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

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
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.
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.”
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.