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.
Days gone by
It’s been quite a year.
As the last few heartbeats of the year 2009 fade away, it is natural to take stock of how far we have come. It’s important to recognize our victories, as well as to isolate and examine our shortcomings. After all, there’s certainly no need to make the same mistakes again in 2010.
I’m also happy to say that it was Sustainable Sushi‘s first birthday at some point in the last few weeks. Over this past year, this website has afforded me with the opportunity not only to explore many fascinating issues, but to discuss them with people commenting from all across the globe. It has been a wonderful experience, and I thank you all so very much for helping to make it happen.
So, 2009: a tumultuous year by any standard. The oceans have had a tough time of it, but in other ways, we’ve achieved more than we could have possibly hoped for.
There have been times over the past twelve months when things have seemed bleak. It is beyond debate that the oceans took some major blows this year, and some of the ominous clouds on the horizon have grown even darker:
At the same time, we’ve seen some incredible successes this year. All across the planet, people stood up for the oceans, bringing their passion for a better planet with them as they cooked, shopped, wrote, worked and marched:
The End of the Line, a documentary on overfishing and the state of the world’s oceans, was released. This led to increased pressure on Nobu restaurant to discontinue the sale of endangered Northern bluefin. This momentum manifest in celebrity petitions, dozens of articles in trade and mainstream press, and a Greenpeace campaign.
It's finally over
The Cove, a shocking documentary about the Taiji dolphin slaughter, was released worldwide. Broome, Australia, discontinued its sister-city relationship with Taiji over the fiasco. Taiji has temporarily halted its dolphin drive, but other communities in Japan continue to hunt dolphins. The Cove has even been nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Documentary.”
- 2009 marked the first year in a world beyond the grindadrap: the annual Faeroese pilot whale drive that had caused much consternation among environmentalists. In response to warnings by their chief medical advisors, the Faeroese practice of slaughtering pilot whales and distributing the meat throughout the community was halted permanently in November of 2008.
The majority of these positive changes are part of a greater pattern: an accelerating increase in our overall awareness of the problems faced by our oceans. Movies, magazine articles, and activist campaigns have brought the health of our fisheries to the headlines and to the tips of our tongues. The amount of conversations we are having at coffee shops, in grocery stores, and around backyard barbecues about seafood sustainability and environmentally responsible fish consumption has never been higher – and rising faster than ever before.
Stand and fight
Yes, it’s true that the bluefin tuna is in dire straits. It is true that eel poaching continues unabated, that bottom trawlers still prowl the seas, and that we are on pace to empty the oceans of all seafood in less than forty years. Still, as menacing as these threats are, they are not the most important issues at hand.
The single most powerful and meaningful thing that happened to our oceans this year is that we truly began to wake up to the truth of what we are doing to our planet. We are more aware. We are more alert. And we are much more energized and focused.
Hundreds of new ocean activists are standing up every day to make a difference. Maybe they write a check, or they buy a different kind of fish, or they have a conversation with a chef or grocer. Maybe they simply have coffee with a good friend and spread the word. It doesn’t matter – it all helps. Every day we come closer to achieving critical mass, a fully realized awareness that will mobilize our true potential to save our oceans.
A brave new world
So let’s make 2010 the year that we redouble our efforts. It is time to capitalize on our momentum and push even harder, accomplish even more for the sake of planet and our future. There is still a tremendous amount of work to do, but make no mistake: we are stronger than the forces that would hold us back. And on those particularly gloomy days, when bad news comes crashing down and the future looks insurmountably bleak, just remember: you are not alone. We’re all in this together – you, me, and the millions of other people that are out there fighting every single day, working to make this world a better place for all of us.
Take heart — we are winning.
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.
I’m in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and I’m not here for the sushi.
As difficult as it is for sushi snobs such as myself to accept, there is a whole world of fish and seafood outside of our comfortable little tatami rooms. In fact, it’s because of trouble on a distant front – the murky waters of the catfish industry – that I’ve crossed the Pacific to participate in a series of meetings here in Southeast Asia.
The fisheries that we have traditionally relied upon for our fish sticks, surimi, and Filet-O-Fish sandwiches are showing signs of distress. First it was Atlantic cod, which we fished to death in 1960s and 1970s. In the years following, various stocks of haddock, plaice, and similarly uncharismatic fish began to flag, mainly in the Baltic and North Seas. As I mentioned in a recent post, even Alaska Pollock, which had for years been heralded as an inexhaustible source of cheap, mediocre fish protein, is starting to tank. This ominous pattern spells trouble for the oceans, but it’s also worrisome for those megacompanies that have built their empires atop a foundation of inexpensive, lightly breaded marine life.
The question has become a manner of simple logic for these large corporations. Ocean conservation and ethics aside, companies like Bird’s Eye, Gordon’s, and McDonald’s want to be able to sell their whitefish products throughout this bright new 21st century of ours. This becomes a rather unlikely possibility when one considers that there may be virtually no whitefish left to sell in the coming decades.
So what do these seafood buyers do? Boundlessly pragmatic, they begin to look for a new source of comparable whitefish, one that can withstand the demand pressure from all the people out there that are shaking their fists in the name of fish sticks.
In other words, these companies need a sustainable fishery. For this is indeed the very essence of the word’s meaning, in a literal sense – a resource that can be exploited without compromising its capacity for similar exploitation in the future.
Thus do the eyes of the world’s seafood merchandisers turn to the smoky, motorbike-infested streets of Can Tho, Vietnam.
Can Tho is the center of the Vietnamese pangasius catfish farming industry, a burgeoning enterprise if ever there was one. Two distinct species of pangasius are farmed in any significant amount: Pangasius hypopthalamus (marketed as tra or swai) and Pangasius bocourti (sold as basa). These South Asian river fish are much like our Mississippi-born domestic channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus), with a similar bewhiskered countenance and the same muck-dwelling habits. They are raised in ponds, enclosures, and cages all along the muddy banks of the creeping Mekong River, and over the past five years or so have been snapped up in exponentially increasing quantities by a European Union that is starving for whitefish. In fact, with crashing cod and Pollock stocks contributing to a flood of unanswered demand, pangasius is quickly becoming one of the main fish fingers in the dyke.
Unfortunately, the pangasius industry is fraught with all manner of problems. Abuse of chemicals and antibiotics, unchecked resource use, massive environmental negligence and rampaging cascades of effluent are threatening the entire ecosystem of the Mekong delta. Concerns about health issues related to pangasius products are common, and western consumers are meeting the incoming catfish with anything from light skepticism to blaring sirens and biohazard-level health alerts.
Luckily, there is a ray of hope for both the eco-loco and the health nuts. Championed by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the creation of a new aquaculture certification body known as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) is underway. It is the hope of all concerned that this standard will separate the wheat from the chaff within the industry, as well as raise the quality bar in general. A farm’s acquisition of the standard is theoretically linked to its production of a more desirable product on the market. This type of commodity differentiation would then lead to higher profits for those that invested in running a cleaner and more responsible operation.
This is the fourth meeting of what is known as the Pangasius Aquaculture Dialogue (PAD), a subset of the ASC process. I will be posting an update on the progress of this round of meetings later in the week.
I know catfish is far from the most interesting subject out there, but this industry has grown by orders of magnitude in the last decade, and we must give it the attention it deserves. The creation of a strong and defensible certification standard for pangasius farming is absolutely critical if we are to save the ailing Mekong River from a fishy free-for-all.