Posted by Casson in 4 Oceans
, Serial Pieces
A dangerous path
This installment of my monthly Alternet column, “4 Oceans,” was originally published on April 26, 2011.
Even as the plight of our oceans worsens, a large sector of the seafood industry continues to defend the status quo. Issues of grave concern like overfishing, bottom trawling, and piracy are swept under the carpet time and time again by the same tired argument: “sustainable seafood is too expensive.”
This adage comes in many forms. “Sustainability is just for the rich,” is a common one. Or maybe the scoundrels go for the jugular with pseudo-patriotic poppycock like “real Americans can’t afford to eat sustainable fish.” This scare tactic is designed to end the conversation so conventional industry can get back to slinging the same ill-gotten plunder that’s gotten us to this point of ailing seas and depleted fish stocks.
The fact of the matter is that, at the end of the day, it’s not sustainable seafood that’s too expensive – rather, it is unsustainable seafood, with all of its associated externalities, subsidies, and Faustian bargains that is out of our price range. It’s time to put this argument where it belongs: in the past.
This month’s 4 Oceans highlights several stores priced for mainstream America that are leading the charge on sustainable seafood in conventional retail. If these guys can do it, anyone can.
It may come as a shock, but the 1700+ Safeway stores across the country are on track to become a powerful force for ocean conservation. According to Greenpeace’s most recent seafood retailer ranking, Safeway has the most sustainable seafood operation of any major market in the United States. With a score of 6.5 out of 10, Safeway has a long way to go yet, but has still managed to outperform stores like Whole Foods that are generally assumed to be more able to provide sustainable options thanks to more affluent clientele.
Safeway has recently discontinued some particularly unsustainable seafood items (like orange roughy) and is providing thorough in-store information about their commitment to sustainability. The company has also spoken out publicly in favor of global conservation efforts; their recent shout-out supporting Ross Sea protection is an excellent example of how mainstream retailers are rounding the horn on seafood sustainability and foraying into the highly political – and critically important – arena of marine reserve establishment.
Do the right thing
The big-box retail titan from Minnesota tied for the #2 spot in this year’s rankings with Wegmans (a progressive high-end grocer that has also done some extremely impressive work on seafood sustainability). This is actually a slight step down for Target – the company took the top spot in last year’s rankings, largely because of its willingness to tackle Matterhorn-like challenges that other companies refuse to even consider. A prime example is Target’s decision to discontinue all forms of farmed salmon throughout their entire operation. This initiative has greatly deflated conventional industry “farmed salmon is necessary because people want inexpensive salmon” fear-mongering.
Target has also evolved beyond the sale of unsustainable mainstays like Chilean sea bass, and continuing to press forward along other avenues of seafood sustainability. It’s true that Target doesn’t sell a great deal of seafood when compared to many other nationwide retailers, but this kind of progress still goes to show that even big-box discounters can do great things for environmental preservation when they commit to it.
3) Harris Teeter
The growing consumer demand for sustainable seafood is not only found in the leftist enclaves of Northern California or among patrons of trendy, feel-good East Village restaurants. The sustainable seafood movement is making headway all across the country, and in the American South, this has been spearheaded by the remarkable efforts of Harris Teeter, a household-name grocery store that has dominated much of the retail sector in Georgia and the Carolinas for decades. Even though Harris Teeter competes directly with price-focused grocers such as Food Lion and Walmart, the company has taken an aggressive approach to seafood sustainability and is becoming an undeniable leader in the sector.
Over the past couple of years, Harris Teeter has discontinued orange roughy, augmented their sourcing policy to take key environmental issues (such as pirate fishing) into account during purchasing, and created a comprehensive seafood information clearinghouse within their website to enable their customers to learn more about all of the various seafood options available at Harris Teeter. The company is currently #6 in Greenpeace’s retailer ranking, but with a score of 5.8/10 is less than three-quarters-of-a-point behind the current #1 (Safeway).
Lifting the veil
Aldi’s no-nonsense approach to discount retail has earned the company appeal in the eyes of many bargain hunters across the Midwest. Still, it doesn’t often figure as a top destination for seafood shoppers… but maybe it should.Aldi doesn’t sell a tremendous amount of seafood, but for such a small category, Aldi’s seafood gets an impressive amount of attention and dedication from company leadership. Aldi has leapt up Greenpeace’s retailer rankings for the second year in a row, moving from a 1.9 out of ten in 2009, to a 3.9/10 in 2010, and now to a 5.5/10 this year (which has earned the company seventh place overall in the 2011 rankings).
Aldi sells no farmed salmon, has already eliminated the worst of its unsustainable species (like orange roughy), and currently offers only seven red list items (where most markets average around 12 or 13). The company also provides a substantial amount of information to consumers through comprehensive seafood labeling practices. Interested customers can discern where any given Aldi seafood product was caught (FAO catch area), the precise species in question (latin name), and the method used in capturing the fish (gear type indications) just by looking at the label. It’s refreshing to see a discount retailer selling fish without obfuscating it under market monikers; hopefully this is a trend that will continue as seafood sustainability continues to enter the mainstream.
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.
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
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.
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.
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)
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.
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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Mine! Mine! All mine!
In an age where we are pushing our planet’s limits in search of resources, we find more and more poignancy in questions of corporate social responsibility. What obligations, either ethical or legal, should govern an a extractive operation as it roots around in the rainforest, slurps up the oceans, or grinds its way into the Earth’s crust in search of coltan, cod, or crude oil?
We have reached a point where the simple ability to access a resource can no longer be interpreted as right to do so. This kind of anachronistic thinking has gotten us into a world of trouble. The fact is that we are an incredibly powerful species, with the technological capacity to perform jaw-dropping feats. We can build immense transit tunnels below the ocean, launch intricate networks of satellites to enrich communication, and splice vegetable DNA into a chicken. This kind of space-age tech lends perceived legitimacy to business plans which make endeavors like offshore oil drilling appear safe and massively profitable. A few people make a lot of money, something goes horribly wrong, and we all pay the price.
The toxic results of this kind of unmitigated rapacity have been spurting into the Gulf of Mexico for weeks now. A small group of people decided that they were willing to gamble with the health of our planet for their own personal gain. We should be furious. Who do these pompous egoists think they are, and why, for God’s sake, are we allowing them to compromise our future for their own profit?
This appallingly selfish approach to business must be stopped. Given that we live together on a finite planet, the corporations of the future must be those that are willing to take responsibility for their actions.
The concept of sustainable seafood is predicated on the idea that seafood purveyors, which have for decades served as implements of oceanic destruction, must start standing up for the planet regardless of traditional consumer preferences. The fact is that the average seafood diner or sushi patron simply does not have the time to educate him/herself on the environmental impacts of the vast and ever-changing array of seafood options available to consumers in today’s world. Diabolically efficient fishing technology coupled with cheap refrigeration and well-organized global freight networks allow us access to countless seafood items for all corners of the globe, some environmentally acceptable and some quite the opposite. As such, chefs, merchants, and restaurateurs that take the initiative to defend the ocean and its future. After all, if you work in the seafood industry, it is the ocean that is providing your paycheck.
The face of the future?
Thankfully, we are seeing a gradual shift towards this more responsible way of thinking. In the seafood world, I can think of no better example than Martin Reed and his sustainable seafood delivery business, ilovebluesea.com. Reed shoulders the burden of sorting the proverbial wheat from the chaff himself, so his customers really can’t make a mistake in terms of the environmental repercussions of their choices. Ilovebluesea.com refuses to offer seafood items that are in the Seafood Watch “avoid” category or on the Greenpeace red list, and demands transparency and traceability on the part of his suppliers. Gear type, catch location, and other important information must all be provided before ilovebluesea.com agrees to offer the fish. The company is even addressing packaging and shipping issues by using recyclable and/or biodegradable containers rather than Styrofoam and similar petro-synthetic nightmares.
A much larger company also recently took an impressive step towards corporate social responsibility in the seafood world. Maersk, the shipping giant, has declared that it will not transport any whale products, any shark products (including fins), any Patagonian or Antarctic toothfish, or any orange roughy on its ships due to concerns about the sustainability of these products. This is a very powerful message, especially when one considers that Maersk ships about 20% of all of the world’s internationally traded sea-borne seafood products.
Full steam ahead
The Greenpeace seafood retailer rankings also help to shed some light on seafood purveyors that are – or are not, as the case may be – doing the right thing. Companies like Target and Wegmans are taking positive steps and working towards truly sustainable seafood operations, while others, like Costco, are charging full steam, hands clapped over ears and yammering loudly, propelling us all in our mutual handcart down to Hades.
We obviously do not have the legal framework in place to reign in this kind of behavior. Otherwise, one could surmise, we would never have had a Deepwater explosion, and Costco wouldn’t be selling Chilean seabass and orange roughy in the first place. Given that, it is up to us as consumers to act.
We need to reward businesses that are making the change towards legitimate corporate social responsibility. Buy seafood from honest purveyors that don’t try to pull the wool over our eyes. Some companies are willingly selling out our oceans to line their bank accounts – so why are we shopping there?
If you want to make your money from my ocean, you’d better treat it with respect. It’s about responsibility, jerk.