Finding Sustainable Seafood is a Slippery Process

Holy mackerel

Atlantic Mackerel is generally considered to be sustainable.

The process of figuring out what seafood is truly sustainable tends to be about as slippery as seafood itself.  While scientists, fishermen, regulators, and seafood industry experts do agree that certain seafood populations are overfished, they disagree about almost everything else: whether current methods of counting fish are accurate, whether current ways of establishing fishing quotas make sense, whether the leading consumer guides to sustainable seafood are a blessing or a curse, and whether restaurants that stop selling “red-list” seafoods are being responsible or harming the fishing industry.

In an effort to encourage public understanding and dialog about the topic, the Museum of Science and a host of other organizations sponsored a “teach-in” at the Harvard University Science Center on Sunday, April 29, 2012 as part of the ongoing “Let’s Talk About Food” series. The four-hour session, organized by food writer/editor Louisa Kasdon, featured over a dozen  speakers and moderators, including Four Fish author Paul Greenberg, chef/author Barton Seaver, Legal Sea Foods CEO Roger Berkowitz, restaurateur Gordon Hamersley, Boston Globe business writer Jenn Abelson, and New York Times New England Bureau Chief Abby Goodnough, to name just a few.

New England fishermen have been sharply critical of the way that seafood populations are assessed and annual catch limits have been set, warning that the local fishing industry cannot survive under current conditions.  Panelist Vito Giacalone, Chairman of Governmental Affairs for the Northeast Seafood Coalition (NSC), an organization of commercial fishing businesses in the northeast US, pointed out that the fishermen are not critical of the science, but of how it is being applied to set fishing regulations.

He said that the unpredictability and uncertainty of annual catch limits are making fishing economically unviable. By the time the fish population becomes stable and the quotas are raised, the fishermen may have already lost their livelihoods and consumers gotten used to eating other fish.  “Once you lose the shore-side infrastructure and the market share, you can’t get them back,” he warned.  NSC recommends that all parties agree on the biological and economic “sweet spot” for the catch level and maintain predictable catch limits.

Fellow panelist John Williamson, president of Stellwagen Alive! Friends of Our National Marine Sanctuary, and a founding principal and co-leader of the Marine Resource Education Program, was upbeat about fishery management. “Sustainable fishing is a process of continuous improvement. Wild fish stocks are a renewable resource if we manage them as a renewable resource.”

He cited the success story of the Atlantic sea scallops.  The scallop landings were down to 12 million pounds in 1998, but they were put on a sustainable management platform and were built back up to 57 million pounds in 2010.  Haddock is another success story, he said.

“We’ve learned a lot about managing fisheries in New England,” according to Williamson. “We need to figure out how to scale the economic and community structure to match what we now understand about sustainability.” He recommended NOAA’s Fish Watch for up–to-date information on seafood sustainability.

Although I left the teach-in with much greater knowledge, I’d still have trouble identifying which seafoods are truly sustainable.  None of the panelists seemed to agree with Whole Foods’ recent decision to stop selling some fish species caught by certain methods that are “redlisted” by consumer seafood buying guidelines.  They argued that any fish that’s sold at a legitimate seafood dealer will have been caught within the catch limits.

Everyone stressed the importance of looking at the quality of the fish, talking to the fisherman, going out with them on the boats, and asking about the fishing methods and how they are harvested–“Doing your own research”–even though that’s not easy for the average person to do.

The answer seems to be to find the restaurants and stores that share your values and take the time to do the research for you.  But even finding the restaurants and stores that you trust–and can afford–may take a bit of research.


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