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Going Green: Climate control

Responsible energy use a growing factor in sustainable seafood equation

Researchers fear a loss of marine diversity if ocean
    acidification is not addressed. - Photo courtesy of NOAA
By Lisa Duchene
September 01, 2010

Starting this fall, the Compass Group will urge the chefs in its $9.2 billion contract foodservice operation to steer clear of air-freighted seafood.

"Transportation is probably one of the biggest issues around climate change," says Marc Zammit, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company's VP of sustainability and culinary initiatives. Transportation accounts for about 30 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

"If you look at the most efficient modes of transportation, air-freighting food has a larger impact on greenhouse gas emissions than trucking or using trains or boats, which is the best. One of the main foods transported fresh by air is seafood."

Each chef gets the final say, but Compass makes "strong recommendations," says Zammit.

The change, tested at key outlets in 2009, is among a suite of changes aimed at lowering Compass' contribution to the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are warming and increasing the acidity of seawater.

Compass also hopes to cut agricultural GHG emissions. But what do cows and corn have to do with fish?

"It's very clear to me that it's all so interconnected and if we're talking about climate change it's not just one issue. We have to address the whole spectrum of how we grow our food and how we manage it through the supply chain. How we cook it. How much waste we generate. What we do on land greatly affects the oceans and the sustainability of our seafood," says Zammit.

Reaching for a truly sustainable seafood supply - at least for Compass Group - goes beyond purchasing seafood according to the Seafood Watch green, yellow and red lists, the foundation of Compass' sustainable seafood purchasing policy, to address the GHG emissions that are changing the climate.

There is growing recognition among conservation groups and some seafood companies that a failure to address climate change will make sustainable seafood a pipe dream. Progressive companies, says Heather Tausig, associate VP of conservation at the New England Aquarium in Boston, are starting to grasp the serious threat climate change poses to seafood supply. They are finding ways to address GHG emissions, surpassing what have been the key components of sustainable seafood purchasing: favoring well-managed fisheries, avoiding fisheries associated with high bycatch of other marine creatures and seeking third-party certifications of aquaculture operations.

The New England Aquarium is also starting to integrate the carbon dioxide emissions represented by the production and transport of a seafood product into its responsible purchasing advice for companies.

Two things are certain regarding climate change and its potential impact on seafood supplies: There will be impacts and it would be impossible to do too much too soon.

A stable seafood supply of the future is already in jeopardy, given the carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere and oceans and absence of U.S. and international agreement on emissions reduction. The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - which described as "unequivocal" the evidence that human activities are causing global warming in its February 2007 report, synthesizing the research of hundreds of climatologists and experts - predicts global temperatures will rise between 2 and 11 degrees F by 2100. Emissions, says the IPCC, must be reduced to 5 to 85 percent below 2000 levels in the next 40 years in order to limit warming to 3.6 to 4.3 degrees F.

The past decade has been the hottest on record, part 
of a warming pattern over the last 50 years, according to a report released in late July by the National 
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The oceans' absorption of heat and carbon dioxide threatens marine ecosystems, according to research. Dissolving carbon dioxide in seawater increases the concentration of hydrogen ions, lowering the pH and making ocean water more acidic. The acidity reduces the amount of calcium carbonate particles available in the water for creatures to make shells.

Oysters, in particular, require a carbonate mineral called aragonite that is sensitive to pH levels. Pacific Northwest oyster hatcheries have experienced high mortality rates in the last five years. Water in the main basin of Washington state's Puget Sound is becoming more acidic, according to results of a water chemistry study released in mid-July by NOAA, the University of Washington, the state Department of Ecology and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Other recent research indicates ocean acidification also spells trouble for finfish, by altering a fish's sense of smell. An international team of researchers found acidified water produced dangerous changes in fish behavior among several fish species.

"Instead of avoiding predators, [the fish larvae] become attracted to them. They appear to lose their natural caution and start taking big risks, such as swimming out in the open - with lethal consequences," writes Philip Munday, of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, and lead author of the study published July 20 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences .

"If acidification continues unabated, the impairment of sensory ability will reduce population sustainability of many marine species, with potentially profound consequences for marine diversity," write the study's authors.

In southern New England, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission recently considered a five-year moratorium on lobster harvesting south of Cape Cod. Scientists said increasing water temperatures have played a primary role in the fishery's decline in the last seven years.

Some species will likely no longer be able to tolerate higher temperatures and become locally extinct while others will "invade" areas they have not been before, according to William W.L. Cheung's research. Cheung is a marine ecologist at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom.

Cheung recommends seafood-purchasing policies take climate change into consideration. But traditional 
policies help, as achieving sound management is the first step, says Cheung.

Taking a position on U.S. climate policy is also an 
option for companies and trade groups. Compass Group has not taken that step. Nor has the National Fisheries Institute or the Food Marketing Institute.

Ned Daly, North American director for Seafood Choices Alliance, says the seafood industry is missing an opportunity for its voice to be heard in climate-change policy debates.

"The seafood industry is in a unique position around some of these issues because it's going to impact them so directly and potentially so significantly," says Daly.


Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa.



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