How much bycatch is too much?


Lisa Duchene, SeafoodSource contributing editor

Published on
August 30, 2009

Nobody likes to think about endangered sea turtles ensnared and killed by longline gear fishing for albacore tuna. But the fact is that fishing gear rarely catches exclusively the particular size and species the boat is after.

Marine animals don’t organize themselves into tidy rows for easy capture. Turtles, sea birds, young fish of the target species and other species of fish are incidentally caught. We know this.

It’s bad news for struggling sea turtles, sea birds and fish populations. It’s inconsistent with sustainability. And it’s a liability, ammunition for environmental activists to publicize an image of the fishing and seafood industry as irresponsible.

But how much bycatch is too much?

This is among several tough questions retailers are about to tackle. Kudos to the Food Marketing Institute’s Sustainable Seafood Working Group for saying it is ready to roll up its sleeves and address such issues head-on.

The working group represents 22 grocery store companies, seven of which are in the U.S. grocery industry’s Top 10. The group grew out of FMI’s sustainability task force, created in 2007. FMI represents food wholesalers and supermarkets operating 26,000 grocery stores nationwide, with a combined sales volume of USD 680 billion (EUR 474.3), about three-quarters of U.S. grocery store sales.

When the Sustainable Seafood Working Group gathered on 17 to 19 August in San Francisco for a food industry-wide sustainability summit, it agreed to work on two initiatives. The first is to take a close look at the environmental problems and solutions associated with the five top-selling seafood species: shrimp, canned tuna, salmon, pollock and tilapia.

“Looking at each of [the top five species], let’s identify what some of the challenges and opportunities are in terms of having a sustainable supply in the future,” said Jeanne von Zastrow, FMI’s senior director of industry relations.

As a second near-term initiative, the group is looking at potential environmental and social metrics around sustainable seafood. Food safety, said von Zastrow, is covered by a different FMI program. So the working group is looking strictly at determining specific, measurable interpretations of what constitutes harvest and production of sustainable seafood. Defining which gear types are sustainable and which are not, as well as what amount of bycatch is acceptable and what is not, are both examples of potential metrics.

“It’s a long, difficult road to get the industry rallied around and to agree on measures and how you measure it,” said von Zastrow, who anticipates a dialog among retailers, seafood suppliers, government, the environmental community and academia. “It’s a necessary part of where we need to be.”

Issues of bycatch, fishmeal feeds and antibiotic use are all tough to tackle. Buyers must address environmental responsibility, which equates to securing long-term supply. But they also are on the hook today for sales results. How will FMI’s sustainable seafood group translate the sustainability ethic into a bycatch metric that can guide grocers’ seafood purchasing?

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program has set bycatch standards, including a range of percentages, that correspond to its “green/best choice,” “yellow/good alternative” and “red/avoid” recommendations. Bycatch for a “green” species and source is less than 10 percent (of the number of targeted animals) and does not include any “species of concern.” The range for a “yellow” species is 10 to 100 percent, with no evidence of species of concern, and a “red” fish has 100 percent or more bycatch that includes protected animals like endangered sea turtles.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates 22 percent of the total catch of longline fisheries for highly migratory species like tuna is discarded, according to a technical paper published in 2004 and cited in the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch report on albacore tuna.

Wouldn’t it be great for everyone involved if that estimated figure were to plummet?

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