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Undercurrents of Fish Quandary Leave Retailers Out to Sea

Laurie Budgar

April 24, 2008

9 Min Read
Undercurrents of Fish Quandary Leave Retailers Out to Sea

The dilemma is daunting. Fish confer enormous health benefits, so everyone should eat plenty of them. But industrial fish harvesting is decimating the world's oceans. Natural foods retailers and their customers—who tend also to be environmentalists—must choose, it seems, whether to promote the world's health or their own.

After all, health-conscious consumers are, by now, widely aware that omega-3 fats are good for your heart. And your brain. And your skin. And your mood. The boons associated with this essential fatty acid seem endless. In fact, research has shown that eating oily fish, one of the most concentrated sources of omega-3s, can lower your risk of certain cancers. Even the American Heart Association recommends eating fish twice a week.

And Americans have taken the bait. Seafood sales gushed to $55 billion in 2001. Consumption of salmon, often touted as the best source of omega-3 oil, more than tripled between 1998 and 2001, according to a June 2003 report by Seafood Choices Alliance.

But it turns out that what's good for human health isn't necessarily good for marine health. "For a long time we've only viewed the fish through the lens of what they're doing for us," says Susan Boa, program manager for SCA, a subscriber group comprising fishermen, chefs, retailers and wholesalers that promotes a thriving fishing industry along with thriving oceans. "We're starting to learn," Boa adds, "that we need to look at what we're doing to the ocean and the fish."

What we're doing is clear: We are overfishing the world's oceans. "The giants of the sea that we once had, we just don't have anymore," says Boa. An article featured on the cover of the May 15 issue of the international journal Nature reported that 90 percent of the world's big fish are gone.

Technological advances made it easy for the fishing industry to meet the demand. Using sonar and satellites as guides, the U.S. fishing industry reeled in $28.6 billion in 2001, according to the Pew Oceans Commision. But as the fishing industry expanded, the size of fish diminished. The average size of a pink salmon has decreased by 35 percent over the last 20 years; Atlantic swordfish are now one-third the size of their 1960s-era cousins. After all, only those fish small enough to wiggle out of a net survive. And they pass this trait onto their offspring—if they reach sufficient size to reproduce.

Then there's "bycatch"—the 2.3 billion pounds of fish and other sea life unintentionally snared each year in fishing nets, and discarded, either because they're too small or simply belong to a nontarget species, such as sea turtles. This "waste" accounts for 25 percent of the fish caught worldwide.

When marine life isn't disappearing into fishermen's nets, it's being killed by pollutants. A June 2003 report by the Pew Oceans Commission revealed that every eight months, a volume of oil equivalent to that spilled by the Exxon Valdez runs off driveways and roadways into rivers and oceans. Some fish species are contaminated by methylmercury, a by-product of coal burning, mining and smelting. Consumption of toxic levels of mercury leads to neurological impairment or death in humans.

Fishing For Answers
A seemingly simple solution would be to purchase only farmed fish, which now make up 20 percent of seafood sales. "The price has gone down, with farmed salmon more and more available," says Boa. "It becomes an attractive choice [to consumers]."

But aquaculture isn't without problems and, in some cases, adds to the environmental harm. Confined 15,000 to 50,000 to a pen, farmed salmon are prone to disease. Sea lice are prevalent. Infectious salmon anemia devastated farms in the 1990s and spread to wild salmon. Just this past July, Stolt Sea Farm in Maine destroyed 24,000 salmon when the disease was discovered in the company's pens. A similar slaughter of 28,000 salmon was ordered in June when ISA was discovered in Heritage Salmon's farm, also in Maine.

Fish that escape from the pens not only spread disease but also compete with wild salmon for food and habitat. And, says Boa, most farms use three to four pounds of wild fish in their feed to produce one pound of salmon. "Instead of feeding the world by growing salmon, they're really removing food from the world by grinding up wild fish."

There's also concern about additives. Some farms use antibiotics and pesticides to hold disease at bay, but when the drugs leach into the larger environment, they create disease-resistant bacterial strains. "Salmon are grown in open-ocean net pens," says Boa. "Anything you put into that pen will fall down to the bottom. If you feed them too much, the excess food and the waste products are just swept into the ocean."

Turning The Tide
But, gloom and doom aside, retailers don't have to throw the fish out with the seawater.

The Marine Stewardship Council, an international nonprofit group headquartered in London and Seattle, has established criteria (see sidebar above) for sustainable fishing. Wild fisheries that allow target fish populations to grow and thrive or, if already depleted, to recover, may get their product MSC-certified. "The Marine Stewardship Council was created to reward responsibly managed fisheries and to encourage other fisheries to improve their practices," says Karen Tarica, a spokeswoman for the group. "It provides a financial incentive to operate responsibly."

Tarica notes that because the program uses consumer purchasing power as the reward, it's dependent on shoppers being aware of and requesting the MSC label. Whole Foods Market, based in Austin, Texas, carries MSC-certified seafood in its 144 stores nationwide. Meanwhile, MSC partners with other organizations to get out the message about sustainable seafood.

But MSC isn't the only group making waves. EcoFish is a Portsmouth, N.H., distributor of seafood caught or farmed in an "ecologically sound" manner. "Many of the people on our advisory board are founders of the Marine Stewardship Council," says Henry Lovejoy, president and founder of EcoFish. "We feature what they consider the most sustainable of the sustainable fisheries." But because MSC has certified only seven fisheries so far (and only one—Alaska Salmon—in the United States), EcoFish has its own label that it applies to fish that meet MSC standards.

EcoFish distributes farmed fish, too, whereas MSC has, so far, established criteria only for wild fish. "None of the farms we work with can use antibiotics, pesticides, dyes or chemicals," Lovejoy says.

He also cites the importance of farms that minimize pollution by using land-based systems. "The water is filtered and recirculated," he says, so water in the pen and in the ocean is kept clean. He acknowledges that such a system is vastly more expensive than open-ocean pens. "Part of our mission is to help support those [farms] and make it economically feasible. We give them our business and pay the price they need." EcoFish also donates 25 percent of its pretax profits to groups that promote sustainable fishing.

Lovejoy says he's had no difficulty convincing retailers to pay the higher price point, either, noting that EcoFish is now sold in more than 1,000 stores nationally. "Our distribution has been consumer-driven," Lovejoy says. More than 100 of those stores belong to the Wild Oats chain, based in Boulder, Colo.

Paul Gingerich, vice president of meat, seafood, deli and bakery for the chain, says that while Wild Oats does carry EcoFish's frozen line, there's more involved in making responsible seafood choices.

"The issue of what is or is not responsible is one of the most complex ones that we could have in this industry," Gingerich says. "Without aquaculture we would be depleting ocean stock far more quickly than we are now." Another factor, he says, is "there are also outside agendas; there are fisheries to protect." To deal with the complexities, he says, Wild Oats has engaged consultants. "We need to use science and we need to use responsible social and environmental input to help guide us."

Retailers can make other ecologically sound seafood choices as well. Both Wild Oats and Whole Foods, and even some conventional chains like Giant Food Inc., refuse to carry Chilean sea bass in their stores because of its overfished status. "A big chain can make a tough call like that and remove a product that's unsustainable from [its] grocery shelves," Boa says.

Ahold USA, parent company to Giant, Tops and Stop & Shop, is developing its own standards protocol that it hopes eventually to make available to other retailers. "I think the Marine Stewardship Council has done a great job and I totally support what they're doing," says Craig Appleyard, project manager at Ahold's central procurement office for seafood. But, he adds, "They're years away from handling our high-volume products such as tuna and swordfish."

Appleyard says that as wild resources tighten and aquaculture increases, his stores will need a consistent source of responsibly harvested fish. So, Ahold is developing standards that quantify such things as how antibiotics are used, how seed is supplied and how many fish escape. And because salmon are farmed differently than, say, tilapia, the standards are species-specific. For wild fisheries, Chantilly, Va.-based Ahold USA consults with researchers at the New England Aquarium.

The volume of fish Ahold purchases, says Appleyard, ensures vendors will be compliant. "We're working on being able to call up a third party and say, 'I've got a new guy I'm thinking of buying from in Ecuador.' If he is serious about supplying Ahold, he'll spend the money to have the audit done."

Independent retailers can ask questions of their suppliers, too, and buy from those that are catching fish in a responsible way, says Boa. Retailers can also help educate consumers about the types of seafood that are sustainably fished. Both the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Environmental Defense publish wallet-size charts that consumers can use to aid decisions in seafood purchases.

And, of course, there are alternatives to fish for getting healthful omega-3s. Eggs, flax, grass-fed beef, and supplements are all viable sources. And you can help consumers understand the benefits and limitations of each.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 9/p. 68, 70

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