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Do ‘stoplight’ ratings advance sustainability?
Tuesday,21 September,2010 11:35:46
Using a red-light, green-light system to help consumers make better seafood choices is simple. Unfortunately, little about seafood sustainability is simple.
Seafood sourcing is complex. Aquaculture practices are complex. Wild fisheries management systems are complex. Knowing the health and biomass of a species, let alone the health of an entire ecosystem, is very complex and difficult to assess.
In wild fisheries, haddock is usually a red- or yellow-list species. Haddock populations are extremely strong, that is not in question. The total quota for southeast New England, Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine stocks is about 45 million pounds in total. We do not have enough boats and fishermen to catch all that fish. Haddock landings will probably be between 10 million and 15 million pounds this fishing year.
Some groups red-list haddock because it is often caught with a trawl net. What about longline/hook-caught haddock that has little benthic impact and low bycatch rates? What about trawlers that target areas high in haddock and low in other species to reduce bycatch? What about trawlers that use separator trawls to limit bycatch? What about trawlers using new net designs and door designs which reduce benthic impact, reduce bottom time, reduce drag and improve fuel efficiency? What about trawlers that are doing all these things?
Haddock caught in different areas, by different methods, on different benthic bottoms, with different gear could be very different in how sustainable they are. Is bottom trawling always a huge negative to the benthos? I get the theory and it makes sense that dragging the bottom may not be good for the ecosystem, but do we really know that as a scientific fact? If bottom trawling was truly unsustainable, would New England seafood stocks be coming back so strong in the last 10 years?
Scallops, haddock and lobsters are bottom-dwelling creatures that are doing very well in spite of the fact that most New England seafood is caught with bottom trawls. Until we know more, I support efforts to reduce benthic impact of trawler fishing. Fishermen want to minimize bottom impact as well, as it is hard on the fish, tough on gear and no one likes mending nets more than they have to.
Lumping all haddock into one bucket may not be the best incentive for fishermen to develop better practices. Other wild fish stocks may have artificially low quotas because we just don’t know or don’t trust the accuracy of the biomass and stock status data. What about the economic impact on local coastal communities, American families and American fishermen that have to fish what may be artificially low quotas on some species?
In farmed fisheries, farmed salmon and imported farmed shrimp are often on the red list. Some farms have done an amazing job developing new technologies and practices to improve efficiency and make operations more sustainable. The progress made in the last 30 years is remarkable. Is it responsible to lump all of the farmed salmon operations together into one negative bucket? Shouldn’t we be rewarding those farms that are improving the industry? I could go into all the details of improved FIFO and FCRs, recirculating systems, reduced benthic impact, reduced impact on wild stocks, reduced/eliminated antibiotic use, etc., but the fact is that most salmon and shrimp farms are far more sustainable than they were 30 years ago. Aquaculture will become more sustainable over the next 30 years too.
It is virtually impossible to communicate all of these issues to consumers to help them make choices. It is absolutely impossible to do it on a wallet card. It is hard enough to accurately assess all of these issues and teach seafood buyers.
Bottom line: Wild fisheries are more sustainable than they were 10 years ago. Aquaculture operations are more sustainable than they were 10 years ago. Both wild and farmed seafood will be even more sustainable in the future. The way to accelerate that progress is to work with fishermen, processors, farms, government, academia and all other interested parties to promote better research and technology towards sustainable practices. We need to provide financial incentives for fishermen and farms to improve practices. We need to pay more to those who do it better. We need to work together. NGOs are made up of people who care and want to make things better for people and the environment. Fishermen and farmers are people that want to make a living at their way of life that helps feed the world, and they want that to be available to future generations. There are so many talented folks in our universities and government that are all working towards more sustainable seafood.
I don’t know if red-light, green-light ratings are the best method to reach everyone’s goal of providing responsibly produced seafood. I know red-light, green-light raises awareness, and is a good tool in many ways, but I suspect we will evolve to even better tools to get this job done in the future, starting with a more sustainable dialog between all stakeholders.
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