Sustainabewildering Seafood

I just finished reading a new paper from Jennifer Jaquet et al., mostly from Daniel Pauly’s group at UBC. The paper is titled “Conserving wild fish in a sea of market-based efforts,” and it appears in the current issue of the conservation biology journal Oryx. In it, the authors investigate the proliferation and effectiveness of the many consumer-education and sustainability-certification schemes that have proliferated in the past decade or so. I didn’t realize how many there were. Table 1 in the paper shows a list of everything out there, from dolphin-safe tuna in the late 1980’s, and kicking off for real in 1997 with the Marine Stewardship Council and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. From there, the next four pages are filled with a list of every market-based sustainable seafood initiative since then.

ResearchBlogging.orgThey conclude, not surprisingly, all these cards and labels can get confusing. Ask any well-meaning seafood shopper who has tried to figure it all out. Alternatively, ask the well-meaning shopper’s marine biologist friend or family member—I’m fairly up to date on these issues, understand the principles of marine ecology, and am conversant in stock assessment science and fishery management (at least as practiced in the good old US of A). And I still need to do research to really figure out what is good to eat and what isn’t. With the proliferation of these market-based initiatives (seafood cards, certification schemes, boycotts, distributor guides) public awareness has been raised, but there is no evidence to indicate that the proliferation has led to a measurable conservation benefit for any threatened species.

They also propose several solutions to this confusion, some of which I think are better than others. The best of them, in my opinion, is directing the conservation message higher than consumers. It is reasonable to expect consumers to give a damn about whether the fish they are buying is riding the road to collapse or not. It is less reasonable to expect them to become experts in worldwide fisheries. The conservation movement would probably do better to to work with a smaller number of distributors, retailers, and chefs. As a former line cook, I can say that chefs—at least the good ones—really give a damn about the food they serve. Read this from my first chef if you need proof (warning: salty language…). There aren’t enough scientists and conservationists to build trusting relationships with every seafood eater, but we can come a bit closer with the next step up the supply chain.

Their other good ideas are eliminating harmful subsidies (that’s more a government policy one than market-driven consumer-education one) and making the seafood supply chain more transparent. The latter is, in my opinion, really important. It won’t change everyone’s behavior on it’s own, but knowing where fish came from (and for that matter, just what kind of fish it actually is…scrod, anyone?1) is a necessary precondition to a truly sustainable system.

They have a few less-good ideas, too. IMO. One is using more negative messaging. I’m fairly skeptical that this is a good strategy in the long run. After a while, people start to tune out criticism and pessimism if it’s arriving in a constant stream. Another is setting seafood consumption targets (in addition to catch quotas). I think this is kind of analagous to an energy tax as opposed to a carbon tax: we don’t actually care if people use more energy or eat more seafood. We care if too much CO2 enters the atmosphere, or if we catch fish faster than they can make babies. In theory, if we can effectively control the negative externality (pollution or resource mining), the rest will take care of itself. In theory, of course, all theories are correct—but I think this one is more or less right.

The fundamental truth of these consumer-education initiatives is that the ecological health of the world’s oceans can’t fit on a wallet card. Any set of information that will fit on a wallet card will necessarily leave out species, unfairly tar some responsible fisherman, give some irresponsible ones a pass, and grossly simplify an incredibly complex issue. I think they’ve done a lot of good—the demand among fisheries for eco-certification is proof that there is consumer demand for sustainable fish. But ultimately, as Jaquet and friends recognize, they aren’t the be-all and end-all. All the bike riders in Seattle won’t stop global warming, and all the wallet cards in the world won’t stop overfishing. To do that we need the really hard stuff: international agreements, transparent and traceable supply chains, and effective, adaptive, ecosystem-oriented, socially-aware, science-based management. I’m not totally on board with all their solutions, but that much I think we’d agree on.

Jacquet, J., Hocevar, J., Lai, S., Majluf, P., Pelletier, N., Pitcher, T., Sala, E., Sumaila, R., & Pauly, D. (2009). Conserving wild fish in a sea of market-based efforts Oryx, 44 (01) DOI: 10.1017/S0030605309990470

1 A businessman comes out of Logan Airport and hails a cab. He gets in and asks the cabbie “Hey, where’s a good place around here to get scrod?” The driver looks at him in the rearview mirror and says, “Buddy, I’ve heard that question many times in many different ways. But this is the first time I’ve heard it in the past pluperfect subjunctive.” {badump-tshhhhhhhhh}

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One Response to Sustainabewildering Seafood

  1. Pingback: Ecovore Central » Blog Archive » Ecovore Brain Bank — news links, 2/1/10 to 2/15/10

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