Confusion over eco-labels? It could get worse before it gets better.

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P’fish’ers, we’ve learned this week that the wild Alaskan salmon fisheries have decided to part ways with the eco-label provided by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). As far as we’ve known, the MSC label has been the gold standard for certifying fisheries as ecologically sustainable.
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And, if you look at our own history, you’ll see that we’ve supported MSC 100 percent over the years.
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So, it came as a surprise this week to read the news on IntraFish, a seafood industry go-to source, that the Alaska wild salmon industry is going to work with a new eco-label certifier called Global Trust. I’m sure it’s super complicated behind the scenes but I wanted to add my perspective/s on this. [There are also certifiers for farm-raised seafood (aquaculture) such as the Global Aquaculture Alliance with its Best Aquaculture Practices label].
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The MSC certifies wild seafood and has been in existence since 1999. It was created by the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever: Giants in their respective sectors. The process is thorough, if not daunting, for fisheries that wish to be vetted. And expensive as the participating fisheries must renew their certifications every five years, while the participating retailers pay a licensing fee to use the MSC logo on their packaging. The MSC uses third-party certifying agencies and they promise an independent, transparent process. Over the years, they’ve grown substantially, so more and more MSC-certified products have entered the marketplace all over the world — giving us consumers confidence in the product and giving the retailers a price premium on their products.
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At Passionfish, our organization has promoted the MSC since our inception. We’ve held many public events featuring the MSC and the products of their eco-certified fisheries that had gone through their tough process– such as wild Alaskan salmon (and lesser knowns such as the Western Australia rock lobster!).
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While we’ve spent time promoting MSC-certified products, the BIG PLAYERS have shelled out dollars to promote the eco-label as “the best environmental choice in seafood” (the MSC motto). I’m talking about seafood wholesalers and retailers (buyers across the planet). The people who do the “dirty work” for us consumers by vetting products that are “good for us and for the environment” so we don’t have to. A massive buyer stuck in the middle right now is WalMart, the largest retailer in the U.S. They committed to buying only wild-caught seafood that has earned (& therefore depicts) the MSC seal of approval. Which means, they are now considering dropping wild Alaskan salmon. Why? Because they could lose brand loyalty. Brand loyalty = customer loyalty = TRUST. They want their customers to have trust in their products. It remains to be seen what they will do…
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The buyers (wholesalers and retailers) are caught in the middle of this debate. They’ve spent time and money: in the form of licensing agreements and staff training and marketing, to promote MSC-certified seafood products. They’ve counted on the MSC label as part of their “corporate social and environmental responsibility” portfolio. They are trying to do the right thing, which includes trying to make our lives (their customers) easier.
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The outcomes of the eco-label debate: Will the MSC just lose one client (albeit, its biggest –wild Alaskan salmon?). Will a better eco-label come along that satisfies buyers? Will it be easier or more difficult to achieve? A watered-down label of lesser meaning? Or surprisingly more robust? Less expensive? It was inevitable that other labels would come along to compete with the MSC — why not? A healthy debate should surround what is “the best environmental choice in seafood.”
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Meanwhile, this issue still does not stick with consumers as much as those in the environmental community nor the seafood industry would like. People still want someone to tell her/him that the product doesn’t trash the environment. Because we (the general public) really don’t want to become experts on this subject. When we have a bunch of competing labels on the market, whether their logo is cast in green or blue or beige, shaped like a tree or a fish or an amoeba, people will tune out, or they’ll buy the product that they perceive is the healthiest and that is, for sure, less expensive.
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Meanwhile, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program is continuing its due diligence by comparing the various seafood eco-labeling schemes as they make their best (green), okay (yellow), and worse (red) choices recommendations. I think it’s safe to say that we’re all very eager to see the outcome of their study! We all know this is about trust. Who can you trust?
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And, maybe someday, there will be NO need for eco-labels at all, because everything will be environmentally sustainable (and socially, too, with no human rights violations!). Instead, all do-gooding companies across the planet will agree on a code of conduct, and as a powerful consortium, they will paste black labels on those nasty products we should all avoid. Until then…
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On a lighter note, we will be celebrating our 8th annual “Poisson d’Avril” (April Fish Day) this year. It’s our celebration of fish and mischief. We’ll be highlighting this and other crucial ocean/seafood sustainability issues in the flesh in New York at the Culinary Institute of America and in California with the fun-loving Cooks Confab, as well as online here and at our Facebook page.

Patti

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Passionfish forum on ocean & seafood sustainability, summer 2010

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P’fishers, we recently held a fin-tastic forum on the beach on Coronado Island (San Diego, Calif) discussing ocean and seafood sustainability. Our event was co-hosted by the fabulous (and super generous) Hotel Del Coronado and the new, fun-loving nonprofit Cooks Confab that, other than being a group of cooks with a drinking problem, promotes local food and simple ways to prepare it!
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Our panelists were: Caron Golden (freelance journalist), Tommy Gomes (fisherman, Catalina Offshore), Kristen Goodrich (board member, Slow Food Urban San Diego), Martin Alberto Hall, Ph.D. (Chief Scientist, Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission), Nigella Hilgarth, Ph.D. (Executive Director, Birch Aquarium at Scripps), Don Kent (President, Hubbs Sea World Research Institute), Logan Kock (Vice President of Strategic Purchasing & Responsible Sourcing, Santa Monica Seafood, Inc.), and Andrew Spurgin (Executive Director/Chef, Waters Fine Catering, and Co-Founder, Cooks Confab and Passionfish).
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Our forum moderators were Carl Rebstock (Executive Director, Passionfish) and Robin Seigel (National Conflict Resolution Center).
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Our event was graphically recorded by talented cartoonist Lloyd Dangle (known for his work on the %$&!#@! Airborne packaging, among many years of political cartooning). He specializes in distilling very complex issues in a visual manner to aid problem solving. See his illustration below.
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We got lucky with the weather given that our event was held on the beach during a California coastal summer. Yes, right on the sand just a couple of footsteps from the Pacific Ocean. I was hoping I wasn’t the only one looking at the tide charts (& freezing my butt off that week)! Rain threatened all day (and all of the previous week). But, fortunately, we only had to deal with a fine mist that barely affected anyone.
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Optimists that we are, we had our summer clothes on beneath that marine layer and we charged ahead with our event! We’re grateful for the staff at Hotel Del Coronado who set up the stage and the awesome beach chairs for the audience, the sound/audio guys, and the audience full of culinary students and interested members of the public. Our audience participants also included representatives of several seafood companies. Thank you all.
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Our forum was followed by a decadent reception in the grassy area at Hotel Del, then a spectacular dinner at 1500 Ocean. Check out our Facebook page for details.
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Suffice it to say (for me, anyway), I ate about 50 oysters before the main course/s…and I think people were shocked we actually had an incredible dinner still to occur after the amazing reception. I had no qualms with it, of course.
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A Passionfish forum is unlike other educational forums on the subjects of ocean and seafood sustainability. We offer a venue for various, valid viewpoints that examine and explore solutions to help our ocean recover –no, THRIVE– ecologically while also keeping it a viable source of protein for humankind. Yes, I know how that sounds: IMPOSSIBLE! The ocean can’t do both! Well, we think it can do both.
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It will take sacrifice…there’s a word few seem to understand. A sacrifice in eating habits, and a sacrifice in thinking so that our ocean can continue to produce for future generations — yes, for humans. And, for the animals/wildlife within. And, it will take innovation. Big, bold innovation.
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The panelists (listed above) for our 2010 forum represented various sectors: commercial fishing, the wholesale and retail seafood industry, science/academia, public education and outreach, fishery and aquaculture research, and the culinary/restaurant sector.
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The common threads: Everyone believes the ocean has been damaged and needs recovery. Everyone believes commercial/wild fishing should continue (albeit greatly reduced). Everyone believes that aquaculture (the farming of finfish and shellfish) will have to meet the increasing (‘explosive’ is more like it) demand for seafood among the burgeoning world population; they also believe the U.S. has the best practices and is best prepared to innovate in this sector. Everyone believes that current fishing practices worldwide are not “sustainable.” And, everyone believes that public awareness of “ocean/seafood sustainability” is important, although no one agrees on what that looks like.
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Our forum’s transcripts are here. We will post our audience/panelists’ Q/A soon, and we welcome your thoughtful comments and questions.
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Patti
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A progressive company: Arctic Storm

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The Arctic Storm Management Company is featured in Business Review USA. The impressive company has sustainably managed the North Pacific pollock and West Coast whiting fisheries, both certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. Excerpts below:
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“The (company’s) vessels are members of fishery cooperatives that allocate catch shares among their members who are committed to the conservation and utilization of marine resources. A far cry from the wasteful Olympic-style fishery in which vessels race to outpace their competitors in the harvest of fish, a rational harvesting arrangement that allocates catch shares to fishing participants allows vessels to slow down production and maximize the amount of food produced per pound of fish harvested.”
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“The rationalized fishery allows Arctic Storm and other participants an opportunity to improve the quality of the harvest and practice innovation. It allows them to increase utilization of the resources by increasing the recovery rate and producing more products for consumers. And in slowing harvest rates, participants can take the time to avoid the incidental catch of non-target species, known as bycatch.”
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“Arctic Storm President Doug Christensen says, “There’s a strong focus on continual innovation on what we do with our fish. We’re constantly trying to figure out ways to make more products with the same amount of fish. By doing so, we’ve increased our fishmeal output, added fish oil output and added high recovery lines that increase our frozen human consumption food output.”
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“Arctic Storm also participates in the Sea Share program, which has donated more than 100 million seafood meals to local and national food assistance programs. “This is the seafood industry’s answer to hunger in America. We participate by donating high quality frozen seafood into the Sea Share program which then is further processed and distributed through homeless shelters,” Christensen says.
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P’fish’ers, check out the rest of the article here.

New York Times Blog: the Seafood Eater’s Conundrum

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P’fish’ers, check out yesterday’s blog in the New York Times about the confusion surrounding seafood consumption. I appreciate the contributors’ opinions and wish they had been given more space to more fully express their thoughts and expertise. I like what Ray Hilborn says about looking for Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified seafood…and the problem thus far, that it’s hard to find. Let’s hope the MSC’s work grows and that its label gains recognition. We also look forward to farmed seafood that is certified as “sustainable.”
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Let’s not forget that the planet’s ocean resources are meant to sustain life — the plant and animal life both within the ocean as well as all of the land-dwelling creatures including us hungry humans. We ALL depend upon a vibrant, life-sustaining ocean.
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I made a comment in response to the blog (it’s #129 on a growing list). Click here if you want to check it out…or it’s written out below, having fixed my little typos.
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The NY Times blog is a follow-up to an article posted yesterday by food writer, seafood lover and fellow confused consumer Mark Bittman. And, Mark, we feel your pain.
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Here’s my response to the “conundrum” blog:
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This opinion piece has sparked a lot of dialogue — as well as contradictory viewpoints and conflicting information. I don’t think the article as presented could come close to the complexity of what is “sustainable seafood.” The contributors were given little space to write, and the piece doesn’t cover all-important considerations such as seasonality, provenance, quality, taste, and price.
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The concept of ’sustainability’ needs to take into account economic, social, and ecological factors. If not, the concept will never gain acceptance. That’s why people are getting confused about (or simply disregard, as depicted above by various comments) the many recommendations one is supposed to follow. Meanwhile, the recommendations vary wildly and are coming from all angles: from the government, seafood companies, and environmental groups. None of these entities are 100% on the same page — and even within sectors — there is vast disagreement. So those of us who want to eat seafood are stuck between a rockfish and a hard place.
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Our nonprofit, Passionfish, is run by volunteers who have spent the past decade trying to sort out this “conundrum.” Still, it’s as if the issue has not necessarily gained much clarity for consumers.
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We hear that almost all the fish are gone. But, we hear we can still eat some of them. So, we look at all of the data from the news, our doctors, our grocery stores, our iPhones and cause-related mailing lists. We hear, for the most part (as it’s filtered through these sources) that “aquaculture is BAD”; but, at the same time, we hear about mercury, contaminant, etc. problems in the wild fish.
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We also witness that wild fish are expensive. That farmed seafood is more affordable. We hear that seafood is still the healthiest source of animal protein to eat, that it’s a “lean” source of protein, and that it contains heart-and-brain-healthy Omega 3s (essential fatty acids). These are the thoughts passing through our minds as we shop for seafood, for our meat choices for the week.
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I believe the Marine Stewardship Council, as mentioned by Ray Hilborn, is an organization we should champion. It’s true that they have so far certified only a fraction of the wild seafood products in the marketplace.
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But, the MSC is making great progress. We should support their work and hope their label gains acceptance and recognition.
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We also need a trusted certifier for sustainably raised farmed seafood products. Why do we need these certifiers? Sadly, it’s because people do not trust the government recommendations and regulations — even though, as mentioned in the posts above, the United States has among the toughest regulations. Truth is, people do not trust any single source of recommendations, not the business/seafood industry alone, not environmental groups alone, and not our government. Oh, and we don’t trust the media, either.
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Collaboration between and among government agencies, scientists, seafood companies, fishing and aquaculture practitioners, and environmental groups MUST occur for people to buy into or trust a claim of sustainability. Let’s not forget the critical input by nutritionists and economists — it’s a fact that people make their food choices based on three primary criteria: price, taste, and quality. Sustainability as a word or concept means little to most people.
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A note about the wild vs farmed issue: The rich will be able to eat wild-caught seafood (and farmed seafood called “artisan-raised”). The poor and so-called “middle class” in our country and around the world will not. If the dire predictions are true about the demise of the ocean’s wild species, wild fish will be coveted and savored by the rich as a delicacy, the way caviar is marketed (and, so, wild salmon). The rest of us will eat cake.
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To me, that’s a tragedy. The world’s ocean resources are not just for the rich to enjoy. They are meant to sustain life.

Kona Blue Says Attack on Kona Kampachi®’s “Good Alternative Ranking” Unwarranted

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P’fish’ers,
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Please see this week’s Business Wire article citing anti-aquaculture organization Food & Water Watch’s campaign against Kona Kampachi, a yellowtail raised in Hawaii.
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Unfortunately, it can be very confusing to sort out the “good” versus “bad” when environmental groups have varying opinions themselves. For example, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has a well-known card called “Seafood Watch” that lists Kona Kampachi as a good alternative to buy and to eat.
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I wholeheartedly agree with Kona Blue’s president Neil Sims when he says that objective, rational standards for assessing the sustainability of seafood is sorely needed. Thank you, Neil.
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At Passionfish, we have featured Kona Blue and its Kona Kampachi in several of our events and promotions.