By Richard Auffrey
While walking down the many aisles of the Seafood Expo North America (SENA15), enjoying seafood samples, you cannot fail to notice all the attention given to sustainability. I've already mentioned the prevalence of seafood sustainability at the expo. While many of the exhibitors tout the sustainability of their products, in the darker corners of the hall, there are items which are more questionable, such as shark fin, though fortunately only a single exhibitor had that item. Each year, SENA seems to become more an more sustainable.
Besides the seafood purveyors, you'll also find organizations devoted to sustainable issues, such as Aquaculture Stewardship Council, CleanFish, Fish Choice, Global G.A.P., Marine Stewardship Council, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Seaweb, Trace Register and others. These groups provide a wealth of information concerning seafood sustainability, and are more than willing to share all they know. Besides the exhibitors, there was also a Seafood Sustainability track in the conference sessions, presenting five different seminars (two fewer than last year) on sustainability-related issues.
Over the last five years, during my most intense immersions into the expo, there has been a clear evolution in seafood sustainability, a constant move forward. This is not a new evolution and has been occurring ever since the idea of seafood sustainability was first broached. In some ways, the evolution of seafood sustainability has been quicker and more significant than that occurring in any other food industry. For example, early aquaculture saw serious problems, such as pollution and disease, yet many of those problems have been resolved. The problems of factory farms that raise chickens, pigs and cows have not been addressed as quickly or as successfully as aquaculture.
The relatively rapid evolution of seafood sustainability has unfortunately been an obstacle in some regards to the average consumer. Due to the complexities of sustainability, and its rapid changes, consumers get overwhelmed and fail to properly understand the issues. Instead, they often tend to rely on sensationalist media reports, usually outdated, mentioning the dangers of seafood. But consumer education is starting to be addressed, as well as the development of ideas which will make it much easier for consumers to understand what is most important.
As my own contribution to correcting the misconceptions of consumers, I want to address some of the key points of the sustainability issue as it presently stands, pointing out some of its evolution as well.
Sustainability in all industries is a vital element, and the seafood industry is definitely not an exception. Consumers need to consume sustainable seafood, and contribute to our future. There is no valid argument that sustainable seafood is unnecessary.
What helps to drive sustainability in the marketplace is that there is a small yet vocal and powerful minority of consumers who want seafood sustainability. They are the ones who demand to know the source of the seafood they purchase, who question their restaurant servers about sourcing. Retailers are listening to these people, even though they are a minority, as they understand that the number of consumers seeking sustainable seafood is growing, even if it is slow. They see the future, knowing that the consumer base is evolving, getting more educated about these issues. Hopefully, in the near future, a majority of consumers will be concerned about sustainability.
Sustainability is often about trade-offs: a balancing of competing interests. For example, though the Maine lobster fishery is considered sustainable, it is also an industry that is very energy intensive, far more than many other types of fisheries. The industry needs improvement, despite being sustainable in one sense. Consumers must learn not to be too judgmental about seafood sustainability, and understand that no one is perfect, and those dedicated to working hard toward sustainability deserve their support.
Determining whether seafood is sustainable or not depends on a plethora of questions, including where the seafood was harvested, how it was harvested, who harvested it, the health of the specific fishery and so much more. Few consumers have the inclination to ask their local seafood purveyor or restaurant the necessary questions to determine the sustainability level of the seafood they wish to purchase. Fortunately, the evolution of seafood sustainability has seen some potential solutions to this consumer confusion.
That element of trust extends to other seafood companies, restaurants, markets or more. Consumers need to rely on trusted people to determine what is sustainable seafood. I have often heard chefs tell me that the first step for consumers is to find a trusted seafood purveyor. Consumers can rely on some elements of the media, friends and word of mouth to help determine who is worthy of their trust. I have previously written about seafood businesses which I believe are worthy of your trust. Having that trust makes the issue of seafood sustainability much easier for consumers.
Approximately 50 percent of the seafood in the world now comes from aquaculture, and that percentage is likely to grow in time. As I mentioned earlier, our population is growing, and the only way we can feed the additional billions will likely be through additional aquaculture. Land-based agriculture already uses 70 percent of our water supply and 30 to 40 percent of our land, so there is little room, if any, for growth. As 90 percent of our wild fisheries are at their peak, there is little room for growth there either. Aquaculture, though, is not at its peak, and its potential is quite higher. Consumers need to understand that aquaculture can be sustainable, that it constantly improves, and that it is necessary to feed future generations.
You might have heard about "trash fish," though some in the seafood industry cringe at that term: It refers to those species which Americans rarely eat and which fishermen find difficult to sell. However, many of those species are delicious, and people would enjoy them if they only gave them a chance. I've written before about a local effort, Red's Best Seafood, to make those less common fish available to consumers. As I walked the aisles of SENA, I saw a wide variety of seafood which will end up on local store shelves and on restaurant menus, so there is hope that Americans can break out of their boring seafood eating habits. You should also check out this new article in the Wall Street Journal about this very issue.
Now, more and more seafood organizations are talking about sustainability and social issues, especially after all of the publicity last year from the Thailand scandal concerning slavery and the seafood industry. Some third-party certification bodies, such as Aquaculture Stewardship Council, have social issues within their sustainability criteria. In time, it is very likely that all of these certification groups will include social criteria. It's no longer sufficient to care just about the fish and the oceans, but you need to be concerned about the people involved, too.
Besides extreme cases like those in Thailand, there also needs to be a concern for local fishing communities and their economic well being. There needs to be a balancing act between strict fishing regulations and protecting the livelihoods of fishermen. It is far from an easy task, and the important point is that we need to consider these social issues in seafood sustainability discussions.
I'm sure that at next year's SENA, I'll see a further evolution of the issue of seafood sustainability. There will be more positive change, more efforts to resolve existing problems. I'll be there to learn what has changed, and what the future holds. Will you be there too?
Image credits: Richard Auffrey
Richard Auffrey is a life-long resident of Massachusetts, a licensed attorney, and has been involved in food and wine writing for about nine years. Beside my food, wine, saké & spirits blog, The Passionate Foodie, Richard has also written a food & wine column for the Stoneham Sun newspaper. In addition, he's been published in other periodicals, including the Beverage Media, Drink Me, Boston Scene, North End Scene, and the Valley Patriot. He has also been a freelance contributor to the Medford Patch and Melrose Patch.