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One Man's Opinion: Sourcing sustainable seafood not simple

Property of SeaFood Business magazine
By Peter Redmayne
October 01, 2008

This summer, the Food Marketing Institute announced it was creating a committee to help its members better understand the issues surrounding seafood sustainability.

That follows the announcement this spring that Aramark, an $11 billion foodservice company, was forming a partnership with the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program to help them source sustainable seafood. Two years ago, Monterey Bay announced a similar partnership with Compass Group, an $8 billion foodservice company.

Clearly, the sustainable seafood movement has legs. So why are U.S. seafood buyers, who have lagged behind their European counterparts in supporting sustainable seafood, suddenly going green?

One big reason is the continued effort by a group of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to push sustainable seafood. Under the umbrella group Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions and its Common Vision program announced in early May, NGOs are spending millions of dollars to convince key U.S. seafood buyers that it's in their interest to source sustainable seafood. And obviously more big buyers feel it is. Wal-Mart, for example, has said it only wants to sell wild fish that is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.

But saying you're going to make your seafood program sustainable is one thing. Finding enough sustainable seafood to sell is proving to be quite another matter. Although MSC is certifying more fisheries all the time, most of these fisheries are in developed countries. In the United States, for example, fisheries on the West coast have been certified by the MSC, but so far there are none on the Atlantic coast.

And the reality of the U.S. fish business is that more than 80 percent of the seafood sold is imported and a lot of that comes from fisheries in developing countries, where few funds are available to generate accurate fisheries catch and stock data needed for certification.

But the bigger issue is that about half of many retailers' and distributors' sales are farmed salmon and farmed shrimp, which are red-listed by most NGOs. Throw those two items out and very few seafood programs would be sustainable from an economic standpoint.

Some NGOs that are not part of the Conservation Alliance have jumped into the certification fray with their own sustainable stamp. Friend of the Sea, for example, has certified more than 100 farmed seafood producers, including salmon and shrimp. Since each company it certifies has to pony up 2,000 euros a year, Friend of the Sea may have the most sustainable economics of any NGO pushing sustainability.

Meanwhile, the Global Aquaculture Alliance has come up with its own sustainable standards for farmed seafood. And the World Wildlife Fund is developing its own sustainable standards for farmed seafood through its Aquaculture Dialogues.

So what's a buyer to do? It is highly unlikely that a widely accepted standard for farmed seafood will come anytime soon. The best a buyer can do is to get engaged in the issue, talk with some NGOs and find one they can work with. Going sustainable may be smart, but it's not easy.


Contributing Editor Peter Redmayne lives in Seattle


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