Why I went to Safeway for my birthday


That's what I'm talking about

I am king for a day

In my little world, celebrations and holidays just aren’t complete without copious amounts of food. My birthday is no exception – I look forward to it every year as an excuse to throw caution (and, perhaps, responsibility) to the wind and to indulge myself. I like to get together with loved ones and either cook up a feast or dine at some up-and-coming restaurant that I’ve been salivating over for months.

I realize I talk a lot about moderation on this blog — staying away from critically endangered delicacies like bluefin tuna, not eating sushi four times a week, and all that — and I stand by it. But there’s a time and a place for celebration, and that’s important too. Not that I would eat bluefin tuna even for a holiday banquet, but I just might gorge myself a little bit (or a lot) on some sort of sustainable delight and fall asleep on the couch. My birthday is not a good day to be a crawfish, believe me.

Anyhow, my thirty-second rolled around last week, and as per my usual routine, I decided to celebrate with a feel-good dinner. This time, though, I went about things in a slightly different way.

This year, I went to Safeway for my birthday.

I know that sounds like a bit of an odd place to celebrate, but I felt it was important to pay Safeway a visit. See, the company had just done something very special – something that deserved celebration far more than me surviving another trip around the sun. But by a fun coincidence, both events happened to occur on the same day.

Out of sight, but no longer out of mind

Out of sight, but no longer out of mind

On April 7, 2011, Safeway went public with a commitment to avoid purchasing seafood from the imperiled Ross Sea – the world’s last remaining relatively pristine ocean ecosystem. The company then took a second step by publicly encouraging all countries involved in Antarctic fishery governance (this takes place within under the aegis of a management authority known as the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine and Living Resources, abbreviated CCAMLR and confusingly pronounced “cam-lar”) to designate the Ross Sea a marine protected area.

This is huge.

Of all the major seafood retailers in the United States, only one other company – Wegmans, a well-regarded and progressive grocery chain in the Northeastern United States – has made such a statement in support of the Ross Sea. It’s nearly unheard of for a retail operation to foray into the political sphere in the name of the conservation movement. And Safeway, with the buying power of over 1700 stores, is an extremely powerful voice – just the kind of voice we need on the side of ocean conservation if we are to have any hope of protecting and resuscitating our ailing seas.

Chilean sea bass: seal food, not people food

Chilean sea bass: seal food, not people food

I admit to being a borderline fanatic when it comes to Ross Sea conservation, but it’s of critical importance. Not only is it a unique and invaluable ecosystem for a myriad of reasons, both scientific and ecological, but sending fishing vessels to this far-flung area raises a host of red flags from a sustainability perspective. It goes beyond issues relating to discrete fishery management and into a larger philosophical realm, which is where the core battle for sustainability needs to be fought.

I know I’ve said this before, but it merits repeating: sustainable fishing simply cannot occur when the fishery in question exists only as a reaction to an out-of-balance food system. We have depleted the fish closer to our homes and cities, so we sail ever outward in search of more – but there is a limit. The Earth is finite. Industrial fishing in the Ross Sea – or anywhere so far from human habitation and so close to the “end of the world,” as it were – must end if we are to develop a balanced and healthy relationship with our food and our planet.

One small step for Antarctica

So, here’s to you, Safeway. Your public commitment to this key initiative was one of the reasons you took the top spot in Greenpeace’s most recent seafood retailer ranking, and I salute you for your drive and courage. The Ross Sea — and the entire ecosystem that depends on it, including migratory whales, krill blooms, and countless other animals — is a little closer to safety because of you.

Thanks for standing up for the planet, and thanks for such a nice birthday present.

Oh, and check it out – I got myself a present, too.

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4 Fish We Just Shouldn’t Eat

Dynamite fishing?

This installment of my monthly Alternet column, “4 Oceans,” was originally published on April 1, 2011.

The thunderous power of the dollar can obliterate nearly all barriers between consumers and the objects of our desire. If one is willing and able to throw out enough cash, there’s very little in this world that we can’t have. Sadly, this reach extends to a number of aquatic species that just aren’t built to cope with such pressure. In this month’s “4 Oceans,” we examine several seafood items that we just shouldn’t eat, even if we have the wherewithal to acquire them.

Bluefin tuna

This is probably old news to a lot of readers, but the current state of the world’s bluefin tuna populations have been reduced to shadows of their former glory. The fish that fed Rome’s legions now barely ekes out an existence as it is hunted relentlessly to satisfy the top echelon of the world’s sushi industry. Bluefin prices soar while stocks continue to plummet, shackled to the twin lead weights of insatiable demand and ineffectual management.

I can answer that

I can answer that

Last year, a smattering of different countries attempted to grant the bluefin protection under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), which would have effectively ended international trade in this animal. This push was mercilessly quashed by a larger and more committed cadre of governments led by Japan, which hosted cooperative delegates at a pre-vote banquet where they served – you guessed it – bluefin tuna.

Bluefin stocks around the world are verging on utter collapse and yet fishing pressure does not abate. Politics and short-sighted economic interests are nearly always victorious over science and environmental consciousness whenever this bluefin is involved. But even if we can’t depend on political processes, we can least put the chopsticks down.

Orange roughy

Over the last four years, ten of the twenty largest seafood retailers in the United States have discontinued orange roughy. Some stores, like Whole Foods and Wegmans, even made public statements on the environmental impacts associated with this fishery when explaining their decisions to stop selling this species. It’s comforting to see for-profit retail enterprises taking stands that seem based more on ethics and long-game considerations than simple quick-fix cash grabs.

Rough day

You're having a rough day, orange you?

Anyhow, orange roughy is a fish that has no business playing any significant role in our seafood industry. The animal simply isn’t built to withstand heavy fishing pressure. First off, it reaches market size well before sexual maturity – a lamentable characteristic, since this results in many roughy being eaten before they’ve had a chance to reproduce and repopulate the fishery. Second, the animal itself can live to a tremendous age – ninety-year-old roughy are not uncommon (at least, they weren’t before we started eating them all.) Fish that live that long are generally not built to reproduce in great numbers; they have evolutionarily invested in longevity rather than in quantity of offspring.

To worsen matters, orange roughy is caught using wantonly destructive bottom trawl nets, and its flesh is a simple, flaky white fillet (there are other, more sustainable sources for this type of product.) It’s best to avoid this species altogether.

Shark (and shark fin)

Mmm-mmm-bad

Mmm-mmm-bad

The more we learn about the role that sharks play in our oceanic ecosystems, the more bat-shit crazy we have to be to keep slaughtering them. Sharks are apex predators, feeding slowly from the top of the food chain and ensuring that the populations of other animals in their areas are kept in check. Without sharks, we see population explosions of their prey items, which in turn devastate the organisms that they prey upon, and so on and so forth. The removal of a single shark from the food system it polices is akin to hurtling a massive monkey wrench into the core gears of the ocean’s ecological stabilization machinery, and we are tossing out somewhere between 50 and 100 million of these wrenches every year.

While many sharks are killed accidentally as bycatch in longline fisheries that target other animals (longlined swordfish is particularly worrisome), the majority of annual shark casualties are perpetrated intentionally by those the shark fin industry. Shark fins – used for soup, especially for weddings and other significant events, by certain segments of the world’s Chinese communities – can fetch astronomical prices and are often used to convey a message of status and wealth. Luckily, the world is waking up to the damage that finning wreaks upon our ocean. Shark fin bans have been enacted in Hawaii, Guam, and Saipan (Mariana Islands), and have been proposed in California, Oregon, and Washington State. If these landmark pieces of legislation pass, we will have taken a great step towards protecting these unique and mysterious creatures.

Chilean sea bass

The Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish (aka Chilean sea bass) are long-lived, slow-to-reproduce apex predators. Still, there are those that claim there is such a thing as a sustainable Chilean sea bass fishery. Some would argue that a particular population, under the guidelines of a particular management authority, governed under a certain catch quota, can in fact be fished sustainably, and that this particular fishery, cut off from the larger amorphous Chilean sea bass industry – dominated as it is by pirates and a rapacious gold-rush mentality – merits our support.

So that's why they call you "toothfish"

The face of overfishing?

Allow me to propose a slightly different line of thought.

The world is a finite place. I know it doesn’t seem as such, but the ocean is a contained area, and it has boundaries. It does not go on forever. It ends – and in more than one sense.

Over the past century, the way that we fish has changed. Decade after decade, we have pushed the boundaries of our oceans in every way imaginable – geographically (ships are going farther), bathymetrically (ships are fishing deeper), and temporally (ships are spending more time on the water). In our quest for seafood, we strain at the very boundaries of our food system, until we reach the ocean’s farthest-flung reaches in all three categories – by dropping hooks to the ocean floor off of Antarctica in the middle of winter.

That is how, where, and when we catch Chilean sea bass.

Sustainable fishing simply cannot occur in an area and at a depth that is so obviously a reaction to an overblown and exhausted food system — a food system that, because of its inability to balance itself, has cantilevered out into dangerous extremes. The very existence of a Chilean sea bass fishery is in itself evidence of an unsustainable fishing paradigm. To label a Chilean sea bass fishery sustainable only serves as evidence to the contrary, as the claim itself underscores our failure to grasp and to apply the true meaning of sustainability to our seafood industry.

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Update: Mackerel (Saba)

Fishy goodness

I’m a big fan of mackerel.  It’s a fantastic fish.  Not only is it healthy and nutritious, but it reproduces quickly, breeds in large numbers, and often benefits from effective and precautionary management.  Good stuff.  In fact, saba has been a sushi staple of mine for years, and I encourage you to give it a shot in the place of other more troubling sushi items (like unagi or hamachi, for instance) next time you visit a sushi bar.

That being said, some troubling news from the Atlantic has forced me to revisit my standard double-fisted endorsement.

The mackerel fishery off the coast of the British Isles has been growing in popularity now that the more traditional seafood options, such as haddock, have been depleted.  One would hope that we can learn from our previous mistakes and manage this fishery in a precautionary manner that will prevent us from repeating the depressing boom-and-crash pattern that we’ve seen with cod, plaice, and other North Atlantic species.

Everything looked positive at first.  A pole-and-line mackerel fishery in Cornwall, as well as several midwater trawl fisheries elsewhere in the British Isles, sought and received Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification.  Management seemed to be sound and bycatch was low.  Now, however, climate change has reared its head, and a new set of challenges is looming on the horizon.

Go north, young fish... actually, wait

Global climate change is affecting the water temperature of our oceans.  The surface waters of certain areas of the Northeastern Atlantic are beginning to warm slightly, and this has driven the mackerel stocks further north.  Their migration has taken them into Icelandic and Faeroese waters — the territories of two massive new predators whose presence had not been foreseen by management or certification authorities.

The mackerel stock in the Northeast Atlantic is managed under a joint quota that is split between the European Union, Norway, and Russia.  Iceland, which has never fished this stock in the past, has now unilaterally declared that it will take over 100,000 mt of mackerel annually.  The total quota set for the fishery for the EU, Norway, and Russia combined is just over 500,000 mt.  The Icelandic fishing industry is taking an additional 20% on top of this, and is doing so in spite of the current international management efforts.  The Faeroes have also announced that they will be substantially ramping up their mackerel fishery, which may compound the problem even further.

For cod and country

These international tugs-of-war over our fishery resources are never good.  This kind of competition can lead to overfishing, increasing pirate fishing activity, and even — especially in the case of Iceland and the UK — direct confrontation.  A few decades back, these two countries had a prolonged series of naval skirmishes over fishing rights.  These “Cod Wars,” as they came to be known, included ramming, net cutting, and even shots being fired.  Luckily no one was harmed, but the importance of this issue to the Icelanders and the British was underscored several times over.

A few days ago, the MSC stated that additional Icelandic and Faeroese fishing pressure on the mackerel stock may end up costing certified mackerel fisheries their blue stamps, which has caused outrage in the UK.   Groups like the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association are up in arms — not just because they may lose their quota, but also because the MSC’s distant deadline of January 1, 2012 puts very little pressure on the relevant authorities to resolve the dispute.

It remains to be seen how the EU will respond to Iceland’s actions, but until we know more, we should exercise a bit of caution with our consumption of Atlantic mackerel… or, even better, buy domestic.

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License to krill

Mountingly meaningless

Increasingly meaningless

Two days ago, the gavel came down in an adjudication decision which may, more than any other recent hammer-strike, determine the future of fishing: The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) officially bestowed its blue-and-white fish-check label to a massive factory operator that targets Antarctic krill.

This is not a good thing.

Antarctic krill are tiny shrimp-like crustaceans that cluster in vast multitudes (known as “blooms”) in the waters of the Southern Ocean.  They form a critical building block in the oceanic food web: small fish consume the krill before being eaten themselves by seals, penguins, toothfish, and other animals.  Krill are also a primary source of nourishment for migratory whales — in fact, the majority of the world’s baleen whales journey to the southern ocean to feed on krill and replenish their energy supplies after depleting their reserves during their mating and calving seasons.

While krill in their vast numbers do seem on the surface to be an “inexhaustible resource,” one would hope that, by this time, we have learned that this mindless assumption will never be accurate in regard to any of the inhabitants of our finite planet.  There is no such thing as an inexhaustible resource.  Ask any great auk or passenger pigeon, they’ll tell you.

Oh, wait — you can’t ask them.

Because there aren’t any left.

Because there’s no such thing as an inexhaustible resource.

Trouble bath

Trouble bath

There are a few things that we are certain of about krill.  The first is that the tiny animal, like many other sea creatures — especially crustaceans — is vulnerable to climate change, especially through the ocean acidification trends resulting from the rising levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.  Nowhere in the Marine Stewardship Council certification system are the potential effects of climate change even discussed, let alone taken into account by the methodology.  Strike one.

Next, we know that Antarctic krill exist in the Southern Ocean – an area adjacent to a land mass that is uninhabited by humans.  The simple fact that we are sending fishing vessels into this area bespeaks an unsustainable paradigm, known as finite expansion.  There is a certain amount of ocean on this planet.  That we continue to fish farther, deeper, and longer simply underscores the fact that we are not approaching the management of our oceanic resources from a sensible and comprehensive standpoint that would account for the idea that one day – one day quite soon, actually – these fishing boats are going to bump up against the ice shelf.  No more expansion.  What then?  The Marine Stewardship Council methodology again fails to even consider these perspectives, concentrating instead on discrete management techniques that do not consider the idea that sustainability is more than a fishery-by-fishery label – it is a way of looking at the world.  Strike two.

A tiny mystery

Little critter, big mystery

Finally, we know that we have only a very rudimentary understanding these tiny animals.  Krill have been studied only cursorily and we have almost no knowledge of their life history and behavior.  It is irresponsible in the extreme to proceed with the certification of a fishery that is so cloaked in mystery – we have no idea what kind of damage we could be doing.  Strike three.

And yet in the face of all these worries, the rubber stamp comes down and the MSC pronounces the krill fishery to be sustainable.  Let’s not forget that vehement objections to this certification have already been lodged by the Pew Environment Group and the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition.  These objections were overruled — but let us not forget that the three strikes listed above were not taken into account in the decision, as they are simply not part of the MSC methodology… and if something isn’t part of the system, it apparently doesn’t have any relevance on reality.  Or so the adjudication decision would lead one to believe.

In search of pink gold

In search of pink gold

There is a conceptual concern here too.  The certification of this fishery gives an unofficial nod to the basic idea that vacuuming up the tiny life forms forming the foundations of the oceanic ecosystem is an acceptable practice.  In reality, it’s not.  Even the United States fishery management authorities banned fishing for krill in US waters, specifically to allow it to remain in the ocean as a food source for other organisms.  Legitimizing and expanding Antarctic krill fishing is simply transferring our unceasing resource demand to a hitherto unrecognized protein source.  This is not the way to move forward – in fact, pulling too hard on this loose yarn just might unravel the whole tapestry.

The certification of krill makes no sense.  It’s a minuscule building-block animal on the other side of the world that simply doesn’t belong to us.  We can’t even eat it – the krill will just be used to make oil, fish food, and other rendered products.  And for this, we may end up short-changing whales, toothfish, seals, and other animals – all because the powers that be refuse to look at the entire issue from a larger perspective.  Fishing for krill will not feed the world — but it just might end up starving it.

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The 4-S Rule

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by a team from CNN on sustainability issues in the sushi industry. This clip is me explaining what I call the “4-S rule” – a simple, if somewhat crude, guide to eating in a more sustainable fashion at the sushi bar (oh, and a small correction to CNN’s byline – I am a co-founder of Tataki Sushi Bar, but I don’t actually own the restaurant.)

 

As I discuss in the video, there are four adjectives, each starting with the letter S, that form the eponymous rule. If a sushi bar patron bears these descriptors in mind while he or she orders, it can markedly diminish the environmental footprint created by dinner. This is not a perfect system – there are exceptions to each of the four “S” words – but by and large, it does help one to order a more sustainable sushi meal overall.

Skipjack tuna served nigiri-style with gobo, scallions, and a shiso leaf. The skipjack is the smallest tuna found in the sushi industry, and has both the lowest average mercury content and the highest reproduction rate.

The first word is SMALL. Smaller fish are generally lower on the trophic scale (food chain), grow more quickly, die younger, and breed in larger numbers. These biological survival tactics are employed by many fish to help them withstand heavy predation — they play the numbers game and simply create as many offspring as possible so a few manage to escape the yawning maws of hungry predators.  In essence, these are the kind of fish that are designed to be fed upon. Their physiology and population dynamics are generally more resilient to our fishing pressure and protein demand than top-of-the-food-chain carnivores, such as large tunas, swordfish, and sharks. Moreover, smaller fish generally have less mercury accumulation in their systems than these apex predators due to their shorter life spans and less voracious appetites.

Examples: Sardines (iwashi), skipjack tuna (katsuo), horse mackerel (aji)

Wild coho salmon, sashimi-style. Alaskan coho is well managed, healthy for consumers, and seasonally available.

The next word is SEASONAL. Seasonality is key to sustainability. If we are to reduce our carbon dependency and rekindle our connection with the ocean, we need to be more aware of where we are and what time of year it is when we order our fish. A good rule of thumb is to order off the specials board rather than the laminated menu when possible – any items on a year-round menu are unlikely to be sourced on a basis of seasonal awareness. It was our demand that certain intrinsically seasonal products be available to us year-round that gave rise to environmental missteps like conventional salmon farming. This category also offers us the added opportunity to take advantage of seasonal vegetables and fruits, which innovative chefs often incorporate into their specials.

Examples: Wild salmon (sake), Dungeness crab (kani), spot prawns (ama ebi),

Pacific saury prepared over wood charcoal.  Saury are a cold-water schooling forage fish and have high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

Pacific saury prepared over wood charcoal. These cold-water schooling forage fish have high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

The third word is perhaps the most surprising – SILVER. Eat sushi that is served with a silver skin still on it. This category of fish is known as hikari mono in Japanese, and contains mackerels, halfbeaks, shads, and similar fish. These animals tend to be loaded with omega-3s as well as being low in mercury, and can be sourced from many well-managed fisheries. An added bonus is that the hikari mono are some of the most treasured fish in the repertoire of a traditional sushi chef; a menu featuring these items will often prove to be an unforgettable culinary experience.  I highly encourage all sushi-goers to explore the world of hikari mono – you just may find your new “absolute ultimate all-time favorite” sushi item.

Examples: Mackerel (saba), Pacific saury (sanma), Spanish mackerel (sawara),

Kumomoto oysters on the half-shell with momoji oroshi. Oysters are high in protein and easy to raise in low-impact farms.

The final word is SHELLFISH, and I’m speaking specifically of bivalves and mollusks. Not only are these creatures excellent sources of protein, but they are considered by many to be delicacies and aphrodisiacs. Bivalve and mollusk aquaculture has sound environmental benefits as well: it tends to involve relatively low-impact farming methods when compared to other types of fish farming, such as tuna ranches or salmon farms. As filter-feeders, animals like clams, scallops, and oysters can be grown without the use of any additional feed.  This reduces their dependence on marine resources and eliminates the kind of inefficient protein use that we find in operations like hamachi and unagi ranches.  These mollusks also grow quickly, and can be raised in cages and bags that require no dredging or other types of seabed alteration during harvest.

Examples: Oysters (kaki), mussels (muurugai), geoduck (mirugai)

That’s about the size of it. Small, seasonal, silver, and shellfish – a quick-and-dirty road map to a more eco-groovy sushi experience. There are, as I mentioned earlier, numerous exceptions to this rule, but it serves as a fairly reliable lodestone for those who are interested in shifting their sushi dining habits toward a more sustainable paradigm.

Oh, and one final quip: as it happens, the letter S occurs exactly four times in the term “sustainable sushi.” Remember that to keep the 4-S rule in mind.

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Death knell

Sharks selling eels, eels slinging shark

The seafood show at the end of the world

It’s been a while.  Sorry for the silence.

There were any number of reasons for my delay in writing this.  March was a busy month for sure: the resurgence of competing priorities, such as working towards the successful end of Greenpeace’s Trader Joe’s campaign, certainly did their part in keeping me away from this blog.  The Boston Seafood Show and related pandemonium was no help either.  But to be honest, the main reason that I haven’t written is much simpler than that.

I’ve been sad.

Last meal

Last meal?

The Northern bluefin tuna was doomed to commercial extinction last month at the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in Doha, Qatar.  In spite of all the work done by millions of caring people around the globe, the Japanese delegation managed to defeat our best efforts and corral enough votes to deny the bluefin even the most meager of protections.  Truly, the ocean’s most majestic fish has been sentenced to death for the twin crimes of being profitable and delicious.

I have spent the last few weeks seething over the unconscionable actions of the Japanese delegation.  CITES wasn’t even about coming together and discussing the real issues – frankly, it never got that far.  Riding in on a horse of flame and bluster (earlier that week, the Japanese government had stated that “even if the bluefin were awarded CITES protection, the Japanese would ignore it,”) a fifty-strong group of delegates from Tokyo stormed the meeting, bullying and coercing smaller nations into supporting their myopic, arrogant agenda.  And the cherry on top of this bloody sundae?  The Japanese delegation hosted a dinner during CITES to discuss this issue, at which they had the audacity to serve – you guessed it – bluefin tuna.

Am I the only one appalled by this unbridled hubris?

Ummm... a little help?

Ummm... a little help?

To worsen matters even more, a measure aimed at restricting the trade of corals was defeated, and of the eight species of shark that were tabled for potential protection, not a single one was given any succor whatsoever.  Oh, and I almost forgot – the polar bear was left out in the cold as well.

The 2010 CITES meeting was nothing short of a travesty.  The few countries that were finally able to get things together and support an environmental agenda fell apart in the face of a well-organized, well-funded Japanese delegation that treated these matters as nothing short of issues of national security.  In one fell swoop, the CITES parties have sacrificed ten key species – northern bluefin tuna, oceanic whitetip sharks, scalloped hammerhead sharks, great hammerhead sharks, smooth hammerhead sharks, porbeagle sharks, spiny dogfish, sandbar sharks, dusky sharks, and our noble polar bears – for the benefit of short-sighted economic gain.

Citizens of Earth – our leaders have failed us.  Miserably.  So what do we do?

No port in a storm

No port in a storm

Although it may not seem like it from the title of this post, I’m still not ready to take the bluefin’s death certificate to the local notary public.  We do have a slight glimmer of hope here in the USA.

The western population of the Northern bluefin tuna spawns in a small area in the Gulf of Mexico, much of which is located within US waters.  Even if we can’t yet regulate international commerce, we can still do our part to protect these bedeviled creatures while they are visiting our coastline.

Targeted bluefin fishing in the aforementioned spawning grounds has been forbidden (under ICCAT, believe it or not) since the 1980s.  Still, that doesn’t stop fishermen from targeting other species – mainly swordfish and yellowfin tuna – in those areas, and bluefin bycatch is a serious problem.  Hundreds of spawning animals are killed every year by longliners that are operating in these areas.

Not in our waters

Not in our waters

It is within our power to rectify this situation.  If the US government bans the use of longline fishing gear within the spawning grounds, it will drastically reduce the overall bluefin bycatch rate in the Gulf and allow more fish the opportunity to reproduce.  This is one way that we can bolster the population while we continue to push for the international management that the bluefin so sorely needs.

Please support the PEW environment group’s campaign to give the bluefin tuna at least a modicum of protection by banning longlines in the Gulf of Mexico bluefin spawning grounds.

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Red, white, and bluefin

Stars, stripes, and scales

In an age and state where the word “patriotism” has been misinterpreted, manipulated, maligned, and mangled beyond recognition, it is often difficult to discern not only what it means to be patriotic, but what it means to be an American.  In my experience, it is only on a rare day that it becomes unnecessary to differentiate between vying definitions – nationalistic pride, support of entrenched policies, endorsement of governmental shift, facebook-friendship of standing politicians, etc. – before I can state without equivocation that I am proud to be an American.

Today is one of those days.

Early this morning, Tom Strickland, the assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks at the US Department of the Interior, finally stood up against those who would doom the beleaguered Northern bluefin tuna to death by sushi knife.  Citing the management failures of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) and underscoring the unquestionable peril in which this noble fish finds itself, Strickland announced that the Obama administration will indeed be supporting Monaco’s proposal to list the Northern bluefin tuna under CITES Appendix 1.

A bloody shame

A bloody shame

This is a game-changer.  The world’s largest economy has finally weighed in on one of the most pressing issues facing the ocean conservation movement – the simple fact that commercially exploited fish have thus far been utterly ignored by the institutionalized international processes designed to offer respite to endangered species.  The Northern bluefin tuna, decimated by the rapacity of the global sushi industry and of bluefin traders like the Mitsubishi corporation, has hitherto been largely ignored by the world’s protectionary bodies in favor of ICCAT, a malfunctioning, incoherent (mis)management system that has brought the bluefin to the brink of the abyss… but perhaps this is finally at an end.

The United States government’s role in this ecological chess match is unique.  Even though US economy does not have a significant share of the world’s bluefin production, it does constitute a sizable share of overall consumption.  Certainly it is not on a scale to match Japan (the world’s foremost consumer of bluefin, devouring approximately 80% of all bluefin tuna yanked from our ailing oceans) but the US sushi industry has exploded in recent years, bringing with it a skyrocketing demand for bluefin tuna.  Many of the world’s most well-known sushi icons are based in the United States, and there is no shortage of American consumers willing to shell out fat stacks of greenbacks for the ephemeral bliss of a two-bite communion with Our Lady of O-toro.  As such, the US is more than just a global economic engine in this scenario.  The conviction of the Obama administration to stand behind Monaco’s proposal is a food policy statement – an admission that as we as a global community grow, we need to begin to make difficult choices, and that desire and wealth can no longer stand alone as the market mechanisms that drive our luxury food supply.  We must begin to temper them with an awareness of the impacts our choices have on our environment.

Not on his watch

Not on his watch

Certainly this is not the end of the struggle.  Whether or not the bluefin will receive the support and protection it requires will be decided by a conference of all CITES parties in Doha, Qatar, later this month – and it will likely be a bloody affair.  Japan vehemently opposes the proposal and is expected to break out every weapon in its considerable arsenal in defense of its hard-line position.  China, too, has announced its opposition to the listing.  Support for the proposal within the European Union is tenuous at best and could still sour.  Many other countries, such as Australia (which has a bluefin industry of its own, albeit a different stock and species), New Zealand, and Brazil remain on the fence.  There is still a great deal of work to do.

So while the champagne moment is yet to come, I would suggest making some room in the fridge to chill a bottle or two.  The support of the Obama administration was an absolute necessity if the bluefin is to survive the CITES gauntlet, and with it secured, there may just be some hope for the world’s most expensive fish – and, symbolically, for the oceans themselves – after all.

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A ray of light

Are we still talking about this?

Are we still talking about this?

I’ve spent a good deal of sweat and ink venting about the ignominious state of the bluefin tuna.  Overfishing and piracy has led to crashing populations across the globe.  Abysmal mismanagement by the relevant regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs) such as the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) has allowed stocks to dwindle to tiny fractions of what they once were.  If current trends continue, we will be bidding a final farewell to the noble bluefin in the very near future.

Still, it takes long hours spent in darkness to appreciate the light of dawn.  Thanks to an unforeseen twist of fate — including an ironic change of heart by France’s President Sarkozy, who, a few months ago, would have seen the fish hunted to oblivion  — I’m thrilled to finally be able to report a positive turn of events chez bluefin.

Circle of power

Circle of power.. kind of

On February 10, the European Parliament confirmed its support for stricter protection of the Northern bluefin tuna.  In a plenary session, the parliamentary members signaled their support for a ban on the trade of the critically endangered fish, as well as for financial compensation for those European fishermen affected by the decision.

Now, the important thing to remember here is that the European Parliament does not in fact have the power to make this kind of decision.  According to the mind-numbing morass of legislation that makes up the Gordian bureaucracy of the European Union, this resolution by the Parliament is in fact a recommendation to the Council of the European Union, a separate legislative body representing the same countries that will vote to either reject the proposal or to formalize the EU’s support of the ban.

And it doesn’t end there.

Doha: the bluefin's last stand?

Doha: the bluefin's last stand?

Europe can’t do this by itself.  The plan is to award the Northern bluefin this protection under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), an international body tasked with restricting the trade of key species in order to protect endangered populations.  The next CITES meeting will take place in mid-March in Doha, Qatar, and is expected to be well attended.

Protections under CITES are awarded via a majority vote of participating nations.  The EU votes as a bloc at CITES, but there are many other countries as well that also all receive a vote.  One of these countries is Japan.

Frozen assets

Frozen assets

Japan is expected to vehemently oppose any proposal that would restrict its ability to source the exorbitantly valuable Northern bluefin tuna from the withered stocks of the North Atlantic and Mediterranean.  No doubt Tokyo’s resolute determination is far more galvanized than the shaky compromise arising amidst grumbles and groans in Brussels.  In fact, even if this clumsy amalgamation of European agendas — including those of Greece, Spain, and Malta, which are very unhappy with the idea of protecting the bluefin tuna — avoids strangling itself with red tape long enough for the EU to vote to protect this imperiled animal, we will still have our work cut out for us.  Japan is an influential power at CITES, and will likely pull out all the stops in order to ward off what would be both an powerful symbolic precedent (the first time a commercially important pelagic fish has been awarded CITES protection) and a significant blow to the global bluefin industry (an enterprise controlled largely by the Japanese zaibatsu Mitsubishi.)

Thus do we look to Obama.

What are you waiting for?

What are you waiting for?

If we are to protect this fish, the United States must step up and stand with Europe.  Washington has been deafeningly silent on this issue — before the last ICCAT meeting in Recife, Brazil, Jane Lubchenco stated  that the US would turn to more drastic measures, such as CITES, should ICCAT fail again.  ICCAT failed again.  The US did nothing.

Now is the time to change that.  The European Union’s support for this trade ban is tenuous at best and could fall apart at any moment due to short-sited interests within Mediterranean member countries.  Still, the EU’s parliamentary vote was unexpectedly positive and offers us an unprecedented chance to strike a powerful blow for the sake of a future buoyed by healthy, productive oceans.

It’s not every day that we can stand up, raise our voices, and save an endangered species.  Today we can.  President Obama — this is our chance.  Do the right thing.

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The 2010 Seafood Summit

The rainy saison

Last week, the world’s fish geek community converged on a frigid, misty Paris to form the 2010 Seafood Summit, an annual event organized by the Seafood Choices Alliance and designed to facilitate discussion about the current state of the seafood industry and the future of our planet’s fish.  Over 600 representatives of industry, academia, the environmental movement, government agencies, and intergovernmental bodies came together to exchange ideas, intelligence, and insults while firmly ensconced in a Parisian conference hotel.

A wide swath of topics was covered by a diverse medley of panels and presentations over the three days of the summit.  Fisheries were analyzed, certification schemes were compared and contrasted, and environmentalists sparred with industry hardliners. Through it all, gossip ricocheted down the corridors of the conference center, partnerships were forged in the fires of crisis, and luminaries rained wisdom down on a parched audience.

Fortunately for seekers like myself, the conference was blessed by the attendance of the most illustrious group of aquatic icons since the cast reunion of Finding Nemo.

Pauly pulls no punches, people

Pauly pulls no punches, people

Dr. Daniel Pauly, preeminent fisheries scientist at the University of British Columbia, opened the event with a keynote speech that magnificently wove candor, charisma, and the statistical equivalent of howitzer fire together to illustrate the grave state of our oceans.  He pulled no punches.  Notable quotes from the address include: “Ladies and gentlemen, there is no such thing as a sustainable trawler,” “[Carnivorous] aquaculture is robbing Pedro to pay Paul,” and my personal favorite, “You are all too fat!  You don’t need to eat so much protein!”

The peaceful yin to Pauly’s blood-and-thunder yang came at the end of the summit in a gentle, supportive, and passionate closing speech by Julie Packard, the executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and a chairman of the ocean-worshipping Packard Foundation.  Packard’s words helped to sooth nerves rubbed raw by the energy and fervor that had electrified the Summit.  Eco-freaks, ocean plunderers, and everyone in between sat in silence during the address, thankful for the clarity and the solace in Packard’s words.

Clover condemns this creeping catastrophe

Clover combats culinary catastrophe

Charles Clover, author of The End of the Line and one of the planet’s most valiant defenders of the bluefin tuna, brought his mission to the Summit as he engaged in any number of discussions with key figures from the industry, academia, and the environmental movement.  His unique ability to meld the twin facets of his personality — “dashing eco-warrior” and “stodgy old tory” — into a surprisingly charming duality worked wonders as he promoted his newest venture, the environmentally-oriented restaurant review website fish2fork.

There were a number of themes that influenced the general direction of discussion.  Target’s decision to eliminate farmed salmon was a major focus of discussion, as was the progress being made in France towards the inclusion of Northern bluefin tuna under CITES Appendix 1.  The was a great deal of interest in the emergence of new and lesser-known fisheries, such as salmon runs in the Russian Far East, and there were some powerful discussions comparing and contrasting various sustainable seafood “approval” schemes and certification systems — this proliferation of rankings, stickers, and seals is clearly one of the most important issues facing the industry today.

While some of the same old baggage was trucked in yet again — I found myself in yet another hard-headed shouting match with a salmon farmer, for example — there was actually a great deal of progress visible at this year’s summit.  People were actually discussing real issues.  An entire day was devoted to tuna, and while some of the weaker industry-WWF collaborations (such as the Marine Stewardship Council and the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation) did receive an inordinate share of unjustified back-slapping, there was some positive, reality-oriented talk as well.  No one stood up to defend ICCAT during the discussion on bluefin stock management, for example.  One can only hope that those days are over.

A light in the darkness

A light in the darkness

As we move forward into 2010, I am optimistic and full of hope.  There was a genuine, palpable desire for change rippling through the attending body at the Summit.  Our patience for the plausible (and implausible) denial of the changes our planet and our oceans are undergoing seems to be at its end.  I sincerely believe that if we work together and challenge old, broken paradigms without fear, we will be able to capitalize on this desire for change, and rebuild the seafood industry into something that works.

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Reclaiming our legacy

Target achieved

Target achieved

The conventional salmon farming industry has never had it so tough.

In an unprecedented policy shift, the Target Corporation – one of the largest retailers in the United States and a direct competitor with Walmart – has just today announced the elimination of all farmed salmon products from its stores.  Fresh, frozen, shelf-stable, and smoked items will from here on out exclusively be made with wild Alaskan salmon — no exceptions.  Even its sushi department, which is notoriously the most stubborn part of this industry when it comes to change (thus the existence of this website), is in the process of phasing out the last bits of its farmed salmon.

While this act is truly staggering in its magnitude and its implications for the seafood retail industry, of equal importance are the reasons behind Target’s decision.  The company does not mince words when it comes to why they have made this transition — Target’s communications department clearly states that the company is not interested in supporting an industry that has done such harm to our marine ecosystems.  Their press release spells it out quite simply:  “Target is taking this important step to ensure that its salmon offerings are sourced in a sustainable way that helps to preserve abundance, species health and doesn’t harm local habitats… Many salmon farms impact the environment in numerous ways – pollution, chemicals, parasites and non-native farmed fish that escape from salmon farms all affect the natural habitat and the native salmon in the surrounding areas.”

Preach on!

Wild salmon for the people

This move will undoubtedly shake the salmon farming industry to its very core.  Target, after all, is not exactly a high-end gourmet market – rather, it’s a price leader that specializes in providing quality products for low prices.  How, then, does a market that worships price-driven competition manage to eschew an item that embodies the very concept of bargain seafood?

With help from Greenpeace and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Target has opened the door to a new era of seafood – one that dares to question tired old paradigms that cannot withstand this kind of innovation.  Retailers which have parroted the weary excuse of farmed salmon filling an otherwise unattainable price point will now be exposed as complacent rather than pragmatic.  If a low-cost hypermarket like Target, which needs to sell salmon for $6.99 a pound, can manage to transition entirely to wild, sustainable product, how can the Whole Foods clones of the world defend their reliance on environmentally dubious farmed products that sell for over twice the price?

Off to the races

Off to the races

To make matters even more difficult for the industry, a new threat has arisen in the form of legitimate and economically viable closed-containment salmon.  Earlier this month, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program took another swipe at the open-net nightmares that festoon the Canadian and Chilean coasts by giving the “Best Choice” green light to a new closed-containment salmon farm in Washington State.  This operation, lovingly termed “Sweet Spring” by its proprietor Per Heggelund, raises coho (silver) salmon in a sealed recirculating system located many miles inland, far from the fragile habitats of the Pacific Northwest’s wild salmon populations.  The feed component of this operation is still not perfect as it does exceed an even fish-in-to-fish-out ratio, but compared to the parasite-riddled, antibiotic-laden concentration camps that provide much of the world’s farmed salmon, Heggelund’s facility is a beacon of progress.

The horror... the horror

The horror... the horror

Conventional farmed salmon is caught between a rock and a hard place, and it is not a moment too soon.  Salmon farms have been the source of countless problems over the past decade – diseases in Chilean farms rip through penned animals like hot knives through butter; parasite swarms in Canadian farms threaten the very survival of co-habiting wild salmon runs, not to mention the essence of Pacific Northwest cultural integrity.

Salmon are the backbone of who we are here on the west coast.  It is the wild salmon runs that bring nutrients from the sea to the land, that fertilize the river banks and feed the yawning bears.  If we allow this, our greatest legacy, to perish at the hands of a small group of cash-blinded eco-criminals, it is doubtful that we will ever find another source of such selfless bounty.

We need courage, innovation, and foresight if we are to create a wise and responsible seafood industry that can steward our oceans in the coming decades, and it’s companies like Target and entrepreneurs like Per Heggelund that are leading the charge.  Remember this day — this was the day that we took our salmon back.

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