What Does ‘Sustainably-Sourced Seafood Actually Mean?’
I realised after my last blog, that I tend to throw the word ‘sustainable seafood’ about a lot and there is still confusion as to the meaning. A New Zealand friend ‘seriously joked’, how can my fish products be sustainable when you eat then. Since I have taken a position to continue to education this issue, I thought it best to write a piece offering more explanation. In pulling the article together, I came across a great article by Sophie Hirsh from the online periodical ‘Green Matters’. She writes very well on the matter, so I thought I’d letter her explain.
Overfishing is warming the world’s oceans, depleting fish populations, and even leading some scientists to predict that we will have more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 — meaning now is a critical time to look at the human consumption of sea animals.
In recent years, certifications such as “sustainable seafood” or “sustainably-caught seafood” have risen in popularity. But the long list of problems in the fishing industry are enough to make any environmentalist wonder: What does sustainable seafood actually mean? Is sustainable seafood really that much better for the environment? And is there a way to actually eat sea animals sustainably and ethically, or is sustainable seafood just a form of greenwashing, aka a marketing term to make customers feel better about eating aquatic animals?
First, What is seafood?
Seafood refers to any aquatic animal that humans kill to eat. This primarily includes various species of fish (such as tuna, salmon, trout, and mackerel) and shellfish (such as lobster, shrimp, clams, and mussels).
Most fish are caught from the ocean using trawling methods, which use large nets to collect sea animals — unfortunately, this process is inherently unsustainable as it results in unfathomable amounts of plastic entering the oceans, and it almost always results in bycatch.
What is bycatch?
Bycatch is when trawling nets (massive nets that boats — often boats the size of football fields — pull through the ocean) incidentally catch non-target marine life, such as sea turtles, sea birds, dolphins, porpoises, whales, sharks, and juvenile fish. Animals caught as bycatch typically wind up dead, either due to getting tangled in fishing nets, or drowning to death after being pulled out of the water. Fishermen then throw the bycatch bodies back into the ocean, typically dead or dying. It’s estimated that as much as 40 percent of global marine life catch is bycatch. It’s also estimated that trawlers can catch up to 20 pounds of bycatch for each pound of fish. Even as fishing technologies have evolved over the years, bycatch remains a significant issue and threat to oceans.
What is sustainable seafood?
When seafood packaging claims its contents are certified sustainable, it means that the fish were declared as sustainably caught by either an organization, private company, or government agency. The requirements to get a sustainable seafood certification from the varying entities differ.For example, according to the U.S. government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, for seafood to be considered sustainable by law in the U.S., the fishery management plan is supposed to: “Consider social and economic outcomes for fishing communities, prevent overfishing, rebuild depleted stocks, minimize bycatch and interactions with protected species, and identify and conserve essential fish habitat.”
Basically, “sustainable seafood” means the fishery claims to be making efforts to kill fish in a manner and rate that our oceans can maintain.
However, it’s important to remember than like any other industry, the fishing industry exists primarily for economic reasons — most major fisheries are probably more concerned with making a profit than they are with protecting the oceans. If protecting the oceans was a top priority to these companies, then they would do more than simply alter their fishing practices to be just a little bit more sustainable — they would stop commercially fishing entirely.
What are some sustainable seafood labels or certifications?
A few popular sustainable seafood labels include the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, Naturland, and Best Aquaculture Practices. Each group has different standards for fisheries to qualify to use its label on packaging, so you can check out their websites for more information on how they evaluate fisheries.
Ms Hirsh, then takes her article into a discourse on whether we should fish at all or turn to a more vegan based diet and lifestyle. She postulates ‘with fish populations declining in concerning ways, what gives humans the right to take fish from the oceans at all? Further, if humans drastically reduced the rate at which they commercially take fish from the oceans, there could be a restoration in marine biodiversity, oceans warming could be slowed and a climate crisis mitigated’. I do agree with her philosophy BUT these battles take time. A recent survey in the USA on seafood purchasing habits found that nearly 80 percent of those surveyed who regularly eat sea animals consider it important their seafood is caught sustainably; about 50 percent of people surveyed said they would pay at least 10 percent more money for fish if it was caught sustainably. This is all very very positive. So lets continue those baby steps.