Here’s the catch: More sustainable seafood requires exerting pressure up the supply chain

This is part 2 of a series on improving market-based seafood sustainability initiatives, inspired by a recent article published by an international team of researchers in “Oryx: The International Journal of Conservation.” (See Oryx volume 44, pp. 45-56 doi:10.1017/S0030605309990470. Summaries available from Science Daily, AFP.) Part 1, “Why seafood wallet cards can be the wrong bait for consumers,” looked at the shortcomings of consumer-based campaigns. This one will explore some market-based solutions that consumers can help make happen; a third post will look at more big-picture solutions.

When it comes to choosing sustainable seafood, it’s generally a good practice for eaters to move down the food chain to smaller, non-fish-eating fish and sea creatures. But when dealing with the supply side, we need to move up the supply chain to wholesalers, retailers, and restaurants. That’s just one of a number of market-based mechanisms proposed recently by an international team of experts in the academic journal Oryx. This post will look at a few ideas related to labeling and the seafood supply chain.

The labeling wish list

Market-based efforts are only as good as the traceability and labels — misleading, inaccurate or incomplete information will lead to unsustainable buying decisions or misperception about fishery conditions. It’s critical that labeling standards be improved. At the most basic level, an eater or buyer needs to know the species, the location of the fish’s capture (or farm), and the fishing method (or farming method) used. I’d add a slightly more difficult item to that list: for farmed fish, what were they fed? Meaning, was the diet heavy on wild fish, or rendered chicken parts, or something better like grains and greens? (For more on these aquaculture issues, see part 1 and part 2 of my series on aquaculture.)

fish sticksFor processed fish like frozen fillets or canned fish, a loophole in U.S. country of origin labeling prevents smart buying. Currently, the rules only require that the country of processing is listed; listing the source of the fish is completely optional. To empower buyers to make smart choices, this regulatory loophole should be closed.

Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification is a good model of traceability, because its certification defines the species, location, and catch method: see the MSC page on Alaska salmon for example. The council’s certification process itself, however, is another matter — the Oryx paper’s authors raise some serious concerns about the MSC and other eco-labels, and several controversies have surfaced over MSC’s work in recent weeks — and will have to wait until another day. (In the meantime, see Politics of the Plate, Good Magazine, The Tyee and Blogfish for coverage of some of the issues.)

New technology could help seafood buyers identify and trace their purchases. The scientists who wrote the paper on tuna DNA analysis in PLoS One conceive of a cell phone-sized device that could quickly determine the species of a piece of seafood, thus enabling individuals to confirm that they are getting what they expect. There is other, far less futuristic technology that could help: the more boring things known as bar codes and lot numbers, which could be put to much better use. For example, a restaurant could list the code for the fish on the menu and a diner could type that into their mobile device to find out more about its origin. In his excellent book about the fishing industry, “Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood,” Taras Grescoe mentions that a Spanish anchovy canning company has been doing something like this with their product: each can has a code that can be entered into a website, which will then give you information about when the fish were caught, which boat was used, and so on.

Cast a wider net

The sustainable seafood counter at Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco. (Photo by Kirsten Bourne/Bi-Rite)

The sustainable seafood counter at Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco. (Photo by Kirsten Bourne/Bi-Rite)

Supermarkets buy and sell a lot of seafood, so their practices have substantial influence. In recent days, we have seen some positive actions by big retailers:

  • Target has pledged to remove farmed salmon from its shelves
  • Safeway has agreed to discontinue sales of three threatened fish (monkfish, red snapper and grouper) until populations have recovered (news release at Fishwise)
  • The international processor High Liner Foods announced a strengthened collaboration with the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (PDF)
  • Food-service giant Compass Group implementing sustainable purchasing standards for farmed shrimp (news release).

Pledges are nice, but it is critical that when a company makes a pledge that it lives up to it. In 2006, Walmart promised to purchase all of their wild fish from MSC-certified fisheries by the end of 2010. (Marc Gunther covered the 2006 announcement for Fortune.) The authors suggest that Walmart is unlikely to meet its target. If Walmart fails to meet their pledge, the failure should become a publicity headache, one hopes.

The blame and shame game

For any company, its reputation is a valuable asset. And so, the authors point out that campaigns aimed at improving or demeaning a company’s reputation can be effective. The list approach – the “10 Best Supermarkets for Sustainable Seafood” or the “10 Worst” – can be a good one. Companies that are concerned about their reputation will strive to move up the good list or get off of the bad list.

fish2fork-logo-200x68-whitebgThe new fish2fork project (from the people who brought you “The End of the Line” documentary; read the Ethicurean review) takes this approach, including Top 10 and Bottom 10 lists as well as ratings of individual restaurants. Reporter Jane Black covered fish2fork’s launch a few months ago at the Washington Post’s food blog:

[Fish2fork founder and author Charles] Clover’s hope is that bad publicity will inspire restaurants into changing the kind of seafood they serve and encouraging a dialogue about sustainability with customers. The release of the British edition of the guide in October sent an instant shudder through the white-tabled restaurants in London. Within months, endangered species such as bluefin tuna and Atlantic halibut disappeared from many menus. Raymond Blanc, chef of the elegant Manoir and a strong proponent of sustainability, was “apoplectic” that he received only half a blue fish, says Clover. Within a short period, he had remade the menu and posted his seafood sustainability policy online. He now has the top UK rating of four blue fish.

“Blanc is a huge proponent of organics and animal welfare. He had a policy, but he hadn’t communicated it to his staff or his diners. He turned his whole business around. That’s very impressive. That’s our mandate,” Clover said. [Emphasis mine]

Tools like fish2fork can be enhanced by social media like blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and the masses of networking methods that I’ve never even heard of, as they allow for rapid transmission of news and opinion.

Additionally, one-time stunts can be effective, like Greenpeace’s “crime scenes” in Toronto, where a team of activists set up a crime scene in front of eight stores while delivering a message to the media and public about a market’s sale of Red List seafood — ‘caught red-handed selling Red-List fish’ was their slogan. The stores quickly pledged to work with the MSC to improve their stocking practices.

It’s a multi-level operation

As you can see, improvements can be made all along the seafood supply chain, from improved traceability to the source, to signage at the seafood counter in the supermarket, to social media. And many of these can be nudged by individuals, through sharp questioning of a server at a restaurant, a tweet of praise for a supermarket’s initiative, or any number of actions. But some of the most effective solutions are going to be made on industry-wide and national levels. I’ll look at those in Part 3.

2 Responsesto “Here’s the catch: More sustainable seafood requires exerting pressure up the supply chain”

  1. Marc -

    I’ve enjoyed this series. Insightful. Would love to talk to you about the organization I work with, it’s unique in its focus and, I believe, the most effective way to create a sustainable fishery.

    My contact is below.

    All the best,
    International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF)

  2. Be prepared to pay extra for this. This type of certification and traceability costs money, as well as time which costs money. It costs the farmer or fisher more money. It costs the shipper more money. It costs the processor more money. All this must get passed along to the consumer in the form of higher food prices. A reality.