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Point of View: Fisheries in transition need attention

Ed Rhodes, VP for sustainability and aquaculture for Phillips Foods
Ed Rhodes
October 05, 2011

What’s wrong with these statements? “It is the responsibility of suppliers, chefs and retailers to purchase seafood from fisheries that can prove that they are sustainable. By purchasing only sustainable seafood you can influence the market and increase awareness of making responsible seafood choices.”

I’m sad to say that too many seafood purchasers believe that this is the only way to go. And it’s not difficult to see why they do that. It’s fairly easy to do, allows them to grab some “green” press and puts them into a safe zone that offers protection from attacks by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). But I maintain that this is not taking the most responsible approach to seafood sustainability.

The goal in today’s world, as I see it, is to have as many sustainable fisheries as possible. And to do that you have to take a broader view; just sticking with fisheries and aquaculture sources already judged sustainable doesn’t help us get where we want to go.

Why is maximizing the number of sustainable fisheries the goal? Because the world needs seafood: It provides a huge portion of the world’s protein, it contains nutrients that make us healthier, it is more eco-friendly than land-based animal production systems and is important in world economies. Taking the longer view, we can only maintain the maximum level of production from the fisheries that we depend on by making them sustainable. Sounds like the definition of sustainable fisheries to me!

So how do we get more fisheries to achieve sustainability? We can’t just support fisheries that are already there. We need to identify the fisheries in need of improvement, assess their current status and provide the leadership and resources to address the deficiencies.

And who do we expect to do this? Is it governments, NGOs, the industry? All of them have a role, but most of the heavy lifting should be done by the industry. Specific fisheries that are important to companies deserve and should have the support of those companies. And the industry understands the fishery better than anyone else and will be involved with that fishery for the long haul.

As an example of how this can work, blue-swimming crab fisheries in a number of Asian countries are important sources for U.S. companies that import crabmeat and other crab-based products. These companies have come together as the National Fisheries Institute Crab Council solely to address the sustainability of the Asian crab fisheries. The funding for the fisheries improvement work in Asia comes almost entirely from a self-imposed assessment on member companies based on their import amounts. These funds are channeled to producer associations set up in the source countries that are implementing and coordinating fisheries-improvement programs. The in-country associations receive guidance from NGOs and collaborate with university researchers and with provincial and national governments in these efforts. (See April 2011, SeaFood Business Going Green)

We refer to fisheries like those for crab in Asia as “fisheries in transition” to sustainability. And until recently, these fisheries have not been recognized for the progress they are making and have generally fallen into the “avoid” category by seafood buying guides. And if purchasers stop buying from these sources, the funding for the fishery improvement programs dries up.

But there are some encouraging signs that fisheries in transition are starting to get the recognition and support they deserve. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program announced in August that it wants to see retailers and producers engage with their supply chain in improving fisheries by supporting fisheries and aquaculture improvement projects. The World Wildlife Fund has created a category of “moving toward certification” that it has applied to some pangasius and tilapia aquaculture sources. A number of retailers have announced policies to buy seafood certified as sustainable, but to also source from fisheries with improvement plans in place.

Santa Monica Seafood has started a “blue” category to recognize sources in transition. The Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, a real leader in this area, now evaluates the status of fisheries-improvement programs on its FishSource™ website.

Taking the time and making the effort to identify and source from fisheries in transition to sustainability means that you are supporting these very important efforts. And in the long run you are helping to reach the goal of getting the most we can from our fisheries resources.
It’s worth the effort. And it’s the responsible thing to do.

Ed Rhodes is VP for sustainability and aquaculture for Phillips Foods in Baltimore

October 2011 - SeaFood Business

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