In the cacophonous big tent of sustainable seafood options, how to pick the winners? Now that sustainability matters and there’s a thousand versions for sale, which can rebuild our oceans and thrive in the marketplace?
It won’t do to build a stunning model fishery that can’t compete. Who’s going to pay $500 each for sustainable harpoon-caught shrimp?
And we can’t bet our future on empty words. What do we gain if every fish is called sustainable while overfishing goes on?
There is a place for many different flavors of sustainability. There are certainly high-end niche markets that will reward the most sustainable catch of our favorite high-priced seafood. And if sustainability can be delivered by Wal-mart with “always lower prices,” then the marketplace really will create more sustainable fisheries. These vastly different markets serve distinct buyers and they’ll probably rely on different sustainable seafood products.
Is there a place for everyone who’s trying to get in right now? Or are there some ideas that just won’t fly? And should the marketplace decide, or do we need something more, some regulations or standards like USDA Organic? What does the future hold for sustainable seafood?
I think some trends are obvious. First, sustainability is a way of thinking more than a precisely defined set of measurable criteria. When people commit to sustainability, the most important thing is to develop new sustainable thinking and not merely adjust the details of today’s fishing. Over time, we’ll learn more and revise our management plans, and good sustainable thinking will carry us through all of the challenges. Today’s precise “sustainable” standards may look unsustainable using tomorrow’s better knowledge of ocean ecosystems and fishing impacts.
Second, sustainability is not just about using inefficient fishing methods. We won’t get to sustainability by locking in place some romantic vision of noble fisheries that use yesterday’s supposedly “kinder & gentler” technology. We’re going to need every bit of our ingenuity to create tomorrow’s sustainable fisheries. The most sustainable fishing of tomorrow will probably be done using tomorrow’s best high-tech gear. There’s not a great history of success for regulating fisheries by requiring inefficiency.
Third, sustainable fishing may not provide as many fishing jobs as today’s unsustainable fishing. Some people are probably going to have to go out of the fishing business to create a prosperous and sustainable future. We have too many fishing fleets that have been bloated by wrong-headed government subsidies, and that’s actually the root of unsustainable fishing. Fish can’t provide jobs for everyone who wants them. Fisheries can not be a jobs program if we want to make them sustainable.
Finally, and this was my main advice to the Seafood Watch Program...we’ll see if they find it useful. Conservationists should try to help create a viable path to sustainability. It’s not good enough to articulate some grand high goal, and stand back and criticize anyone who doesn’t meet it. That’s preachy, soapbox environmentalism, and it’s not going to solve the problem. It’s fine to talk about ultimate goals, but it’s even better to help fisheries get to the goals. I think too many of my colleagues don’t see the need to create a path to sustainability, they prefer to talk about how high to "set the bar" of sustainability. And many think the most noble thing is to set the bar so high that there isn't one fishery in the world that meets the standard. Those can be fine ideas, but they don't have much practical value.
Anyone else care to offer some thoughts on the future of sustainable seafood? I’m all ears, and deeply curious.