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

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Why sustainable seafood is more than a green list or an eco-label

-by Pamela Flash

It's August, and go time for local food. The farmers markets and CSA boxes are full to bursting with ripe, seasonal produce - tomatoes of all colors and shapes, zucchini, corn, fragrant basil. And don't forget striped bass, bluefish, scallops, cod - the list goes on. 

For years, we've been getting to know our local farmers and appreciating how great and varied their food is. So isn’t the next logical step to get to know our local fishermen?

In 2011, U.S. commercial fishermen caught 7.9 billion pounds of edible seafood.  But people in the U.S. consumed 4.7 billion pounds of seafood and 91% of that was imported.  I have to ask myself: is this sustainable?

We certainly catch enough fish here in the U.S., why do we need to import fish? Why do we need to eat fish that has traveled thousands of miles to get to us?  I know most people don’t think about the increase carbon footprint that imported fish is creating.  Often we don’t think about how about how long the fish has been out of the water from the time it was caught. The local food movement is growing and I think fish needs to be part of that movement. 

According to Matt Tinning, Executive Director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, Americans are unknowingly creating demand for imported and unsustainable fish.

Many of us rely on places like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s lists and the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) eco-label to determine what fish is sustainable. When I read MSC director Kerry Coughlin’s article for Huffington Post Green, Seafood Sustainability Requires a Global Approach, I realized that the MSC has made headway on addressing the need for a global approach for sustainable fish.

But it’s expensive to be on the MSC’s list and get their certification. Many small-scale fishing operations cannot afford to get the certification, just as many farmers cannot afford to pay for organic certification.  The science used by MSC to measure fish populations is one piece of the story – but there are many factors that come into play when you’re talking about sustainable seafood, like imported fish’s impact on our costal communities.  

U.S. fishermen are forced to fish at higher volumes and sell at lower prices in order to compete with imported fish.  The idea of who can fish, where they can fish and what can be fished is a global issue, with a lot of regulations controlling the ocean.

As the fishing industry consolidates, our local fishermen are struggling to make a living.  I want to support local fisherman because they are the best stewards of the oceans they fish in. They want healthy fish populations and healthy oceans because they depend on healthy oceans to supply fish to their communities and to wholesalers.

Most likely U.S. fishermen live in a fishing community and were taught by that community about what is okay to fish based on seasonality.  It is essential for them to assess current fish populations and not overfish.

I am not sure that commercial conglomerates have the health of the eco-system in mind as they trawl the ocean floor for fish. As a consequence, they are discarding bycatch when fishing for their target species and killing a lot more than the fish they sell.  Doesn't make sense and doesn't seem sustainable. 

I have given this a lot of thought, and personally, I cannot define imported fish as sustainable or green.  When I buy fish I try to find local fish as my first choice.  Second choice at least, is U.S.-caught to support the domestic industry.

Are you willing to support local fishermen by frequenting restaurants that are willing to put local fish on the menu? Are you willing to try new kinds of fish we haven’t heard of that comes from your surrounding area? Community Supported Fishery (CSF), which is like a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) for fish, are gaining popularity.  You can even find local fish at your green market.

For some people, food choices are simple. For me, they’re an opportunity to make the world a better place.  Who fishes matters!

Pamela Flash is a Long Island-based good food advocate, graduate of the Natural Gourmet Institute, and mother of two. She volunteers for NAMA as an event and social media coordinator. 

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