Gulf of Maine eco-brand in the works
In the mid-1990s, as New England’s groundfish stocks were crashing, fishermen and scientists often sounded as if they were speaking different languages, even though they both wanted to see healthy fish stocks. It was heart-wrenching to listen to the different positions and at the time I hoped for a peacemaker to step in and somehow bridge the gap.
Now, nearly 15 years later, the tone of the conversation is different, thanks in large part to a decade of work by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI), a scientific institution working to improve the ecological health of the Gulf of Maine and the economic health of the people who depend on it as a resource.
“Everything done here is collaborative with fishermen,” said Jen Levin, GMRI’s sustainable seafood program manager.
GMRI has turned its diplomatic skills toward bringing fishermen, processors, chefs, scientists and retailers together to tackle sustainability for the region’s fisheries.
“What we’re doing is developing a regional standard,” said Levin, “a standard that outlines criteria around sustainability as well as traceability, and the focus of the standard is products harvested from the Gulf of Maine region. Associated with the standard will be a brand or mark and we’ll be using that brand in a cooperative marketing campaign to differentiate products for consumers that have met the underlying sustainability and traceability requirements.”
Draft standards have been vetted by the industry, resource managers, scientists and members of the conservation community. GMRI is revising the standard, based on feedback, and hopes to finalize it by the end of the year. Gulf of Maine seafood that meets the standard will be eligible for branding that sets it apart in the marketplace, said Levin.
Hannaford Supermarkets, a Scarborough, Maine-based chain with 171 stores in five Northeast states, is a major partner in the effort and will be a retail venue for the first products and POS-materials produced by GMRI.
The institute is also helping Hannaford with sustainable seafood sourcing and advising development of a sustainable seafood purchasing policy that will be used for purchasing seafood worldwide for two other supermarkets owned by parent company Delhaize: Food Lion and Sweet Bay, said Michael Norton, Hannaford spokesman.
That means the policy will apply to sourcing for all 1,200 Delhaize-owned supermarkets, he added. Hannaford expects to announce its policy early in 2010.
Part of GMRI’s sustainable seafood program is helping fisheries pursue Marine Stewardship Council certification. New England’s red crab fishery achieved MSC certification late this summer and the Maine lobster fishery is in the full assessment stage.
Levin said the Northern shrimp fishery and New England scallop fishery would be great candidates for MSC-certification. GMRI can help raise awareness of MSC as a way to differentiate product, gather a variety of groups of people involved in a fishery together and help find funding, said Levin.
“Our role as we see it is really as a facilitator and an enabler,” said Levin. “Our biggest goal is that we want to reward fisheries that are being responsibly harvested and do this by harvesting consumer demand.”
To that end, GMRI is developing educational materials for consumers and just developed a guide to Gulf of Maine seafood. But don’t expect materials with the green-yellow-red hallmark of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program.
“Our approach will be different,” said Levin. “Lots of different conservation groups take different approaches to a problem we all recognize is there. There are lots of different ways of tackling it.”
So far, the response among seafood suppliers, fishermen and processors to GMRI’s sustainable seafood initiative has been positive.
“I’ve been really impressed by the amount of energy I’ve seen behind this idea of rewarding and motivating improvements by the seafood industry,” she said. “I’ve noticed a real demand for somebody to help them tackle this problem, to make sure that what they’re sourcing is the right way to go.”
While people may still disagree about fisheries management in the region, the recent tone of discussions is a refreshing change and ? I suspect ? highly valuable for the Gulf of Maine region.