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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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The question of certification

Setting the stage for sustainable aquaculture

Setting the stage for sustainable aquaculture

There is no debate about the part that aquaculture will play in tomorrow’s seafood industry.  It will be huge.  The titular role.  The eponymous lead.  The center-stage dynamo that gets the snazzy technicolor jacket and all the catchy solos.  Lo, for we have seen the future of seafood, and like it or not, that future is farming.

Just in the last decade or so, we’ve watched the percentage of the overall seafood supply that is sourced from aquaculture operations grow from 25% to 50%.  No doubt we will soon see a world where most of the fish we consume are raised in farms.  With this in mind, it’s no wonder that the seafood world is all agog over a long-awaited development in the aquaculture industry that finally came to pass a few days ago.


First to the finish line

The World Wildlife Fund, in conjunction with industry, government, and NGO representatives, has created a standard for tilapia farming through a multi-stakeholder process known as the Tilapia Aquaculture Dialogue (affectionately referred to as “the TAD“).  This is the first of many forthcoming standards stemming out of the larger Aquaculture Dialogue process, which focuses on species rather than on countries, regions, or technologies.  The TAD standard is the result of a exhaustive four-year process that has resulted in an ISEAL-compliant set of certification metrics by which the performance of tilapia farms can be measured.  Participating farms that meet the standard’s benchmarks are eligible to receive certification.

In the future, this standard (as well as all future Dialogue-driven standards) will be held by a body known as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, or ASC (sound familiar?)  The ASC is slated to open its doors in 2011.  In the interim, the TAD standard will be temporarily held by GLOBALGAP, a veteran agriculture certification organization which ironically may soon find itself in an rivalrous relationship with the nascent ASC.

Um... no

Um... no

I did not participate personally in the development of the TAD, but I have been fortunate enough to be involved in the Pangasius Aquaculture Dialogue (that’s right… the “PAD.”  There’s also the “BAD,” the “ShAD,” the “SCAD,” the “TrAD“, and the “SAD“.  Can you guess what they stand for?)  As I wrote in a recent post, I’ve learned a lot from my involvement in the project and I do think that it has the potential to lead to positive change.  That being said, I have to ask — are we chasing the right paradigm here?  Can certification really play the panacea to all our seafood woes?

What are your thoughts on this?  Is certification the way forward?  Will a “sustainable” certification be enough to both appease demand for eco-friendly seafood and to protect the natural world?

To catch an eel

To catch an eel

We’ve seen what happens when unchecked aquaculture is unleashed upon the environment.  The 1980s and 1990s saw the destruction of countless square miles of mangroves by relentless shrimp farming operations.  The cost of conventional salmon farming on the ecosystems of British Columbia and Chile is too high to compute.  American and European eel populations have declined by 90% in the last 20 years due in part to the insatiable elver abduction scheme that fuels the unagi industry.

There are some that would say that certification falls short; that we need top-level policy that governs the way fish farms operate.  By way of example, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has drawn fire for dubious decision-making in regard to numerous fisheries.  New Zealand hoki is MSC-certified “sustainable”, yet it is considered an unacceptably destructive option by many environmental organizations and has even been boycotted by Waitrose, a major retail chain in the United Kingdom.  More recent MSC certification projects, such as Ross Sea toothfish and Pacific hake, have drawn fire as well.

The people's swamp

The people's swamp

Still, fisheries are not the same as fish farms.  They are national resources, not industrial enterprises, and thus are managed (at least ostensibly) by a central governing body.  Fish farms are largely beholden to their shareholders and operate as designed by their architects.  They are not pulling from the same communal resources, per se, as a national fishing fleet… or are they?

When a salmon farm dumps pollutants and parasites into the nearby ocean, causing harmful algal blooms and sea lice infestations in wild fish, are they not drawing on a natural resource?  When a shrimp farmer turns a mangrove swamp into a pile of mulch, does he not deprive other stakeholders of ecosystem services?

So what’s the way forward?  Does it make sense to pursue a third-party certification system?

Notorious notary?

We’ve already taken a few stabs at this, but have come up short each time.  The classic example of certification causing unease is the Marine Stewardship Council — an organization which, although originally predicated on good intentions, now threatens to undermine the very credibility of seafood sustainability on a conceptual level by brandishing its rubber stamp of approval so liberally.  In the aquaculture arena, the current standards (primarily those developed by GLOBALGAP and the ACC/GAA) have been heavily targeted by scientific and environmental groups critical of their weak benchmarks, closed-door standard development process, and industry-dominated governance structures.  The Aquaculture Dialogues, ostensibly based on an open stakeholder process, were supposed to be a response to these shortcomings.  But is a better standard what we should be working towards?

Some would argue that rather than putting our resources into third-party standard development, we should be pressuring governments to institute domestic policies that will eliminate wasteful and polluting aquaculture practices and reward responsible and innovative producers.  But is this feasible?  Do the governments of major aquaculture centers in the developing world — Vietnam, Indonesia, and India come instantly to mine — have the capacity to develop and enforce these policies?

Signs of the times

Signs of the times

Still, it’s not just about the effectiveness of the process.  Equally important is the perception of that effectiveness in the eyes of the consumer.  To put it another way — which course of action will best promote the growth of a sustainable economy by increasing the sales of environmentally responsible seafood?  When you go to your local grocery store to buy seafood, which gives you more confidence at the point of sale: a third-party “sustainable” certification stamp, or a “Product of Thailand” label coupled with the awareness that Thailand has instituted a sustainable aquaculture policy?  Which do you trust?  Which one makes you want to buy fish?

It’s a thorny issue, no doubt about it.  I’m eager to hear your thoughts on this.

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Back in action

Posted by Casson in News and Announcements
It's getting hot in here

It's getting hot in here

I’m back from a much-needed vacation and ready to get cracking.

As you are likely aware, the oceans are continuing to heat up (both literally and figuratively, unfortunately.)  we’re seeing an ever-increasing number of articles in the mainstream press about overfishing, piracy, fishery collapses, acidification, trade disputes, and more.

I’ve got several pending articles on my plate but I do want to float a suggestion so we can better get at the issues that are of the biggest concern to you, the sustainablesushi.net readership.

One of the ideas that I received a couple of weeks ago was to allow readers to ask direct questions that would then be used to formulate articles.  I think this is a great idea, as I do have a tendency to get a bit off-topic and this would serve to keep my pen reigned in a bit and to ensure that the entries I’m writing are indeed of interest to folks that visit this site.

Have you heard the news?

Have you heard the news?

So, let me ask — what’s on your mind?  Concerned about the bluefin tuna hullabaloo going on in Europe?  How about the New York Times front page article on hoki?  Maybe your interest is piqued by all the new money the Canadian government is pouring into aquaculture?  Is it the ongoing crisis within the Chilean salmon farming industry (they brought it on themselves) that’s got your attention?  Or maybe something else entirely?

Please either post your questions and topics of interest here or send them to info@sustainablesushi.net, and I’ll take it from there.  Looking forward to hearing from you!

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One whisker closer to success

Apologies for the delayed update; the week managed to get away from me.

Getting an earful

Getting an earful

The fourth meeting of the Pangasius Aquaculture Dialogue (PAD4) transpired much like its predecessors, at least in my experience.  While the stakeholder representation was diverse and thoroughly sampled many different sectors involved in the Southeast Asian catfish farming industry, the double-whammy of a grueling agenda and our reliance on consecutive translation rather than simultaneous managed to impede our work early on.  While much of what needed to be discussed was indeed brought to the floor, many of the critical subjects at hand were not explored as thoroughly as they deserved.  Aside from this, however, the meeting was actually quite productive.

It’s interesting to be involved in this process; to see the sausage-making that goes on inside the box of certification development.  The attractive thing about the PAD is that its structure, like that of the other Aquaculture Dialogues, truly does endeavor to make that box as transparent as possible.  In fact, that is the primary reason why I believe that this process may actually succeed.

Yeah, but what does it mean?

Yeah, but what does it mean?

Much of the criticism of other aquaculture certification groups, such as the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) and GlobalGAP, is based on the fact that during the formative stages of these institutions, neither transparency nor full stakeholder participation was emphasized.  Many environmental groups challenge these standards on this principle.  If neither the reasons nor the process behind a given set of benchmarks are open to examination, how can one truly buy into the idea that a certification is indeed a marker of sustainability?

Over the last few PAD meetings, I’ve been privileged enough not just to participate and have my say on how I feel the standards should be set, but also to be able to interact with other stakeholders whom I may never have met otherwise.  It’s not every day that someone like me, a Greenpeace Campaigner, gets to sit down with thoughtful, articulate representatives of feed companies, major retail operations, and production facilities, and talk shop over duty-free scotch or a cold mangosteen smoothie.

The active word in this whole process is “dialogue,” after all (forgive the archaic spelling).  It’s a chance to not just have one’s say, but to listen to others as well, and hopefully to emerge from the process with not just another line item crossed off one’s agenda, but with a deeper and more multi-dimensional understanding of the issues at large.  To be perfectly honest, when I first came to the PAD two years ago, I was demanding standards and benchmarks that were based in part on simple ignorance.  I’ve learned a great deal from the other people within the PAD – from the small-scale Vietnamese farmers to the French importers, and from my supposed enemies among big business to my quotidian contemporaries within the environmental movement.

Sure was simpler with the Smog Monster

Sure was simpler with the Smog Monster

No, I don’t think everything emerging from the PAD is perfect.  There are still some nascent standards (especially regarding the feed chain, chemical use, and water pollution issues) that must be tightened up – and trust me, I’m not letting it go without a fight.  But in spite of this, I marvel at how much I haven’t had to fight for, and at how many times we’ve all really wanted the same thing.

Environmental sanctity.  Animal welfare.  Social justice.  A healthy, productive Mekong Delta, and a prosperous population dwelling within it.  There is no arch-villain opposing these ideals, scheming in his underground lair as to how to best ravage the environment and enslave the local populace.  Instead, there’s a diverse group of individuals with a surprising amount of commonality amongst their goals and ethics… and who all happen to have an inexplicable fascination with all things catfish.

Let's not get carried away here...

Let's not get carried away here...!

I’ve found myself energized by what the PAD theoretically stands for — the idea that, in order to save this planet and heal our oceans, we must work together.  We environmentalists must check our pride at the door and work hand-in-glove with those same forces that we had once dismissed, belittled, and demonized.  This kind of unity can straddle cultural and political divisions, and can forge new pacts between erstwhile foes.  It is a truly powerful force, and just maybe, it can help to forge a better world for all of us.

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A temporary setback in the Arctic Char Revolution

Fight on, char lovers.  All is not lost!

Many of you are already aware what occurred at Cascade Aquafarms in Washington State in mid-January of this year.  A series of landslides, triggered by heavy rains, roared out of the logging areas near Winlock, WA, and devastated the facilities at Cascade.  The mud interrupted the circulation of the water supply, rendering the farm’s waters hypoxic and thus toxic to the fish that lived in it.

In a matter of hours, 250,000 arctic char suffocated.

Cascade Aquafarms lost about 800,000 pounds of arctic char in one day.  Much of the char had been slated to travel to Whistler, BC for the upcoming Winter Olympics. This cost Brian Mencke, the proprietor and visionary behind Cascade (which had hitherto been North America’s largest arctic char farm) over $500,000.

Cascade is a FishWise producer partner and an extremely valuable resource to those retailers and consumers struggling to find eco-friendly alternatives to farmed salmon.  I spoke to Brian at length about this tragedy, and was surprised by how optimistic he seemed.  “We’re rebuilding the whole farm underground,” he said, “so this can’t ever happen again.  We have hatchlings at [the hatchery], they’re still ok.  But we won’t have char ready for market for another two years.”

So what do we do in the interim?

Arctic char is nearly a magic bullet answer to the farmed salmon problem.  With its beautiful red flesh, competitive price point, and a closed-containment production method that is light-years ahead of traditional salmon farms, arctic char is a great option  for eco-vores and very much a fish to watch as we move towards a more sustainable seafood regime here in North America.  With the temporary hiatus of Cascade Aquafarms, though, supply is not what it was four or five months ago.

There is some good news, however — this opens up the market for new farms to emerge.  Farms like Aquanor in Iceland and Icy Waters in Canada are rushing to get their closed-containment char to market.  And as savvy consumers from California to Connecticut gain a taste for this miraculous fish, demand will continue to balloon.

The Arctic Char Revolution: Bad for salmon farmers, good for the planet.

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Understanding the rankings: Aquaculture

Aquaculture (a.k.a. fish farming) involves fish or shellfish that is taken from cultured populat

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ions rather than form the wild. Sustainable Sushi uses the methods developed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program to appraise these operations.

The methodology is based on the analysis of five criteria:

1) Use of marine resources: What kind of drain is the farm on our natural resources? Many fish farms use wild fish as food for their farmed product. How many pounds of fish go into the farm to get one pound of salable fish out? Is the food fish drawn from sustainable sources? Are endangered species being used as food?

2) Risk of escaped fish to wild stocks: Fish farms are always going to have some level of escapes. What is the likelihood that this could be a problem? Does the same species already exist in the waters around the farm? Could the fish thrive in the local area, and establish a population? Is there the potential for cross-breeding?

3) Risk of disease and parasite transfer to wild stocks: Is the farm acting as a disease or parasite incubator? Could these pathogens and parasites potentially transfer to local wild populations? How is the farm controlling the potential disease problems?

4) Risk of pollution and habitat effects: Many fish farms discharge effluent into the natural environmental around them. Is this being mitigated at all? What are the chemicals and particulates that are being discharged? Is they having a deleterious effect on the local environment? How is the farm effecting the environment as a whole?

5) Management effectiveness: Some farms are very well-managed, while others are slipshod operations that pose a severe threat to environment. This criterion examines the strength of the management protocols under which the farms are operating and evaluates the effectiveness of their precautionary measures.

These five criteria are appraised and averaged to generate an overall ranking.

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