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Op-ed: Investigating Legitimacy in Sustainable Seafood Labels

By: Amanda Davidson

8 billion people need food, and globalization has presented societies with creative ways to supply it. The U.S. has adapted to a global food supply model where they trade imports for exports. However, international traceability and transparency of the origin of food, more specifically seafood, has proven to be a challenge. Competitive fisheries have damaged the oceanic ecosystem in a desperate effort to make profits off what remains of the biodiversity of species. According to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), 61% of the world’s commercial marine fish stocks are fully exploited and 29% are overfished. Conversely, unwanted bycatch threatens many endangered species and poorly managed fisheries result in $23.5 billion USD lost annually to illegal, unreported and unregulated catches. It begs the question of whether seafood can be a sustainable source of protein for people, additionally, what can people do to help prevent further harm to populations negatively impacted by fishing practices.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the world needs both wild capture (fish from their natural habitat) and aquafarming (farm-raised fish) to supply the population with seafood. The question of sustainability for either fish product is critical as there is a growing concern for fisheries disturbing oceanic ecosystems. The NOAA is responsible for U.S. marine fisheries, which are reported to be the largest in the world, covering 4.4 million square miles of ocean. The organizations’ fish management plans abide by a set of laws which include consideration for economies of fishing communities, preventing overfishing, rebuilding depleted stocks, minimizing bycatch, and conserving essential habitat. Bycatch (unintentionally caught species such as turtles, sharks, dolphins, seabirds, etc.) can be reduced using fishing technologies such as specialized trawl nets called TEDs (Turtle Excluder Devices) and low-tech fishing methods such as line and pole (catching targeted fish one at a time). Unfortunately, the current industrial fisheries are only required to use TEDs when catching shrimp and summer flounder. Moreover, the pole and line method is unpopular due to its small scale production.

Regulating wild capture fisheries’ negative externalities such as bycatch is difficult and there is controversy on whether these certifications are truly sustainable. Grocery stores supply the seafood products with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) familiar blue fish label. The MSC is an international non-profit who awards fisheries certification through a program that recognises sustainable fishing practices. This has an influence on how people buy seafood and work with partners to make the seafood industry more sustainable. Though MSC is a non-profit and fisheries volunteer for the certification audit, the process is expensive; costing fisheries up to $150,000 in licensing fees to acquire the blue fish label. It is relatively problematic that MSC labeled products tend to be more costly. This calls into question the ethics around incentivizing labels for major profits; benefiting both the MSC and the newly certified fishery. In fact, mega chains such as Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, and Kroger have quickly caught onto the trend and sell seafood with the MSC label. Even McDonalds serves MSC certified fish. Disputes from environmentalists and scientists on MSC changing the use of the word “sustainable” to “responsible” have been called into question for years. MSC certifies fisheries that practice the use of dredging methods, which gauge the ocean floor; drastically disrupting and changing the balance of species in the ocean.

Properly managing fisheries is difficult to qualify, however, there is more than one solution to eating sustainably while supporting the ocean’s wildlife. The planet needs more Marine Protected Areas (MPA), which have been proven to help ecosystems resist the effects of climate change. Learn more about MPAs and expanding protection across ecosystems of the ocean. Get involved with the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. Another way to help, is to eat alternative sources of protein and cut back on the reliance of meat. To find out more about how vegetarians and vegans will save the planet check out The Human League and further education from The North American Vegetarian Society.

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