When it comes to seafood, wild is better than farmed. Or so we thought. Everyone's read about the high levels of PCBs in farmed salmon, not to mention the dangers of farmed fish pumped full of antibiotics, hormones and artificial colors that escape and breed with wild ones. Then there's farmed shellfish. Environmentalists have decried the destruction of coastal habitat and the effluent discharge that aquaculture brings about.
But as with many things, the picture is not so black and white.
Take shrimp, for example. It's now the most popular seafood, having surpassed canned tuna in per capita consumption in 2001. Most of the shrimp consumed in America—87 percent, according to one widely cited study—is imported, and much of that is farmed using environmentally questionable practices.
A handful of U.S. companies, however, are breeding shrimp inland and filtering and recycling the water in their ponds. They stay away from antibiotics. They use clean biodiesel fuel or wind power on their farms.
"They are further inland than any other shrimp farmer. It really reduces the likelihood of pathogens making it that far. If something came up they would probably do like any kind of organic cattle [rancher] would do—give it antibiotics and then declare it a nonorganic part of the crop," says Cindy Greene, a partner in Inland Natural Seafood, a Wilmot, Ark., grower of shrimp, marketed under the brand name Brave New Shrimp. "Their whole point was to let people know you can farm seafood in a very environmentally progressive manner."
The clean life
But what constitutes sustainable seafood farming is not always so clear. "Consumers want deciding what [seafood] to eat to be a simple matter. It's really not—it's specific to the fish. You need to know more than whether it's farmed or wild. You need to know how it was farmed, what kind of fish it is, how it was wild-caught," says Shelly Benoit, executive director of FishWise, a nonprofit group that promotes sustainable seafood.
For now, seafood farmers hoping to produce a clean, natural product have little in the way of standards to go on. At one point, the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed seafood producers to qualify for organic certification if they heeded the rules in place for livestock. "I got the first certification," says Bart Reid, owner of Permian Sea Shrimp Co. in Imperial, Texas.
But last year, Reid says, the USDA declared there were no organic standards for seafood. "They said you can use any labeling and packaging you have; after that, you're not supposed to claim USDA certification," though some producers still do, he alleges.
Reid says that did little to strengthen the integrity of the organic seal. "Now, basically anybody can call anything organic until there is a set of rules. It's confused the marketplace." Reid now sits on the National Organic Program's aquaculture task force, a group that ultimately aims to propose an organic standard. "It's a starting point to have something to present … for this task force to chew on and spit out a final rule." He says the task force expects to submit a proposal to USDA by October, which will be followed by a public comment period.
Reid is loath to predict what the aquaculture organic standards might look like but has some general guesses. "A lot will be based on international standards," he hints, noting that the usual criteria—habitat, water quality, treatment of the animals—will be laid out. Some operational questions, such as whether aerating the water with paddlewheels or aspirators should be allowed, are likely to be addressed. "We avoided any kind of social justice kind of thing," such as labor practices, Reid says.
A sustainable demand
While much remains unknown, one certainty is the demand for seafood. In 2003, Americans ate a record 16.3 pounds of fish and shellfish per capita, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Omega-3 fatty acids, which are abundant in certain kinds of fish, also have become wildly popular. Sales of essential fatty acid supplements increased nearly 27 percent in 2004, according to NFM's June Market Overview. To top it off, the Bush administration in June sent a bill to Congress that would permit aquaculture in federal coastal waters, with the hopes of quintupling U.S. fish farming by 2025.
"That's sort of been a vision of the administration for a while—it predates Bush—and it's something [that] I don't think has much in the way of legs economically," says Matt Elliott, conservation director for the Sea Change Investment Fund, a San Francisco-based firm that makes equity investments in sustainable seafood. "It's very expensive to have the technology to farm offshore, as well as the fuel costs associated with transport," he says.
Sea Change, with $20 million in capitalization from private investors and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, may itself drive expansion of the sustainable seafood market. "We are essentially looking at companies that are either distributing or marketing environmentally preferable seafood," Elliott says. "There's presently a dearth of them on the market."
Those products that do meet such criteria qualify for FishWise's program. "We go into grocery stores and label the seafood they carry for sustainability," Benoit says. The program simplifies decision-making for consumers, using information supplied by distributors and fisheries. "If a store needs to carry farmed salmon and knows it's going to be unsustainable—we go out and we look for farms and research different options and try to bring the very best option into those stores." Retailers pay a negligible membership fee to participate. FishWise provides signage and labeling for the fish and teaches the employees about sustainability so they can answer customers' questions. "We're trying to make fishing sustainable for consumers and fishermen, so it's a sustainable livelihood," Benoit says.
"From the point of view of conservation, there's a real opportunity here," says Andreas Merkl, chairman of Sea Change. "A lot of money has been spent to create demand from the consumer" for sustainable seafood. "So there's one opportunity to build a series of brands that are really backed up by a self-imposed regimen of screening to make sure the consumer is getting sustainably caught seafood." A second opportunity, Merkl says, is to hold onto the cachet of that premium product to get a premium price. "From a financial point of view, we want to build some cool brands that people pay for. If you look at the multiples that good brands in the natural sector have gotten, that's certainly attractive to us … and we think we can do well for our investors."
Teach the people to fish …
What's good for investors may in the end be good for retailers as well. Benoit says that FishWise's labeling matrix has been "incredibly successful" for the retailers who have participated so far. "The sales of one store—before [joining the program] they were selling 30 percent unsustainable [seafood]. Six months later it dropped to 14 percent unsustainable. At the same time, total seafood case sales increased 5 percent more than they typically do, for a 9 percent overall gain.
Greene says that inland aquaculture helps rural economies, too. "The poorest area in the whole United States is right around where these people live—the Delta area of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi. They're as dirt poor as the day is long." Much of the area's traditional agriculture—cotton, soybeans and rice—has been taken over by large industrial conglomerates, leaving people who have farming in their blood with little else but aquaculture. "They're really trying to create something here," Greene says.
Consumers benefit, too. "People here know good shrimp," Greene says. And yet, they're impressed with the Pacific white shrimp that Inland grows. "You have a filet mignon, and you have hamburger. This is probably as good as or better than any shrimp you can ever get."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 8/p. 30, 33