fishing spots in the world. In fact, more than half the fish we catch in the United States comes from Alaska, including salmon, pollock, king crab, and Pacific cod.

But, the fragile ecosystem cannot sustain this level of commercial fishing without paying a price. Factory fishing ships are taking too many fish out of the sea-and leaving too little left for the animals whose lives depend on it.

They are also bulldozing the ocean’s seafloor, barely leaving a coral or sponge left standing. Even native communities are feeling the negative impacts of commercial factory fishing on their livelihood and traditions.

Greenpeace states that there is no fully credible certification system for sustainable seafood; however, they do have a campaign that encourages people to shop at stores that agree with Greenpeace philosophies about sustainable seafood.

Our oceans are in peril. Despite the sustainable seafood movement gaining steam globally, the devastation wrought by global industrialized fishing continues on a massive scale. In spite of overwhelming evidence and strong warnings from the scientific community, we continue to plunder our seas.

To learn more about how supermarkets play a role in ocean conservation, Greenpeace USA has released its fifth Carting Away the Oceans (CATO) report, our periodic snapshot of seafood sustainability in the US grocery sector.

In this guide Greenpeace has granted their seal of approval to Safeway and Whole Foods for working with third-party environmental groups.

“Companies like Safeway and Whole Foods are joining forces with independent third-party environmental groups like FishWise and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in order to improve their operations and to better promote sustainable seafood to their customers.”

Green peace also applauds Target, for removing farmed salmon from their stores and selling wild Alaskan instead and gives the company a good rating because it is consulting with certification programs:

Target is a member of the Food Marketing Institute’s Sustainability Task Force and its subsidiary, Seafood Working Group. In addition to working with industry groups that represent producers, processors, and conservation organizations, Target also consults with seafood scientists on its seafood sustainability and supports certification groups such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA). Information from the company suggests that new partnership endeavors are underway.

It is interesting that Greenpeace holds such a double standard. They don’t like certifications yet promote their own. And as we see here in their latest report that Greenpeace is giving a thumbs up to Target for working with MSC, Fish Wise, Monterey Bay Aquarium and GAA. They obviously don’t like MSC and don’t have total faith in any certification system. Not to mention the fact that GAA supports fish farming in B.C. Which Greenpeace seems to hate.

Greenpeace makes bold statements against certification programs on one page of its site but seems to say something else on other pages. What is a consumer supposed to do? If you decide that any certification system is better than no system at all then which guide do you choose?

Worldwide there is doubt about MSC, so what about the North American options? Here are four groups who all oppose salmon aquaculture but support Alaska’s “wild” salmon fishery: Monterey Bay Aquarium and their Seafood Watch program, Vancouver Aquarium and their Ocean Wise program, Sea Choice, and Fish Wise. But are they four different groups who came to the same decision after individual analysis by each group? No. If you look closely at each of the groups sites eventually you will find that they all work in collaboration with Monterey Bay Aquarium. This is an American aquarium which receives American funding which in turn supports an American fishery over Canadian options.

It is hard not to be a little skeptical about their good intentions. Especially when you consider that much of the Alaskan catch is not wild at all but “cultured” or “ranched”. In other words, Alaskan salmon is born and raised in hatcheries on land, fed flakes and then pellets made from wild sources of protein, moved to ocean net pen until they grow big enough to be released into the wild to be caught later by a huge fishing industry. And yet Alaska states that it is opposed to fish farms.

Greenpeace and Alaska stand resolutely opposed to fish farms, which generate lethal amounts of sea lice that threaten wild salmon,” said Jeremy Paster of Greenpeace U.S. “British Columbia is expanding aquaculture toward Alaska, a reckless move that endangers wild salmon stocks in both Canada and the U.S.”

Aquaculture is a huge industry in Alaska but because they raise pacific salmon and they don’t raise it to full maturity in pens they figure they can name it enhancement and leave aquaculture critics behind them. Here are two of the many examples of the hatchery companies in Alaska:

Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation (PWSAC) is a private nonprofit aquaculture association founded in 1974 by local fishermen and other stakeholders to optimize Alaska’s wild salmon resources. PWSAC produces hatchery-born, ocean-raised wild salmon for the commercial, sport, personal use and subsistence fisheries in the Prince William Sound and Copper River regions.

What is the NSRAA?

We are a private, nonprofit regional aquaculture association formed by a community of salmon fishermen back in the late 1970’s with the goal of enhancing and providing salmon opportunities in southeast Alaska. At our creation, the drive was to reverse the decline in the local salmon fisheries. To date, our efforts have been extremely successful. We are involved with a range of projects, from determining hatchery and fish dock locations to operating two large salmon hatcheries.

Instead of focusing on net pen aquaculture as an issue in Alaskan waters, climate change is a better answer to the ills of the ocean.

Whether the current magnitude of hatchery production in Alaska is impacting wild stock production has been debated, especially in relation to pink salmon production in Prince William Sound. The most recent analyses suggest that variable conditions in the marine environment over time, rather than the number of hatchery fry, best explain the changes in wild stock production.

If hatcheries are not to blame why are fish farms?

Here are some recommendations from a extensive report on salmon aquaculture in North America called The Great Salmon Run:

Recognize the role of hatcheries. Salmon hatcheries account for a significant share of North American “wild”  salmon catches, particularly of pink and chum salmon. There are important issues related to the effects of hatcheries on salmon ecosystems, as well as to the economic role of hatcheries in commercial salmon fisheries and markets. These issues should be explicitly recognized in analysis and policy discussions about North American “wild” fisheries.

Recognize that the choices are not between wild and farmed salmon. It is essential to move away from the simplistic perspective that policy makers and consumers face a choice between wild salmon and farmed  salmon. Salmon farming is a major world industry which is here to stay. Wild salmon is incapable of supplying the much larger domestic and world salmon market which has been created by farmed salmon. Natural wild salmon, hatchery salmon, and salmon farming all offer potential economic opportunities and benefits to consumers. All also have inherent risks. The real issues are how to take responsible advantage of the potential economic opportunities and benefits to consumers from both wild and farmed salmon.

If you want to serve sustainable seafood choices at your dinner table use these certifications as guides, not gospel. These guides are right that it is important that we are critical about how our seafood is brought to our table and we should be aware of the source of our seafood, even if it is labeled sustainable.

We should use all the information available, not just seafood guides, to make good decisions about the seafood we buy.

Additional Reading:

* Extensive article and conversation with Monterey Bay Aquarium about how Alaskan fisheries are assessed in the Seafood Watch guide and how that will change in 2012 – written by Bertrand Charron

* Fishyfellow writes a blog about eco-certification labels and specifically focuses on the MSC

Here is a link to an interesting interview of the CEO of MSC, Robert Howes, by Bob Searle of The Bridgespan Group… One concern may be Howes’ view that “From the consumer’s perspective, they don’t need to know this amount of detail [the complexities of the MSC standard and how it is applied to determine whether or not a fishery is sustainable]. They need to see the eco label and know that that fishery has been through an incredibly rigorous, often lengthy certification and assessment process.” This sounds a little paternalistic.  Don’t worry your pretty little heads, just trust us, we have everything under control.  Surely it is the right of the public to question and challenge decisions that a third party is making regarding whether or not a fishery accessing a public resource really is sustainable?

* Food and Water Watch published a paper about eco-labels and their inadequacies.

  • The eco-label certification programs reviewed in this report demonstrate inadequacies with regard to some or all of the following: environmental standards, social responsibility and community relations, labor regulations, international law, and/or transparency.
  • Eco-labeling programs may cause increased public acceptance of products from controversial farming operations, such as coastal shrimp ponds and open-water aquaculture.
  • Eco-labeling programs fail to promote local seafood options or account for the miles that imported seafood travels.
  • Existing eco-labels have the potential to override the authority of governments, particularly in developing countries.
  • Each of the examined eco-labels that certify wild fisheries fails to meet Food and Agriculture Organization criteria for eco-labeling and certification programs for wild fisheries.
  • Financial constraints have affected the ability of some otherwise eligible fisheries to attain certification.
  • For some programs, there is a conflict between the intent to promote change within a certain fishery and the product labeling program, which can place a seal of approval on a product from a certified fishery before it has made conditional improvements in ecological performance to actually meet the standards for the label.
  • Eco-labels should not be permitted for forage fish. These types of fish are processed into fishmeal and fish oil for use in various products, including animal feed. Depleting forage fish stocks can damage marine food webs and negatively impact food security in developing countries.
 
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Posted by on April 13, 2012 in Opinion

 

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