« August 2007 Table of Contents
The seafood supply chain leaves a large carbon
By James Wright
August 01, 2007
Seafood's sustainability can be measured in ways beyond how
many fish remain in the sea. Tomorrow's seafood companies will
need to know their carbon footprint - and how to reduce it - in
order to lure customers with green agendas.
The production of seafood, like many industries, plays a
role in global climate change, which experts say is hastened by
the incessant burning of fossil fuels like petroleum. While
energy is essential for harvesting and transporting fish,
trains, planes, boats and processing plants emit many tons of
carbon dioxide, a so-called greenhouse gas, into the
atmosphere. Only now are the world's food producers beginning
to quantify the carbon footprint of their operations and its
toll on the planet.
Why? Because consumers understand that there's more to food
than simply size, weight and the numbers on nutrition labels.
Consumers who believe their purchasing decisions can make a
difference want to know not only the origin of their food and
how it was harvested, but also what resources were used to
produce and distribute it. Should restaurants or retailers be
asked about the environmental toll of their product line,
they'll have to lean on their suppliers for the answers.
When seafood companies eventually consider their carbon
footprint, the answer will reach beyond the health of their
targeted fisheries or the distance their product travels to
"People are concerned about the environment, which is a good
thing," says Ray Riutta, president of the Alaska Seafood
"[Alaskans] were concerned about sustainable seafood when
nobody cared about it - it's nothing new to us. Sustainable
seafood is built into our [state's] constitution."
Indeed, Alaska is renowned for well-managed, sustainable
fisheries. But against a food-miles yardstick, by which locally
produced foods are deemed superior, Alaska seafood might be
viewed as a poor choice due to its remote location [see Case
Study, page 34]. And consider the overall supply: Approximately
80 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is
imported from all around the globe.
"For seafood, you still have to get the product where the
product resides," Riutta adds. "There are certain realities you
can't change. Reality will temper the desire to do everything
with the least possible footprint. There is pressure to think
and act more responsibly, but excluding products due to food
miles would be a disservice."
Fortunately, scientists agree that an odometer is not the
truest measure of how food distribution contributes to
"The food-miles [movement] is attractive to people - if all
things are equal, moving seafood a great distance will result
in greater greenhouse gas emissions. All things aren't equal,"
says Peter Tyedmers, assistant professor at Dalhousie
University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who is leading a life-cycle
assessment study of both the wild and farmed salmon industries
that is funded by the Lenfest Ocean Program of the Pew
"A bigger [environmental] impact than distance is transport
mode. Airfreight is two orders of magnitude greater in terms of
emissions than [ocean] container cargo," adds Tyedmers. "We pay
a price to get fish there fast,
and that price is in carbon
emissions. Food-miles is not the whole story."
'Hung up on fresh'
Tyedmers, a principal with Ecotrust Knowledge Systems in
Portland, Ore., calls the life-cycle assessment (LCA) a
"biophysical accounting tool," or a measure of the impact that
industrial activities have on the environment - like a carbon
footprint. An LCA, for instance, calculates how many metric
tons of greenhouse gas a fishery or a fish farm emits to
produce one metric ton of edible product.
Tyedmers' LCA studies often have shocking results: Canadian
groundfish fisheries were far more fuel-efficient in the 1930s
as opposed to the 1990s, he says, because more fish were caught
per gallon of fuel consumed.
"They're catching less now despite better engines and boat
designs. Despite those technological innovations, the fisheries
are more energy intensive now than 50 years ago," he says. "The
only difference is stock decline."
Employing the LCA formula is akin to "throwing a very big
net around a production system," says Tyedmers, because carbon
equivalents are released into the atmosphere at every step; by
the production of fish feed, by fishing boats and by an entire
range of distribution vehicles throughout any given supply
chain. The researchers even look at socioeconomic dimensions,
In late 2005, Tyedmers and a research team began assessing
the environmental impacts of both Alaska's salmon fisheries and
British Columbia's Atlantic and king salmon farms, a task that
is in the final reporting stages. (The next phase of the
project will examine
salmon-farming operations in Norway,
Scotland and Chile.)
Tyedmers concludes that the farmed salmon industry's
greatest carbon input is from fish feed - he says 90 percent of
farmed-salmon's carbon inputs result from the provision
"If salmon farmers wanted to, as a sense of corporate
responsibility, they could work on changing things on their
farm. But they will have the greatest impact if they reduce
their feed inputs," says Tyedmers. The capture of wild fish for
feed, raising and harvesting crops like corn and soybeans,
processing the crops into feed and then transporting goods
around the world all have heavy impacts on fishmeal's carbon
But perhaps no environmental impact is greater than
satisfying consumer demand for fresh seafood. For Alaska salmon
to reach the Lower 48, airfreight is a must.
"As a society, we're hung up on fresh. You just might get
better quality with frozen-at-sea products. And there are
environmental benefits as well," says Tyedmers, adding that air
cargo is a top source of carbon inputs.
Despite heavy fuel use by fishing fleets, EcoFish in Dover,
N.H., markets wild seafood harvested by small boats as more
"There's no production cost - Mother Nature is making that
fish," says Henry Lovejoy, EcoFish president and co-founder
with his wife, Lisa. Most of the company's retail seafood
products are either frozen or canned. Six-ounce cans of Henry
and Lisa's brand solid white albacore tuna, line-caught by
small boats, retails for $5.99.
Lovejoy says his foodservice customers, including L'Etoile
in Madison, Wis., Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago and
Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C., are in tune with
environmental issues. EcoFish ensures its seafood is processed
at the point of landing - the albacore tuna is processed at a
micro-cannery - to cut down on food miles. Lovejoy
acknowledges, but does not ascribe to, the powerful lure of
overseas secondary processing capabilities, which entice
suppliers to ship product to China and other nations for
processing before being shipped back to the United States for
"That's absolutely insane," Lovejoy says. "In this day and
age, though, what makes economic sense doesn't always make
Roadblock to sustainability
Reduced profit is the typical barrier for companies to make
sourcing decisions that benefit the environment. One company
that is taking a proactive environmental stance with regard to
seafood is Bon Appetit Management Co. in Palo Alto, Calif.
Consumer food choices have an enormous effect on global climate
change, says Helene York, director of the Bon Appetit
Management Co. Foundation.
"Heavy dependence on fossil fuels is really a roadblock to
sustainability for the entire food system," says York. "Food is
responsible for a high percentage of greenhouse gases in the
world. Methane from livestock is 23 times more [harmful] than
carbon dioxide. By demanding products that cause methane or
[carbon dioxide], it's an indirect effect."
To lessen the company's dependence on fossil fuels, Bon
Appetit has committed to a new purchasing philosophy called the
Low Carbon Diet, which York says represents the next stage
sustainability and corporate responsibility.
The company announced in April that in one year its 400-plus
cafes located in corporations and universities nationwide would
purchase locally procured proteins and produce, with 30 percent
of all food costs to come from within a 150-mile radius.
"The amount of [carbon dioxide] emissions in flying a
product is unacceptable," York says. "Air travel is the least
environmentally efficient way to transport food."
Environmental stewardship has long been a platform for Bon
Appetit, a division of Compass Food Group, one of the largest
U.S. foodservice companies. Bon Appetit sources seafood
according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program,
which promotes responsibly harvested species and discourages
consumption of species that it deems overfished or may cause
health concerns. York says the Low Carbon Diet does not abandon
Seafood Watch, but will emphasize species that are lower on the
food chain, such as sardines, clams, mussels and squid.
But a top priority for its seafood purchases, she says, is
"Our new kitchen principle calls for frozen-at-sea and
regionally procured seafood as a first choice," says York. "If
frozen-at-sea is a good enough quality standard for the best
Manhattan restaurants, it's good enough for the rest of the
Sourcing food under green parameters will present many
challenges, York admits, for both the purchasing chef and for
suppliers. But she hopes that setting standards now will cause
a ripple effect throughout the supply chain.
"We need as an industry more transparency in the process,"
York says. "We need to shorten the food chain and create
efficiencies. Nowhere is this more needed than seafood."
A monumental challenge
While select U.S. seafood companies are just beginning to
assess their carbon footprint, the movement has already gained
traction with European buyers. Tesco, a supermarket chain in
the United Kingdom that is now opening neighborhood stores in
the United States under the name Fresh & Easy, announced
earlier this year that it seeks to measure and eventually
divulge the carbon footprint of each of its products.
"I do not underestimate the task. It is to take an economy
where human comfort, activity and growth are inextricably
linked with emitting carbon. And to transform it into one which
can only thrive without depending on carbon," said Terry Leahy,
CEO of Tesco, in a speech to stakeholders in January. "This is
a monumental challenge. It requires a revolution in technology
and a revolution
Tesco's ambitious plan has been met with skepticism and
scorn in the media and even company officials have admitted
that gauging the carbon output of its 70,000 items is
"problematic." Still, no such effort has gotten off the ground
in the United States.
"European consumers are at least 10 years ahead of U.S.
consumers as far as supporting green and sustainable products,"
Sourcing energy-efficient seafood remains a voluntary act in
the United States, with few buyers willing or able to go the
extra mile down an inevitably long paper trail of record
keeping. It remains to be seen if the added effort will pay off
with increased sales or enough reduced greenhouse gases to make
a difference. And any groundswell with consumers must be fueled
at the retail level, which won't be easy, says Lovejoy.
"Seafood is the most complex food category on the planet,"
Lovejoy says. "It'll take years to sort this out."
And getting the entire seafood industry to join the cause
may require something more than the promise of a moral high
ground with consumers.
"If there's a price to be paid in the form of, say, a carbon
tax, then you'll see markets shift," says Tyedmers. "People
won't stop buying [air-freighted goods]. But they'll be doing
it with a greater awareness of the implications."
Assistant Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at