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Special Feature: Color guard
Changing Seafood Watch ratings impact market, invoke emotions
By James Wright
December 01, 2013
Three colors — red, yellow and green — safely direct traffic to prevent car crashes. But for the seafood industry, those colors always seem to clash.
The familiar hues represent the buy or avoid recommendations from Seafood Watch, a consumer-facing sustainable seafood program founded by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The power those colors represent, particularly when they change for a given species or fishery, can create ripples wherever that seafood is sold while invoking emotional responses along the nation’s coastlines where it is harvested.
The latest news from Monterey, Calif., was mostly good: In October, Seafood Watch gave solid marks to a vast majority of the 242 U.S. fishery species it assesses — 95 percent earned either a green (best choice) or yellow (good alternative) rating. Ratings changes for two iconic fisheries, one that went up and one that went down, have suppliers experiencing a range of reactions, from incensed to indifferent.
When asked about any sales bumps due to the upgrade for American red snapper (from red, or avoid, to yellow), Steven Rash says, “Not that I’m aware of.”
The owner of Water Street Seafood in Apalachicola, Fla., says the work of state and federal regulators, charged with “maintaining stability and sustainability” in the fishery, means more to him and his business than anything the aquarium could say. American red snapper has long born Seafood Watch’s scarlet letter because of reports of dwindling stocks and ineffective management. However, an individual fishing quota (IFQ) system implemented in 2007 has benefited the Gulf of Mexico population, according to Seafood Watch.
But Rash, like many fishermen and seafood dealers, is skeptical of that assessment, non-governmental agendas and tactics that “shame” consumers into not buying fish like red snapper.
“U.S. fishermen are probably the most managed in the world,” he adds. While Rash doesn’t gush over IFQs nor the derby-style system that preceded it, he admits regulation is strong and necessary but that compliance often goes unrecognized. Fishermen from other countries, on the other hand, are “fishing Atlantic stocks unregulated. And the one group getting managed [properly] always gets punished.”
Water Street does a brisk red snapper business, selling the fish direct to restaurants and wholesalers across the country; yet none have brought up the new rating. As fishermen tell him and as he tells his customers, “There’s lots and lots of snappers out there.”
Tim Lycke, GM of IncredibleFish in Miami, seconds that notion. Because of IFQs, South Atlantic fishermen without a snapper quota can’t touch the American reds, but they also, ironically, can’t get to other species they are allowed to land.
“Some guys can’t fish grouper because they can’t get the bait past all the snappers,” he laughs, adding that only two of his customers, including retailer Wegmans, asked about buying more snapper because of the Seafood Watch rating change. “A boost in business? No, not at all. Not like you’d think [since] everyone’s on a sustainability kick.”
It’s different on the bayou. Louisiana shrimpers are seeing red, literally, as their fishery was downgraded from yellow to red on the Seafood Watch program. Shrimpers feel Seafood Watch doesn’t fully understand the differences between the various shrimp boats and industry efforts to prevent bycatch and sea turtle captures. In its red-listing for all Louisiana shrimp, Seafood Watch cites the lack of turtle excluder device (TED) enforcement by Louisiana fishery officials — though a 1987 state law actually forbids them to enforce regulations for the controversial bycatch devices on skimmer trawls, or “bay sweepers.”
Shrimp from other states along the Gulf and East Coast remain in the yellow category. TEDs are required by federal law on all U.S. commercial shrimp otter trawlers and on foreign vessels that export shrimp to the United States. But because of that 1987 law, assessors simply have no way of differentiating what shrimp came from what boat in Louisiana, says Seafood Watch Director Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly.
“It’s that alone. If they change that prohibition they will be at the same rating” as the rest of the Gulf shrimp fisheries, she says. “That’s it. There are a few factors [to Seafood Watch ratings], and effectiveness of management is one. The skimmer trawl restrictions are difficult to enforce and [we’ve found] there is a lack of awareness [among fishermen].”
One Louisiana harvester and distributor feels the red rating is salt in still-healing wounds suffered from devastating hurricanes and oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico.
“It pisses me off that they could be so callous after all the industry has been through,” says Kim Chauvin, owner of Mariah Jade Shrimp Co. in Chauvin, La., and Bluewater Shrimp Co. in nearby Dulac, among other fishing businesses. Knowing the impact Seafood Watch ratings can have in the marketplace, Chauvin says painting Louisiana shrimp with such a broad brush is simply unfair, as larger boats that deploy TEDs haul the bulk of Louisiana shrimp.
Some numbers back her up: According to the Louisiana Department of Fisheries and Wildlife (LDFW), TED laws are enforced in state waters. From October 2011 to January 2013, 187 vessel inspections were conducted in Louisiana, compared to 34 in Florida and Mississippi and three in Alabama (it should be noted, however, that Louisiana’s 2012 shrimp landings hit 102.3 million pounds, while Mississippi and Florida combined for 21.1 million pounds, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service).
Robert Barham, LDFW secretary, wrote a letter on Oct. 10 to Julie Packard, the executive director of the aquarium, to request that Seafood Watch restore the fishery’s yellow rating. Skimmer trawls, he wrote, are limited to tow times of less than an hour in the spring and summer months and a maximum of 75 minutes during the winter. And in 1,100 skimmer tows this year, only seven sea turtles were captured and released alive, with no deaths reported.
“The socioeconomic impacts to our shrimpers from this designation has the potential to cripple families and coastal communities who have endured repeated disasters,” wrote Barham, saying that it would diminish the market for the product. The program’s evaluations, based “solely on environmental sustainability,” he wrote, “ignores a critical consideration of the very people who bring seafood to our tables.”
The downgrade took Chauvin and her colleagues by surprise.
“Monterey Bay has chosen to do harm to an industry it shouldn’t have touched without realizing the repercussions,” she says.
Seafood Watch has to strip emotion from its decisions, says Dianto Kemmerly. The program is not “creating anything new,” she adds, only packaging existing information. Its definition of what constitutes effective fishery management won’t necessarily be the same as the state’s.
“If [Louisiana officials] are still reporting violations, and still enforcing [TED restrictions], then why not lift the prohibition and be in alignment with the other states?” asks Dianto Kemmerly. “We’re trying to promote best practices and drive their acceptance in the marketplace.”
More than 1,000 businesses follow the program’s guidelines, representing more than 100,000 unique locations, she adds. “That’s what’s getting the attention of the supply chain and the producers that have to shift their practices or maintain their practices if they’re green or yellow. We try to keep this issue salient with consumers.”
Lycke of IncredibleFish and Rash of Water Street work in wholesale, where the rubber meets the road regarding certifications and sustainability ratings. If there’s one thing all parties can agree on, it’s that there is no quick fix to any fishery’s shortcomings.
“I think everyone needs to learn how to walk before they run,” says Lycke.
“We support sustainability, of course we do,” adds Rash. “It’d be self-defeating if we didn’t. If we take care of the oceans, they’ll take care of us.” Email Senior Editor James Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org
Find other SeaFood Business articles discussing Seafood Watch here.