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Going Green: Shrinking the carbon footprint

Distributor focus on reduced carbon pays off; harvesters work to increase fuel efficiency

By Lisa Duchene
June 01, 2009

John Rorapaugh is working on a monster project, so far tackled only by a few in the seafood marketplace. Rorapaugh, who handles sustainability for ProFish, a Washington, D.C., distributor, is trying to place a carbon score upon each of the company's more than 700 products.

Called "Carbon Fishprint," the labeling program takes into account criteria like whether the product is farmed or wild, the harvest method and gear type, its origin, the type of energy powering the production facility and whether the product was trucked or air-freighted.

Items accumulate points for carbon-intensity in each of the categories, up to a theoretical 50 points for an extremely high carbon-intense seafood product, says Rorapaugh. A Virginia croaker caught by hook and line is a "shining example" of a low-carbon product, says Rorapaugh, and likely to score a six, while so far others deemed especially carbon-intensive like air-freighted Pacific bluefin tuna net a score of 38.

"I know that [carbon tracking is] the future," says Rorapaugh. "I see it and Greg [Casten] and Tim [Lydon], both the owners, realize it."

Rorapaugh and ProFish embarked on the project for customer Bon Appetit Management, a foodservice company in Palo Alto, Calif., which two years ago launched an effort to cut the carbon footprint of its food supply by 25 percent.

That meant pushing its 30 seafood suppliers to provide information on how the seafood was harvested and transported, as well as how products compared on carbon dioxide emissions.

"Through them, we started changing our buying practices," says Rorapaugh. The company is sharing carbon-emissions information with its other customers.

ProFish carefully orchestrates its truck routes for efficiency, purchases wind power for its warehouse, pushes suppliers to use recyclable cardboard instead of Styrofoam, and hopes to install mirrored tubes vertically along its warehouse walls to allow sunlight to fill the building and provide daytime lighting. Its goal is to become a carbon-neutral company.

The effort is just one example of how seafood's carbon footprint may be shrinking, although it's impossible to put a number on the current size or reduction. Assigning a carbon rating to a seafood product is hardly an exact science - something Rorapaugh is the first to admit. Yet, some measure of the carbon dioxide emissions represented by a product is becoming an important factor in the sustainable foods marketplace. Carbon dioxide is one of the greenhouse gases warming the planet. Today, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are estimated to hover around 385 parts per million. NASA climatologist James Hansen advises a limit of 350 ppm to avoid "irreversible catastrophic effects," adding additional urgency to the effort.

In the Gulf of Mexico, and in waters off Maine and Alaska, fishermen are using energy-efficient practices and technologies to help save fuel costs. Fish feed companies are working on formulations to reduce the amount of fishmeal in aquaculture diets; less fishmeal tends to mean a lower carbon footprint.

Nearly all of the seafood Bon Appetit buys - an amount the company does not release - is transported by truck or ship, instead of by air.

Bon Appetit serves 80 million meals annually at 400 cafes in 29 states and since 2002 has been purchasing only seafood rated "green" or "yellow" by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guide.

The company is 90 percent compliant with its goal to eliminate all air-freighted seafood, explains Helene York, Bon Appetit's director of strategic initiatives.

"For us, the most interesting aspect of this initiative has been our work with seafood suppliers," says York.

"Suppliers are genuinely interested in trying to fairly represent their products as less carbon-intensive than other products."

The key to cutting seafood's carbon footprint is to use it regionally and seasonally because that approach cuts transportation-related emissions, says York.

On the water, there are several initiatives to reduce seafood's carbon footprint. Record-high fuel prices of 2008 prompted many fleets to seek ways to cut fuel usage.

In the Gulf of Mexico, some shrimpers are saving between 10 and 28 percent with the use of new trawl doors, the weights that keep the net open and low to the bottom for catching shrimp.

The experimental doors were adapted from an Icelandic design, says Gary Graham, a marine fisheries specialist with Texas Sea Grant in West Columbia, Texas. The doors have squared bottoms and curved tops to reduce their drag in the water. The new design, first tested in 2005, costs about $7,000, comparable to traditional rectangular-shaped doors. But the design allows a 20 percent savings, or about 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel, off the typical Gulf shrimp boat's average fuel use of about 50,000 gallons annually. Western Seafood, in Freeport, Texas, initially spotted the design in Iceland and has worked with Sea Grant and shrimpers to help adapt it for the Gulf, says Graham.

Fishermen out of Port Clyde, Maine, have also been testing various gear changes that reduce their boats' drag in the water and fuel use, says Steve Eayrs, a research scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. Some boats have lightened their sweeps, or rubber ground gear that keeps the nets off the bottom, and increased the mesh 
size in the cod-end of the net from 6.5 inches to 7 inches to reduce drag.

Eayrs plans this summer to measure the fuel savings the changes represent and encourages fishermen to install a fuel flow meter so they can see in real time how little changes saves fuel.

"It's quite interesting that all these benefits can be realized by a relatively modest change in fishing gear," says Eayrs.

In some parts of Alaska, the price of diesel fuel reached $7 per gallon in 2008. Most of the 126 fishermen who responded to a fall 2008 online survey from Sea Grant's Marine Advisory Program said they had spent less time on the water prospecting for fish, stayed closer to home and stayed on the grounds longer. Many carefully planned routes, eased off the throttle and maintained their boat engines and fuel systems, according to the survey.

Glenn Haight, a fisheries business specialist with Sea Grant in Juneau, says his sense in talking with fishermen is that the changes will continue, even though fuel prices eased recently.

Perhaps efforts like those in Alaska, Maine and the Gulf will translate into value beyond saving money on fuel. Rorapaugh believes the information he is sharing with customers from his carbon-rating project has helped ProFish gain business in a dismal economy.

"Everybody's talking about down numbers and we're not [down]. My sales have grown a lot this year," says Rorapaugh.

 

Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa.

 

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