Thursday, February 14, 2013

Exactly what is sustainable seafood?

A blog of Bridge Environment

Fish market, note top sign "All seafood is 100% sustainable"
Do you seek out sustainable seafood? Have you ever wondered what it means for seafood to be sustainable? This week, National Public Radio (NPR) ran a series on sustainable seafood certification, the process by which some fisheries get identified as good for the environment. This process raises issues that I have grappled with, on personal and professional fronts, for over a decade. In fact, the series was brought to my attention by Natasha Benjamin, who in 2004 did an internship with me in which she focused on ways our organization might weigh in with advice for concerned seafood consumers.

The NPR stories shone a critical light on the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), one of the pioneers in sustainable seafood certification. These stories highlighted that some MSC-certified seafood products are controversial because stocks have declined, ocean habitats may be damaged, and especially because information is often lacking to make a definitive conclusion about whether a fish stock is healthy.

The stories also criticized MSC’s process. They noted that MSC often certifies fisheries that do not yet meet their sustainability criteria. Instead MSC sets conditions that need to be met in the future. The stories also noted that MSC’s evaluations are done by consulting firms, which are chosen and paid for by the industry wanting to be certified, which may produce a conflict of interest.

Though valid on some level, most of these criticisms are distractions from the biggest issues in identifying and labeling sustainable seafood. Fisheries rely on complex and dynamic ecosystems. As a result, stocks will sometimes decline even if they are well managed. Habitat damage is a larger concern, but one that MSC explicitly considers in certifying a fishery. In process, the stories failed to note that MSC explicitly chose to use conditions, with the expectation that this approach would prompt positive change in fisheries that are willing to improve their practices. The conflict of interest is also a larger concern, but the outcome of an organization that started on a tight budget and wanted to see a genuine commitment on the part of a fishery before considering them for certification.

Uncertainty, however, is one of the biggest issues in sustainable seafood and is not adequately addressed by MFC, other sources of advice, or fisheries managers. My sources who work with the organization suggest that MFC also recognizes the need to consider uncertainty more fully. First, let’s consider what exactly sustainable means? It comes from the word sustain, to nourish, and so seems particularly appropriate for discussions of food choices. In the context of environmental issues, sustainable seems to be used for almost anything, particularly when used to market a product or organization (a point made clearly and with humor here). The formal definition of the word sustainable implies a practice that can be maintained for the foreseeable future. As I’ve discussed several times, uncertainty presents a major challenge to the practice of sustaining a resource, but can be overcome. Traditional salmon fisheries in northern California were sustainable because they limited their fishing activities to relatively light levels. Native Hawaiians had sustainable fisheries based on similar moderation combined with management measures that, in rocket science fashion, responded to early signs of declines.

Seafood rating programs could embrace this concept, providing a stamp of approval to fisheries that use some combination of moderation and responsive management measures to provide a high degree of certainty that the fish stock would remain healthy. These measures are represented in the upper right portion of the fisheries policy diamonds I introduced two weeks ago. As illustrated in that blog entry, such policies would sacrifice some combination of average catch and constancy of catch to gain in sustainability and ecosystem function. For fisheries with large uncertainties, these management measures would have to be more extreme to account for larger probabilities that something might go wrong.

Unfortunately, these considerations are not a central focus of seafood guides. MSC puts a lot of faith in science, which sounds good but can cause problems regarding how uncertainty is addressed. Rupert Howes, MSC’s chief executive, says “the MSC standard is rigorous, it’s science-based, and assessment is based on the evidence. Those numbers are checked again. If new stock assessment data suggest the population can’t withstand that pressure, new conditions can be invoked, or indeed certificates can be withdrawn.”

While I am a fan of reevaluating management systems periodically, why not evaluate them from the start for the degree to which they are designed to adapt to changing conditions? This characteristic is the crux of the concept of sustainability and should be given extensive emphasis when rating seafood choices. That’s my opinion anyway, based on my values. Next week, I will talk about the other biggest issue when it comes to sustainable seafood—diverse values.

As always, your comments are appreciated.


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