Special Report | April 2013 | By Sam Oches

The Story of the Sea

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“The things that we’re doing are to give the buyers confidence that what they’re getting from these Gulf seafood processors is sustainable or is traceable, all of those things that they want,” Blankenship says. “We’re doing that to improve the markets and improve customer confidence in what comes out of the Gulf. But it’s a work in progress. It’s not going to happen overnight.”

Much like Alaska’s seafood industry, sustainability in the Gulf Coast and the rest of the world’s waters has been long in the making. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, industrial-scale fishing that sprung up in the late 1800s overexploited most commercial fisheries. By the late 1990s, stocks at nearly two-thirds of assessed fisheries were in need of rebuilding, and seafood practices like bottom trawling—in which enormous nets are dragged along the ocean floor—had heavily damaged marine ecosystems.

But moves like the Magnuson-Stevens Act and the FAO Code of Conduct helped bring about real change. Adding to that effort were organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program, which gives consumers and businesses sustainably caught seafood recommendations based on a green, yellow, and red level system; and third-party certification programs that use scientist-approved standards and audits to validate fisheries’ practices and provide eco-labels for retailers to use on their products.

The MSC is the most high profile among sustainability certifications. The Council, launched in 1997, teamed up with a few hundred scientists, academics, and seafood experts around the world to determine best practices for sustainable fishing. Today, the MSC grades fisheries on a scale of 1 to 100, Coughlin says, where 60 is the minimum for sustainability and 80 is a “global best practice.”

“Whenever there is a score from 60 to 80, there will be an improvement action on the certificate,” Coughlin says. “So the idea is to get to that global best practice. Not everyone will agree with every single assessment. Some people have more [stringent] agendas, where they want to ban all of a certain type of fishing. But that’s not what the MSC is about; it's about global scientifically defensible consensus on what is a best practice in sustainability.”

The MSC logo has become one of the most widely used eco-labels. In 2010, Walmart committed to selling only MSC-certified seafood, and this year, McDonald’s began printing the MSC eco-label on all of its Filet-O-Fish and Fish McBites packaging, acknowledging the sustainable Alaskan pollock industry.

But there is some controversy surrounding the MSC’s practices. For starters, there are costs associated with the certification that prevent some well-managed fisheries from pursuing it, thereby creating a perception that they are not sustainable. And a National Public Radio story published in February suggested that the MSC certifies some fisheries “with conditions,” giving undue credit to fisheries that are not as well managed.

All experts interviewed for this story had a favorable impression of the MSC, although many believe eco-labels are becoming less necessary as best practices become more widely accepted. Many of Alaska’s fisheries have abandoned the MSC certification in favor of Responsible Fisheries Management Certification, which is based on the FAO Code of Conduct and does not have an eco-label. ASMI’s Rice says an eco-label like MSC’s would be “redundant” for Alaska’s fisheries.

Michael Rubino, fisheries director of NOAA’s aquaculture program, says third-party certifications are mostly market-driven processes. By adding an eco-label to a product, retailers and foodservice operators are able to use verified marketing materials that communicate best practices to customers. But he says certifications are not necessary to prove sustainability; NOAA is required by law to make sure that is already happening in the U.S.

“The kind of regulatory requirements we have in the United States and the science that we do and the best management practices that the industry uses, whether it’s commercial fishing or aquaculture, are often the kinds of things that these certification groups turn to as a baseline,” Rubino says. “Because we are doing it well here.”

Aquaculture is the burgeoning new fishing practice that now accounts for about half of all seafood consumed in the U.S., according to the FAO. Aquaculture programs are essentially fish farms, in which fish are raised and harvested in a controlled environment, either in freshwater ponds or seawater shelters. Though the sustainability of aquaculture programs has been called into question—some have contested the fact that aquaculture feed programs often use other fish, for example, while others are worried about the effect seawater shelters have on their ecosystems—NOAA is diligent in its aquaculture enforcement. Further, certifications like the Global Aquaculture Alliance exist to validate aquaculture programs around the world.

“The good news is … there’s a new scientific consensus emerging that [aquaculture] is the most resource-efficient way to produce protein when you compare it to other terrestrial animals,” Rubino says.

That may give seafood end users more reason to turn to farmed fish, especially as the world’s population—and with it, seafood demand—grows.

“We see wild-captured fisheries as basically static,” says Ed Rhodes, co-director of the division of aquaculture and sustainability at provider Phillips Seafood. “There’s 100 million metric tons that comes from wild fisheries every year; they’re going to be stationary at best. If we’re going to try to feed another billion people or two billion people in the next 10 or 20 years and we’re going to eat the same amount of fish as we do now per person, it will have to come from aquaculture.”

The fish out of water

Louisville, Kentucky, doesn’t have a seafood industry. It’s not to say the Ohio River does not have fish to eat; a patient fisherman may haul in a few bass or catfish on a good day. Just set up shop downtown near the Belle of Louisville, the city’s treasured steamboat-turned-National Historic Landmark, and throw a line in the river.

This kind of fishing, however, would be hard-pressed to feed a family, much less an entire quick-service seafood concept like Long John Silver’s, which calls Louisville home. That’s why the brand has established a seafood supply chain that stretches to Alaska, Latin America, and Southeast Asia.

“We do have supplies from a number of different places from time to time,” says Charles St. Clair, chief marketing officer for Long John Silver’s. “Whereas, if you’re a smaller brand, you might be able to guarantee that what you’re serving is always from the North Atlantic or the North Pacific, with us, because of our size and scope … it will always be cod, but the destination source may vary from time to time, depending on supply.”

Major quick-serve brands, of course, do not have the luxury to serve local seafood products. And the truth is that there is simply not enough supply in this country for brands to stick even to domestic products; Rubino says roughly 85–90 percent of all seafood consumed in the U.S., by value, is imported. That’s the case for 100 percent of Long John Silver’s shrimp, St. Clair says.

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