When Ted Caplow, the executive producer of the documentary “Fish Meat: Choose Your Farm Wisely”, goes out to dinner with friends, they will often gaze up from their menus and ask, “Which seafood is ok to eat?” This loaded question is always a tricky one. What do they mean by “ok”?
Do they want a wild fish whose fishery is regarded as less damaging to the environment? Or one that has healthy enough population numbers to sustain the fishing pressure put upon it? Or how about a farmed fish whose tanks or pens don’t pollute the environment? Or are they more concerned about which fish has less toxic mercury of PCB levels within its flesh?
One easy way to answer this question has been to point to user-friendly rating systems, found in the form of wallet-sized cards or even mobile phone apps, provided by organization such as Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, the Shedd Aquarium’s Right Bites, or the Blue Ocean Institute. These organizations regularly update their findings using information from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) among others to let consumers know which fish are harvested sustainably and their contamination levels. We recently wrote about the measures supermarkets are taking to provide only sustainably fished and farmed fish at their fish counters.
However, author and sustainable seafood advocate Paul Greenberg points out that this tactic is not fail-safe. In his book “Four Fish”* he talks about the Seafood Watch program, “The Monterey Bay Aquarium (…) took the brave act of commissioning a survey of the program’s effects. The results were telling: fishing pressure had not been significantly reduced on any of the species or stocks consumers were advised to avoid.”
He defends the Seafood Watch program by saying that it was not specifically intended to change consumer patterns but to educate consumers. Restaurant goers are now aware that not all fisheries are equal, at least. Blue Ocean Institute’s Carl Safina said that as little as 10 years ago most people were mindlessly eating their fish without questioning what they were eating.
However, in a recent study examining the findings of the MSC, researchers found that 31% of MSC certified stocks were in fact overfished. Michael Sutton, the vice president of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying of the MSC, “They don’t certify perfect fisheries. They certify well-managed fisheries.” Renowned marine biologist Daniel Pauly disagrees, “The bar has been lowered gradually, and now they certify everything that moves.”
What does this mean for consumers? Choosing a certified fish is probably still the best way to go. The MSC’s director of standards David Agnew says in a press release addressing the defamatory study that “The MSC standard is consistent with best practice and specifically excludes fisheries that are overfished. MSC certified fisheries are maintained at high levels of productivity. Froese and Proelss’ [the study’s authors] assertion that many MSC stocks are overfished is false.”
Much like the Seafood Watch program, at least the MSC coming under scrutiny has started the discussion of what is needed to assure that certification levels are stringent enough.
Perhaps the true question restaurant goers should be asking is, “Are ANY fish ok to eat?” What kind of responsibility are consumers willing to accept? As Paul Greenberg concluded in Four Fish, “We must come to understand that eating the last wild food is, above all, a privilege.”
*As the title suggests, Four Fish profiles four different fish (salmon, tuna, bass and cod), each available to consumers in today’s market but with different ecological histories and methods of capture or production. The sea bass chapter ends with a suggestion for an alternate species, one that would be better suited to sustainable aquaculture. This was the barramundi, an Asian fish farmed inland in Massachusetts, an apparently sustainable and environmentally secure approach to fish farming that attracted the admiration of the author. Since the book was published, the company running the Massachusetts farm, Australis, has moved the bulk of their operations to offshore cages in Vietnam, once again demonstrating that a consistent and transparent supply of sustainably farmed fish is often difficult to achieve for farmer, retailer, and customer alike.
Photo: A Turkish fish market, from the documentary “Fish Meat“.