Seafood Choices and the Sustainability Illusion

by Catherine Schmitt 

As I prepare to head south to the Boston Seafood Show, where I’ll be reporting for The Working Waterfront, I’ve been catching up on the latest national media stories on “sustainable seafood.” I don’t want to take an incredible bite only to find out that the fish I just sampled is not caught or raised “sustainably.”

A New York TimesRoom for Debate” feature asked various seafood “experts” to answer the question, “Is there a way to meet consumer demand for quality seafood and protect threatened marine life at the same time?”

Here is my quick attempt at a synthesis of their responses.

Author Callum Roberts said we need to place one-third of the ocean off-limits to fishing. A fine answer, but what do we eat? Author #2 Taras Grescoe also advocated for marine-protected areas, but provided some interim advice: be a bottom-feeder. Eat fish low on the food chain, like mackerel, sardines, and anchovies.

Jon Hoekstra of the World Wildlife Fund agreed that the logic of marine protected areas “makes sense.” Hoekstra talked about gear technology, creative designs that can select for only target fish, and not “bycatch” like sea turtles. Selectivity also was the theme of Diane Cowan of the Maine-based Lobster Conservancy, who said fishermen are removing too many young lobsters from the pool of potential reproducers—suggesting that we can’t take all of Grescoe’s small fish. The Nature Conservancy’s Mike Tetreault, also from Maine, mentioned selective gear and the need to develop it through collaborative research with fishermen, something Sea Grant’s been doing since the 1970s.

Massachusetts fisherman Vito Giacalone said all we have to do to meet consumer demand for quality seafood and protect threatened marine life at the same time is buy American, because “sustainability” is written in to our fisheries management policies. But we don’t buy American—91% of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported. Is this because our hunger is greater than what our own watery backyard can provide?

Perhaps for this reason, author #3 Paul Greenberg responded that we need smarter aquaculture to grow more fish, especially shellfish and “docile and fast-growing” fish like tilapia, barramundi, and pangasius.

As for other fish, we may have to pay more. Photographer-fisherman Corey Arnold credited “a better informed consumer…educated on the health and environmental benefits of wild salmon” for helping Alaskan salmon fishermen get better prices for their fish. Arnold did not mention where the consumer “education” and “information” came from (the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute?). Wherever it comes from, “knowledge means opportunity for higher valued niche markets,” wrote Arnold. “Although these markets could ultimately reduce catches, they might also save the small-scale fishermen that keep coastal communities thriving.”

The small-scale fishermen who keep coastal communities thriving are certainly the reasons why people in Maine are concerned about the state of seafood.

World Wildlife Fund’s Hoekstra noted that the right to fish is an important part of stewardship, and Ahmed Diamé of Greenpeace Africa encouraged small-scale fishermen to mobilize themselves to preserve their rights. Diamé said that “finding and exposing fishery scandals is also important to preserve local marine life and livelihoods.”

Perhaps this was the intent of NPR’s three-part investigative series on sustainable seafood and the Marine Stewardship Council.

As part of the series, NPR surveyed 3,000 Americans, 80 percent of them who eat seafood regularly said it is “important” or “very important” that their seafood is sustainably caught. Many of them use labels like the blue-fish-checkmark MSC logo to make seafood choices. The survey did not, however, ask Americans the primary reason why they eat seafood, or what they think “sustainably caught” means, if it can ever really be defined. (These insights may come in the future from results of the current Sea Grant research of Laura Lindenfield and Brianne Suldovsky.)

If we look deeply into any fishery—many production systems, really—we may come to the conclusion that sustainability is an illusion, as the NPR series highlighted in the case with sharks being a casualty of the MSC-certified swordfish. To eat, to sustain human society, is to exact costs on other societies.

So we are forced to compromise, and in so doing we have to ask, why are we eating seafood? Because the answer isn’t “because it is sustainable,” but something else. We are eating because it tastes good, is good for us, or supports our local community. The compromise comes when 80% of us also want the seafood to be “sustainability caught.”

Example: If you want to eat local fish (local in this case meaning fish from the Gulf of Maine harvested by Maine fishermen and landed in Maine ports), you can’t also eat MSC-certified fish, because there aren’t any, although lobster is on its way.

In reply to the NPR series, National Fisherman’s Jessica Hathaway commented that it’s nearly impossible to isolate one fishery, label it sustainable and walk away. Instead of relying on labels, we should remember that “U.S. fisheries are overall very healthy.”

“If we turn our focus to eating a variety of foods in general, we will be assured of supporting more local growers and small-boat harvesters as well as keeping a check on the exploitation of our natural resources,” wrote Hathaway.

Should we let “sustainability” become a prop for McDonald’s wild Alaskan pollock Fish McBites and Wendy’s premium North Pacific cod fillet sandwich, something used in creating a desired effect (sales) rather than a meaningful word used in conversations about the future of food, human health, and the oceans? What words do we use instead?

This is what I’ll be thinking about as I sit in on conference sessions (“the state of tuna fisheries today,” “combating seafood substitution and mislabeling,” “perceptions of sustainable seafood”) and browse the thousands of exhibit booths. And if I use the above as guidance for what to sample at the spectacle of gluttony that is the seafood show, I will try to mostly eat:

1. Lots of different seafood.
2. Seafood from the United States.
3. Small fish and sea vegetables.

But just like a label, I can’t make any promises.