Sunday, May 20, 2007

The future of sustainable seafood

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.


Hodad said...

sustainable seafood is about putting 20 fingerlings back where you just pulled that 20 pound grouper out of his hole
it is about using artesanal fishermen to catch and releasing by-catch, or using it for bait, consumption whatever but not trashing a living thing
it is about getting rid of the trawlers and the wait time to retrieve long line caught, like tuna heating up while thrashing and creating Histamine!
documenting ALL catches, each fish,
and educating the public
however the rule for USA consumers is cheap and quantity, but then at what 75% obesity, what can you say

Anonymous said...

Look for the blue eco-label of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) when buying seafood. The MSC eco-label shows that the seafood has come from a fishery that has been independently assessed and met the MSC's criteria for a sustianable fishery. The eco-label can be found in retailers around the world and on many different species of seafood. For more information see

Hodad said...

MSC is now suspect so having that label does NOT necesary mean your fish was caught sustainably
if you can pay for the assesment, and some have paid upwards of 1/4 million for it then you get to use that label
how can lobsters caught in the Sea of Cortez be sustainable, yea right

and as i have posted they were to look at blue whale food caught by ambassador seafoods in El Salvador by large trawl nets at deep depths and what happens to the by-catch etc etc etc
go figure
does MSC post the 'sustainable means' that meet those criteria and how,where,when,why these fish were caught, i think not
I work with/for Mr Fish
if anyone wants to know anything about the seafood business and fish, worldwide, ask him
but pay him, no more freebies

Mark Powell said...

I disagree that MSC is suspect. What are you referring to when you say that? The system isn't perfect but MSC is the best seafood ecolabel in existence.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, Mark, that the MSC may be the best 'ecolabel' in existence. But hodad26 has a good point in that it is most definably suspect when it costs the ridiculous amount that it does to get approved...or not approved. There are many smaller, sustainable fisheries that could never imagine getting an MSC label because of the astounding costs. Heck, there are even larger fisheries that have dumped alot of money and time to get approval, and it takes YEARS (see dungeness crab).
I think the average consumer could rely just as much, or more, on the Monterey Bay Aquarium seafood watch. They seem to be more on top of fishery status (which is often everchanging), and continually update things. What happens if something natural happens to a fish stock (which we may see soon due to global warming), will it take as long to get it off the MSC label as it did to put it on? Plus, in my experience, as soon as there is the amount of dollars behind something as there is behind the MSC, things tend to get a little skewed.

Anonymous said...

Sustinable fisheries is not about either markets or regulations. A market does not have a mind of it's own. It works more like "garbage in garbage out." For any market to work efficiently, two things are essential - perfect information and propert rights. Of course information comes at a cost and that is what groups like MSC, monterey bay etc are trying to do. I think they are doing a fine job. The issue I have with certification in general is, however, a moral/philosophical one. Where do we stop? How many layers of policing do we need to get a damn fish on my plate? And fish is not the only thing I eat. To think that all this is just to ensure that some one is doing their job right. And I'm sure that time is near where a new group is going to come up to see that groups like MSC and monterey bay are doing their job right.
Coming to the issue of property rights, most of the problems in our fisheries (including bycatch) or any other natural resource for that matter is a problem of undefined or ill-defined property rights. Since you are talking only about the market place here, I'll stick to the issue of property rights as it relates to sustainable seafood. Market price of a fish reflects only the cost of catching that fish. This is the basic reason why markets fail to address the issue of sustainability. Same for oil and natural gas. Market does not reflect the cost of using the resource itself ... or in other words it does not include the cost of a declining fish stock.
But anyway, on your idea of road to sustainability, I think its a practical and implementable solution. However, that is a slow process. I still think that the bulk of change has to come from the fishery management itself. Of course, markets can provide added pressure in the right direction. I would rather have the institutions to make the market place work rather than the market place trying to fix the institutions. But that said I would rather have change than no change ... whatever it takes to make that happen.

Hodad said...

MSC does very well, they are the industry standard
i am just saying some of the fisheries are suspect and I am in debate with MSC on that issue, they seem to agree with me
and as Anonymous made post, BY-CATCH is THE most relevant issue

hey i had Forum for the Future's definition of sustainable development
on my web site for over three years now
there are spome common sense solutions for common sense problems
but the 'glamorous way is not the best
lots getting on this 'sustainable bandwagon'
and i even have some issues with the Aquarium but hey it's California
be safe and eat mo fish!