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.
Guest posts at sustainablesushi.net do not necessarily represent the opinion of the owner/operator of this website (Casson Trenor). In fact, they are often chosen specifically because they offer an alternative perspective and can give rise to interesting debate. Guest authors neither pay nor receive any sort of compensation for their participation.
Salmon with a side of certainty
One Way to Buy Supermarket Fish – Frozen
By Mark Bittman
I (Mark) found this salmon fillet at Shaw’s, in Berlin, Vermont. Frozen hard. It looked good, and the price was right ($12 a pound, I think, which for real sockeye isn’t at all bad), so I bought it. I had no idea what the numbers meant, so I asked Casson Trenor.
“Accurate species name — Latin name — certification # — FAO catch area — verbatim wild-caught language – Yes, this is very good. It’s nice to see grocery stores putting Latin names on their seafood – it helps consumers avoid confusion. Some fish are plagued by this problem – a big one on the West Coast is Sebastes spp., or the Pacific rockfish. You see that sold as all sorts of things – rock cod, Pacific red snapper, whatever. If we added a Latin name on the label it would be a lot easier. So it’s great to see stickers like the one on this salmon. Where did you find it?”
When I told him, he was surprised:
“This issue that I have is that Shaw’s is owned by SUPERVALU, which is notorious for their disregard of seafood sustainability. They continue to languish near the bottom of the Greenpeace rankings. In fact, a SUPERVALU executive once told me that their company was so decentralized that they literally did not even know what seafood they sold. How can you build a sustainable seafood operation on that? It’s terrifying.
“So while I see this labeling system as a positive trend, it is anomalous in terms of how SUPERVALU operates as a larger conglomerate. I strongly suspect that label was created and applied by the supplier that the salmon was purchased from, not by Shaw’s itself. You can see the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) coding on the label, so may have just been handed down. That’s fine, but why only in Shaw’s? What about at Albertson’s, or Jewel-Osco, or Lucky? And does this mean that SUPERVALU is looking at improving their labeling overall?”
Just to give you an idea of the size of SUPERVALU, here is a quick line-up of its US banners:
I said, “No doubt they’re opportunistic, but us showing this fish to markbittman.com readers is not exactly implicit support of Shaw’s or SUPERVALU – it’s demonstrating that sometimes you can find what you’re looking for in unlikely places.
“Fair enough,” Trenor responded. “That product itself certainly merits support. Sustainable, fairly priced Alaskan sockeye salmon, frozen and clearly labeled. I’m all for that. It’s just a shame that it’s such a rare occurrence at SUPERVALU that you and I can justify writing a blog post about it.”
Illustrations provided by author (Mark Bittman). Captions provided by sustainablesushi.net.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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 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
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.
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.
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
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
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?
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
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.
Feeding the world
When Sustainable Sushi was being developed, the Alaska pollock fishery — the 2nd largest fishery in terms of total biomass in the entire world — seemed relatively healthy and stable. At the very least, it provided a traceable and ostensibly well-managed seafood source that was superior to the random mash of imported whitefish that provides the ersatz fish protein underpinning our fish stick and surimi industries. In fact, the Alaska pollock fishery has been considered a “Best Choice” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program for years, and is an MSC-certified fishery.
Things seem to be taking a turn for the worse, however. Recent developments in the fishery seem to suggest that all may not be well in pollock country.
For five years running, the stock has seen lower levels of recruitment (new fish in younger age classes) than historical trends would lead researchers to expect. Overall stock levels have severely declined as well, taking the overall populations to levels only previously reached in the late 1970s — a time when the fishery was open to international fleets and was being heavily over-exploited.
Bycatch levels are also higher than one would like. An increase in overall CPUE (Catch Per Unit of Effort — a measurement of the amount of resources and manpower needed to produce a given amount of fish) has led to increased mortality among co-habiting salmon. Local sea birds and marine mammals are also being affected; strong links are being drawn between the pollock fishery and a downturn in northern fur seals and the endangered Stellar’s sea lion.
Pollock trawls are impacting sensitive seabed habitats as well — new explorations in the Bering Sea have revealed rich areas of endemic corals. Unfortunately, these areas are not yet protected from fishing, and the pollock fleet is freely operating in coral beds which should ideally be listed as no-take zones.
Most troubling, however, is the reaction on the part of the Northern Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC), a federal body that is responsible for setting the yearly pollock quota. Rather than use the aforementioned concerns as justification to pare down the fishery and reign in some of its more worrisome aspects, the NPFMC instead did the exact opposite and increased the allowed amount of king salmon bycatch to 60,000 fish.
This is poor management from an environmental standpoint. The pollock fishery’s regulations are such that when the bycatch cap for salmon is reached, the fishery is immediately shut down for the year. This increase in tolerable bycatch numbers reflects the rising CPUE within today’s pollock fishery, but rather than move to rebuild the fishery, it simply allows for greater and more damaging exploitation.
Can you spot the pollock?
The pollock fishery is no longer what it once was. It is clear that federal management cannot be depended upon to make wise and environmentally sound decisions in the face of the economic and industrial short-term interests that dominate the pollock industry. Given the current situation, I have no choice but to urge readers to refrain from purchasing products that contain Alaska pollock. In the sushi industry, this means the California roll and other items that include kanikama (imitation crab).
This is by no means an irreversible situation. The Alaska pollock is an incredibly resilient and fecund fish that has the capability to bounce back. Proper management can restore the fishery to its former productive glory, just as was done in the early 1980s. The greater worry is for other impacted populations, primarily Stellar’s sea lions, Alaskan king salmon, coldwater corals, and northern fur seals. If the pollock fishery is to continue, it must reinvent itself to be more sensitive to these co-habiting species.
I have no doubt that other environmental organizations have this issue on their radar, and that we will in the very near future begin to see more criticism of the Alaska pollock fishery from groups much larger and more established than Sustainable Sushi.
Those of you that follow my musings on the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) know that I tend to waffle a bit on this subject and am quite vocal about not giving the organization my full support. This is a great example of why.
A recent press release from the MSC states that “the Northwest Atlantic Canadian longline and harpoon swordfish (Xiphias gladius) fisheries have announced their entry into the full assessment process for MSC certification.” Ordinarily, this would be something that I would see as a positive step. MSC certification, while not a perfect system, tends to help identify fisheries that have stronger levels of scientific rigor in assessment and quote management, and are generally more sustainable overall.
MSC certification for North Atlantic Canadian swordfish, however, may not be cause for celebration.
It’s important to note that this certification is covering not one fishery per se, but rather two fisheries that are drawing on the same population. What I mean is that the certification extends to encompass two distinct fleets — a flotilla of swordfish longliners, and a small navy of swordfish harpoon boats.
These two fisheries target the same swordfish populations but do so in radically different manners. The longlines, which take the lion’s share of the overall quota (90%), use similar gear to that which has caused such problems in Pacific tuna fisheries. In essence, these are sturdy ropes, often several miles in length, which consist of countless hooks that can indiscriminately impact any number of other co-habiting species, such as sharks and whales. Longlines are problematic by their very nature, as there is simply no easy way to prevent non-target species from biting at these hooks (and subsequently dying.)
The harpooners, by contrast, use what is potentially the most precise type of fishing gear on the planet. Harpooners search for an appropriate target, scope it for size, and shoot to kill. There is virtually no bycatch in a harpoon swordfish fishery as the fishermen have already identified and sized their quarry before the harpoon is launched. To top it off, there is a marked quality difference between harpooned and longlined swordfish — harpooned swordfish tends to be firmer and less “washed out” than longlined product. Unfortunately, it is all mixed together before export, and consumers are never given enough point-of-sale information to identify the particularities of the swordfish at their local fish market.
Currently, the harpooners are in difficult straits. The Cape Sable Harpoon Fisherman’s Association, which represents the few old salts that still fish in this time-honored fashion, is continually being squeezed out by the expanding longline fishery. In fact, the Canadian government is moving to strip the harpooners of even more of their tiny share of the total quota. This would effectively replace the few remaining harpoon boats with additional longline boats, and result in a higher level of bycatch overall.
The problem with this upcoming MSC certification is that, as it is applicable to both fisheries, it continues to downplay the important differences between them. Harpooned swordfish needs to be set above what the longliners are bringing in, not mixed in with it and forgotten. Not only that, but what does this say about the rigor of the MSC itself, knowing that these longliners are able to attain certification even though their bycatch levels are unacceptably high?
The bottom line: Consumers need to be able to differentiate the two products appropriately as well as understand the ramifications of the methods used by the two fisheries. The MSC, which so loftily prides itself on transparency and traceability, isn’t going to help this time. In fact, by giving a green light to the longliners, it’s just going to make things worse.
Ok, so it’s no secret that I love sardines. They’re a great example of the kind of fish that we should be eating more of. They reproduce in large numbers, breed at a young age, and are exceptionally fecund. They’re low on the trophic scale and thus are an efficient source of protein, so it’s not tough for me to bang the drum about them when I talk about how we can eat fish more sustainably.
Sardines are low in mercury, PCBs, and other contaminents due to their short lifespans and to where they live in the water column. Also, like many cold-water oily fish, sardines are high in Omega-3s. Awesome.
But there’s a problem.
The vast majority of the sardines we get in this country are sealed away in funky little pull-tab tins that make me think of oil drum fires, harmonicas, and shady alleys in East St. Louis. This unfortunate image problem makes it difficult to put the humble sardine back on the menu in American restaurants. We’ve developed a taste for “fresh” fish (don’t get me started on how ridiculous the concept of “fresh” is).
Our sardines are not fresh. They languish in decade-old cans in the back of the pantry, waiting for some catastrophic event when the infrastructure of the country collapses and we are forced to live on tinned food in underground bomb shelters with half of the neighborhood.
The fact is, though, that the sardine is a diamond in the rough. Sashimi-grade sardines are healthy, delicious morsels that give us an excellent option for positive change at the sushi bar as well as the seafood counter. Any decent sushi bar should offer iwashi when sardines are in season, and I highly recommend giving them a try.
That being said, there’s still one problem… and yes, it’s sustainability related.
The vast majority of the sardines that come into this country are from enormous foreign fisheries that have little or no transparency and management. Morocco, Thailand, Portugal, Scotland, Spain, Poland, and countless other countries have sardine fisheries. But which ones are sustainable?
The answer: I don’t know. I’m not sure that anyone has a good answer.
The folks at FishWise and Seafood Watch have been wrestling with this issue for a while. There really isn’t much information available on most sardine stocks. It’s probably due to an ongoing issue that permeates much of our relationship to the ocean — we like big fish. And pretty fish. And brightly-colored fish. And fish with sharp teeth.
But little fish with no “personalities”, no stories, no flashy colors — people don’t really seem to care about them too much. There’s an historic trend of these “forage fish” (small fish like sardines and smelt that form the lower levels of the food web and support many larger fish) being ignored by fishery management schemes. Even after the train wreck at Cannery Row, it’s still common to think that these tiny carbon-copy fish are infinite in number: they are all too often of negligible importance to the scientists and policy-makers that spend their time dealing with sharks and salmon.
But little but little, this is starting to change.
A new announcement by the Marine Stewardship Council showcases a great example of this paradigm shift. The French purse-seine sardine fishery in the Bay of Biscay is now officially in full MSC assessment. Those of you familiar with the MSC are likely aware that any fishery that makes it into full assessment has a very high chance of gaining certification.
I have issues with the MSC, mainly based around stringency of benchmarks and their process for demanding and monitoring fishery improvements, but even I have to admit that the MSC brings one very important piece of the sustainability process to the table: traceability. MSC-certified products are tracked in such a way that it is possible to determine nearly everything about the fish in question — stock status, catch method, even load/unload data and break-of-bulk points are recorded. This is an incredbibly important step forward for most fisheries, but for sardiners, it’s an unheard-of leap.
Sardines have a lot going for them. They’re the kind of animals that have a good chance at supporting our seafood demand due to inherent physiology and life history. But if we don’t give them the attention they deserve and fish for them in a sustainable and traceable manner, well, those old tins in your pantry might start to look a lot more appetizing.
I apologize for not being more on the ball with this update; this conference has been a bit overwhelming.
Anyhow, there’s been a lot of talk here about the growing (?) sustainable seafood movement in Japan, the world’s #1 seafood consumer per capita. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is claiming that there’s a burgeoning awareness within the Japanese consumer public: In 2004, there were no MSC-certified products available in Japan. Today, there are 150.
While I’m certainly glad to see that more and more fisheries are being certified by the MSC, I don’t necessarily agree with their conclusion. The MSC-certified products available in Japan are largely imports from fisheries that also sell their product to other countries, especially in Europe and North America, where the public is much more aware of the MSC. Commitments like those made by WalMart (all wild seafood to be MSC-certified by 2014), or the entire country of Holland (only MSC-certified wild fish to be sold) help to drive demand in these areas.
One could argue that Japan is importing the same products they had been five years ago, but the products simply happen to be MSC-certified now and weren’t previously. So is this really indicative of a growing awareness in Japan?
As of March 2008, a study undertaken by the Japan office of the MSC indicated that only 8% of the surveyed public were aware of the MSC label. That number decreases to 5% when the survey is narrowed to pregnant women and mothers (a demographic which is often responsible for shopping for food and domestic goods, including fish).
The story becomes even more telling when you start to look at the actual products coming from Japan that are being certified by the MSC: Products like snow crab and skipjack tuna. These are items that have garnered popularity beyond Japan with the expansion of the sushi industry into a global phenomenon. Compare this to those fish that were “left behind,” as it were — fish like sayori and kohada that are only rarely encountered in other countries but have immense popularity and cultural value in Japan.
One could imagine that if awareness of and value for MSC certification was growing among the Japanese public to a level where it was driving demand, we would be seeing certification efforts on these domestically-driven fisheries as well. And yet…?