At the intersection of marine conservation and social, economic, environmental and food justice

Thursday, April 26, 2012

When Buying Fish, Make it Personal!

by Boyce Thorne Miller
NAMA's Science Coordinator
Fish glistens when fresh
Time to market … time to buy … too long
Find your own fishermen
As discussed on Niaz’ last blog, Whole Foods has decided to stop selling any wild fish listed on the red lists of Monterey Bay Aquarium (Seafood Watch) and Blue Ocean Institute, which will have a dramatic effect on New England fishermen.  We also hope the “wild” qualification does not open the door to even less sustainable aquaculture fish, but that’s a topic for another blog.

The red list is only part of Whole Foods’ developing marketing policy—the part that gives them a simple formula for what seafood not to sell.  If you go to their website or read recent news coverage of their decision, it is clear that the other half of the story is their continued use of eco-certifications and green and yellow lists to decide what they do want to sell.   For certified seafood, they rely heavily upon the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a non-governmental organization that was developed through a partnership between international environmental organization, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and multinational food wholesaler Unilever.  MSC has become an independent NGO  and expanded its board and advisory bodies to include a number of different interests distributed globally, primarily in the developed world, with an eye toward global markets. 

All these programs use very similar standards or principles as the basis of their ratings or certifications (view their standards and criteria at links above).  While the specifics may vary in verbiage and implementation, they all are looking for fisheries that are carried out in a way that do not cause the decline of the targeted stock and that contribute to it’s recovery if it has been depleted; that do not harm other species or the ecosystem; and that are well managed.  How the assessments are made, however, may vary from system to system and over time. 

For instance, the MSC was initially lauded by scientists, environmentalists and fisheries experts.  But over time, questions have been raised, such as those published by a group of scientists in Nature (Nature vol 467 (2010), pp 28-29), who looked at the whole certification program and determined that the standards were being enforced more laxly over time, and they called attention to financial conflicts of interest actually caused by the certification process. They expressed the concern that the program was in danger of losing its credibility, and worse of further endangering wild fish and marine ecosystems through market promotion of unsustainable fisheries labeled as sustainable.  More recently a group of Norwegian scientists (Marine Policy 36 (2012) 1123–1130) analyzed whether the certifications had caused Norwegian fisheries to substantially change their practices and concluded it had had no effect. [1]

Perhaps the greatest weakness of both certification programs and consumer guides that rate fisheries for sustainability is that to keep going they must continue to find fisheries that are certifiable or that can be rated sustainable, so they may be under pressure to relax some standards.  The red-yellow-green lists run the added risk of driving the best fisheries (rated green) into trouble because of significantly increased demand in the marketplace, which can translate into increased fishing pressure if management and monitoring are not stringent enough. 

So, it is not a case of letting someone else do all the work while you sit back and blindly accept their recommendations.  It is how the standards are interpreted, and how rigorously and completely they are applied in the review process that the consumer or conservationist needs to explore in order to know whether it reflects their own values and policies or not. 

We at NAMA believe that several factors make a difference, for example:  the scales over which the standards are applied; the scale of fishing operations; whether locally based fisheries are distinguished from global or multinational fishing companies participating in multiple fisheries; whether the fishery is feeding local/regional markets or global markets; whether genetic and geographic subpopulations of fish species are considered and on what area scale; the sources and kinds of data and information used; sources of uncertainty and what is done with the uncertainty.   Some of this information can be found in the methodology descriptions on the websites of the organizations providing the ratings or certification though not the results for each species they’ve reviewed.   In future blogs, I will try to evaluate these programs more closely.

I am particularly concerned about how the health of the fishery ecosystem is evaluated.  There are few single-species fisheries in the world, no matter how well they are managed, that assess the effect of the fishery on the greater ecosystem or that evaluate how well the design of the fishery conforms to the design of the ecosystem.

Furthermore, it is not apparent that any of these ratings or certifications include the socio-economic factors in the fishing communities.  The MSC program mentions the importance of that, but it isn’t clear how or if they incorporate it into their assessments.

And how many miles did the caught fish travel to get to your plate? None of the rating and certification systems mentioned pay attention to this, which we feel is a critical factor. They might look at fuel efficiency, but we are suggesting that there are ecological reasons for a bias in favor of local and regional marketing of seafood.  Local fish are fresher; and a fishery ecosystem is more sustainable if the fish caught there provide for people populating the regional land/sea ecosystem rather than trying to feed into a global distribution system, which is like opening up a hemorrhaging wound to the world.

Finally, all management of regional fisheries in the US and elsewhere is plagued by uncertainties.  It’s important for the ratings and certifications to evaluate the nature and magnitude of uncertainty in the context of each fishery being reviewed and to determine the validity of stock assessments and ecosystem assessments that are being produced in the context of that fishery’s management.

For any of the eco-certification processes it is important to know whether any of the certifications are being driven by political or economic pressure and what, if any, attempt there is to prevent that.  It is often difficult but extremely important to avoid the influence of big money.   Are the organizations influenced by or funded by big, multinational fishing interests and/or by the huge appetites of multinational marketers, such as Wal-Mart and many others, who need certified fish in great quantities?  I tend to believe the two are incompatible, but MSC is trying to make it work.

As Jennifer Jacquet, Daniel Pauly and their fellow scientists say in their critique of the MSC:  “This [loss of credibility] can be turned around only if the MSC creates more stringent standards, cracks down on arguably loose interpretation of its rules, and alters its process to avoid a potential financial incentive to certify large fisheries.”

Finally, regarding national standards in the Magnuson Stevens Act, as suggested by Niaz, these could provide another approach to ranking individual fisheries and fish in the marketplace.  The ten national standards might provide the basic principles for such an evaluation system.  But again it is how the standard are applied that makes such a system effective or not, in recovering fish stocks and protecting species diversity and ecosystem health.

We at NAMA have alternatives to the difficulty of becoming familiar with the decision-maze often associated with buying-guides and certifications.  We suggest starting with your own values and seeking answers to a few simple questions based on those.  It’s not difficult, since you are probably making other food decisions based on your personal principles all the time.  Just start fitting seafood into that picture. 

Do you favor locally produced food?  Well that’s an ecologically sound principle for buying fish for reasons mentioned above.  Do you want to eat low on the food chain?  Well consider something like fresh local herring – which should be consumed as food, thus eliminating the nutritional need for fish oil extracted from industrial scale fisheries that deprive the ocean of its foundation for the marine food chain.  Do you support local businesses?  Well, what about your local fishermen – try buying directly from them and supporting their communities at the same time.   And if you’re game, try getting whole fish and using as much of the fish as possible.  Do you support family farmers who give you better quality, more diverse food and do less harm to the environment than industrial farms?  Well seek out family fishermen for the same reasons, and find out locally which ones are more environmentally conscientious.  Are you willing to pay a little more for fresh wild-caught seafood, so that fishermen can catch fewer fish and still make a decent living?  If you are concerned that the best fisheries management practices be in place, well that might require a little more research and activism on your part, but there are local fishermen and organizations to help you.  So really—it’s not as difficult and confusing as it might seem—decide for yourself!

More on all this in future blogs.

 [1] We are trying to get permission to post or link to the full text of these articles, and if that is granted we will insert links here and in a future blog.  Some of you may have access through the linked journal websites.

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