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One Man's Opinion: Is organic fish a raw deal?

Property of SeaFood Business magazine
By Peter Redmayne
May 01, 2007

That's more organic than a fish that swims in the ocean hundreds of miles from shore, fattening itself on an all-natural diet of squid, shrimp or sardines? How about a fish that's grown in a hot, muddy pond on a diet composed largely of soybeans?

The latter is the way the U.S. Department of Agriculture sees it, at least. The agency has chewed over what seafoods can qualify for its organic label for more than six years. So far the answer is nothing. That may change later this year, when the agency's National Organic Standards Board is expected to come up with guidelines for farmed fish ( SFB April '07, p. 26).

Wild fish, it appears, no matter how natural, will still be off the organic labeling table for the foreseeable future. If it's not farmed, the agency doesn't see how it can come up with guidelines for fish that live in a non-controlled environment. That's a sore point with the U.S. seafood industry, especially the folks in Alaska, who have hitched their wagon to the wild, sustainable seafood marketing mantra. "If organic is replicating nature, then nature itself is the standard," Anne Mosness, a former Alaska salmon fishermen who lobbies against farmed salmon, was quoted in the April issue of SFB .

Farmed salmon producers aren't too thrilled with the USDA either. After intensive lobbying by environmental groups, in February the NOSB's Livestock Committee voted 6 to 1 to prevent the organic label for fish that are raised in net pens on a diet composed of fishmeal. In March, at its semi-annual meeting, the NOSB decided to defer a final recommendation on the controversial issue of pen-raised fish until its fall meeting. In the meantime, the NOSB decided to go ahead and come up with guidelines that will allow producers of fish that are raised in closed-water systems on vegetarian diets to get their fish certified organic by USDA.

(The environmentalists' primary beef with net-raised fish is that the stocks of industrial fish like anchovies and sardines are being overfished because of the growing demand from fish farmers. In reality, however, these fish stocks would be fished anyway and the fishmeal would be fed to livestock instead of fish. The irony in the greens' argument is that feeding fish to fish is significantly more sustainable, since fish convert protein more efficiently. And that's not to mention the reduced methane emissions, not a trivial matter when you consider the methane from livestock contributes more to global warming than emissions from transportation.)

In spite of USDA's glacial effort to set standards for organic seafood, organic farmed fish (mostly trout and salmon) and shellfish (mostly shrimp) are showing up in U.S. seafood counters and on menus. Most of this product is certified by independent certifiers such as Germany's Naturland or Florida-based Quality Certification Services.

By most accounts, plenty of consumers are willing to pay a sizeable premium for organic seafood, hence the rush by producers to cash in on the growing demand. So no doubt retailers and chefs with the right clientele will be happy to promote organic seafood, no matter who certifies it. And since it will have to be farmed, wild seafood producers will end up getting a raw deal.


Contributing Editor Peter Redmayne lives in Seattle


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