Why seafood wallet cards can be the wrong bait for consumers

Seafood guides and other consumer-based campaigns are an important part of the quest for sustainable seafood and healthy oceans, but so far they have not shown enough positive results: bigger efforts are needed. That’s the main conclusion of a new article, “Conserving wild fish in a sea of market-based efforts,” published by an international team of fishery experts in “Oryx: The International Journal of Conservation.” A constructive and practical critique of the many earnest efforts to protect our oceans and their inhabitants from our insatiable appetites, the piece also contains ideas for more effective market-based (as opposed to regulation-based) tactics.

It is a complicated work, full of interesting details, including a valuable timeline of high-profile fish campaigns around the world and a very useful list of references. In this first post, I’ll review the authors’ views on shortcomings of consumer campaigns; the next will look at recommendations for more effective market-based approaches.

One fish, two fish: red fish, blue fish

Large-scale fish campaigns have been around for about 20 years. The first big one was “dolphin-safe tuna” in the late 1980s, followed by two other important firsts: a seafood guide for consumers in 1998, and a wallet card in 2000 (from the Monterey Bay Aquarium). So given the variety of campaigns, decades of work, and millions of pamphlets devoted to smart shopping, fishery certification, and boycotts, why are there so few significant results to celebrate? The biggest two culprits, according to the authors, are confusion and mislabeling*.

Seafood is complicated. An ethical eater needs to keep track of which species it is, where it was caught (or farmed) and how it was caught (or farmed). Consequently, eating lists like Seafood Watch go beyond species to include information about how and where the fish was caught or farmed, which is a lot of information for the buyer and everyone else in the supply chain to track. Each of these components can breed confusion: Seafood names change (for example, the rebranding of the Patagonian toothfish to Chilean seabass) or go by different names in different places. Servers and retailers often lack a basic understanding of fishing methods — the differences between longlining, pole/troll, and bottom trawling — or information has been lost in the supply chain. Geographical distinctions can be troublesome — considering Chilean seabass again, one small part of the Southern Ocean has been certified as a sustainable fishery, but seabass caught anywhere everywhere is considered unsustainable.

seafoodguideAnd adding to the confusion, lists from different organizations sometimes give the same fish different ratings. I experienced some confusion first-hand recently, when I was dining with a friend in Oakland’s Temescal district (“rundown to reborn” is how the Wall Street Journal put it). One of the dishes featured “ahi tuna,” and so I looked for it on my copy of the newly released January 2010 Seafood Watch card. Although there were almost a dozen tuna listings, ahi was not among them and our mental seafood thesauruses weren’t coming up with any answers. So we passed on the dish, even though we could have pulled out an iPhone and done an Internet search, but didn’t. When I got home, I ran a search for ahi at the Seafood Watch website and found that it is both another name for bigeye (Thunnus obesus) and yellowfin (T. albacares) tuna. Both the these fish get either a Good Alternative rating (for troll- and pole-caught fish) or Avoid (for long-line-caught fish), so in this case, two species sharing the vernacular name is not a significant issue. If they had different ratings, however, then we’d have had a serious dilemma. (Note that ahi is not an FDA-approved market name, and only appears on the FDA’s seafood list in the vernacular category.) There is a similar situation with tongol tuna (Thunnus tonggol), which also goes by the name “longtail,” while the Seafood Watch list includes tongol but not longtail.

Fortunately, that night’s menu had grilled fresh sardines, considered a Best Choice (and a Sunset magazine and O magazine superfood, plus something you don’t see too often) and squid from Monterey Bay (a Good Alternative). We ordered and enjoyed both dishes.

Bait & switched
Mislabeling of fish species or place of origin is rampant in the seafood, grocery, and restaurant business. There are many causes: misuse of regional vernacular names, ignorance, a poorly documented supply chain, or simple greed, to name a few. In some cases, diners who are trying to avoid eating “red list” fish might be inadvertently eating that fish – perhaps ordering yellowfin tuna sashimi but being served bluefin, as a recent paper in PLoS One about tuna in sushi restaurants revealed. (I reviewed the paper for the Ethicurean.) Many fish counters stock “red snapper,” but they are actually selling a variety of different species, is one of the findings reported in a short communication in Nature (sub. req’d). Yet the real red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus) is highly endangered. The authors argue that the public thus gets the false impression that red snapper is plentiful and that supply is keeping up with demand, when in fact the population is in a dire condition. Other examples of mislabeling have been documented in a report from the Congressional Research Service (available from Open CRS) and a blog post by Litbrit, who recounted potentially deadly pufferfish (a.k.a. blowfish or fugu) imported from China but labeled as “monkfish,” something that roused the FDA into action.

It’s hard for the consumer to do much about mislabeled fish besides asking lots of questions at the restaurant and fish shop, which will hopefully make their way back to the kitchen, and then to the buyer, and further up the supply chain. Likewise, restaurant, caterers, and food-service buyers need to demand better information from their suppliers about the source of their products as well as accuracy in labeling.

Causes of ineffectiveness

The problems of confusion and mislabeling aren’t exclusive to the realm of seafood, of course. Similar obstacles face anyone trying to “chew the right thing,” like CAFO chicken labeled as pastured, servers who can’t explain where their restaurant’s beef comes from (for example, a place that sources high-quality, local grass-fed but has a server who ignorantly bragged that it’s corn-fed), loopholes in the organic standards, and so on.

At the beginning of the post, I wrote that the Oryx paper contends that current efforts haven’t shown enough results. The dolphin-safe tuna label, for example, has been around for decades, surviving several attacks from the fishing industry and their allies in government (like one in 2002-3). But dolphin populations haven’t risen as much during the era of the label as scientists had hoped, as this article by Jane Kay in the S.F. Chronicle reports.

Two studies cited in the paper found that the other various seafood lists and guides have had highly limited impact on overall buying habits. In another, real-world experiment (thanks to Jennifer Jacquet for the reference) researchers from UC Berkeley examined the effectiveness of traffic-light style signage and mercury data from FishWise in a S.F. Bay Area grocery chain, with two stores installing the signs and eight stores acting as the control.** Overall, sales of green-labeled seafood increased by 29% per week, sales of yellow-labeled seafood decreased by 27% per week, but red-labeled products had no change in sales. The mercury advisory was found to have a significant effect on shopping behavior for the green and yellow products, so the performance of the traffic lights on their own was disappointing.

Despite these disappointing results, it’s not time to stop consulting your favorite seafood list, website, or iPhone app — they remain tremendously useful tools for those who want to vote with their forks. And parts of the market are responsive to financial pressure. But, like the discussions around organic produce or humanely-raised animals, there comes a point where individual action needs to be supplemented by something bigger, like improved practices at the wholesale level, and even at the national and international government level. That next level is where the authors of the Oryx article apply most of their recommendations, and which I’ll review in a future post.


Jennifer Jacquet, John Hocevar, Sherman Lai, Patricia Majluf, Nathan Pelletier, Tony Pitcher, Enric Sala, Rashid Sumaila and Daniel Pauly, “Conserving wild fish in a sea of market-based efforts.” Oryx, 44:45-56 (January 2010) doi:10.1017/S0030605309990470

Lead author Jennifer Jacquet wrote some impressions about the article at her Guilty Planet blog. It was also covered by Science Daily, AFP, and New Scientist.

* The full list of shortcomings of consumer-oriented campaigns: variations in how sustainability is defined; failing to consider the full life-cycle environmental effects of a particular choice; that boycotts can hurt small businesses and fishers who are observing best practices (small-scale fishing enterprises are less damaging, use less fuel and employ more people); flaws in the MSC eco-label; consumer confusion; and mislabeling.

** Eric Hallstein and Sofia Villas-Boas of UC Berkeley’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics Are Consumers Color Blind?: An Empirical Investigation of a Traffic Light Advisory for Sustainable Seafood. Those who are interested in consumer behavior might want to check out this paper for its introductory review of previous such research.

4 Responsesto “Why seafood wallet cards can be the wrong bait for consumers”

  1. Great article. Choosing sustainable seafood is possibly one of the most mind-boggling and important dining choices we can make. I was joined at my hip to my seafood wallet card, and now can’t imagine shopping or dining without the iPhone app, which gives me more information. Sure, they’re not complete, but they’re better than nothing.

    I’d like to see fish labeling regulated in the same way as produce. In Canada, fresh produce must list the country of origin on the packaging or beside the price in the produce section. If fish counters had to list ocean of origin (and country registering the catch) it’d go a long way to making some choices easier. I can’t believe it’d be that difficult. 

  2. Dave says:

    Thanks for covering this topic. I too get frustrated when waiters don’t know where seafood came from or how it was raised; particularly aquaculture vs wild-caught fish. Drug residues have been detected in aquaculture raised fish and shrimp from SE Asia and China when they are tested upon entering the US or EU. One point that can get overlooked when talking about consumer seafood wallet cards is that they can influence more than just consumers– they can also change the seafood industry for groups given a yellow or red mark. Admittedly, it is a round-about way of changing things, but I think it may happen. The stoplight in-store seafood signs are great for folks who don’t know about the wallet cards. I’ve been to one of the stores in the study, Andronico’s on Shattuck Ave and thought it was helpful. How do we get other groceries to follow suit? The co-author on the Jacquet study, John Hocevar, works at Greenpeace on the supermarket scorecard campaign trying to change supermarket buying behavior, which I think holds a lot of promise for leveraging systemic change. I’d be really interested in a blog post interviewing John on how the Greenpeace project is going.

  3. Ken Peterson says:

    Thanks for the long and thoughtful post. On behalf of Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, a few thoughts:

    – The authors of the Oryx paper are right in one respect about consumer-focused seafood programs: In and of themselves, they won’t drive change in the marketplace — or on the water. But Seafood Watch has never relied just on grassroots consumer efforts. From the beginning, we’ve done as the Oryx authors recommend and partnered with major buyers whose purchases can drive change in the marketplace.

    – Consumer activism is responsble for elevating the issue to a level where major businesses are taking notice and changing their purchasing practices. Monterey Bay Aquarium and Seafood Watch alone work with the two largest food service companies in North America (Compass Group and ARAMARK), major retailers (including Target stores) and seafood suppliers (Santa Monica Seafood, the largest supplier in southern California and the Southwest). These companies are shifting millions of pounds of seafood to sustainable sources each year.

    – Some of the Oryx data about effectiveness are out of date. More recent data show that restaurants are increasingly dropping non-sustainable seafood from their menus. Tools like Seafood Watch pocket guides and the iPhone app are helping drive that change.

    Finally, to the issue of confusion — how to figure out what to buy at the restaurant or the market:

    There’s solid science behind every recommendation, but the waiter or fishmonger may not have all the answers. At that point, you make a seafood choice that you’re ethically comfortable with. In the case you mentioned above, you went straight for green- and yellow-list choices. Bravo! Even restaurants that serve red-list items should have some good selections. The act of asking questions and seeking more information puts the restaurant on notice that the issue MATTERS to you.

    That’s a great place to begin.

    Ken Peterson
    Communications Director
    Monterey Bay Aquarium

  4. The widespread mislabeling implies it “all tastes like chicken” syndrome. In other words people can’t tell the difference what they’re eating. With this thought it is best to eat the thing that makes the least problem. I rarely eat seafood, although I would love to eat more. The issue for me is that it is not local and is expensive, which it should be. Capitalism to the rescue. This whole issue of the ‘answer’ being so complex just adds to my reluctance to consume seafood. The next issue for me is that so much of it originates in China – home of toxic foods. That right there makes me skip it and move along.