Most captivating news stories of 2009


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
December 22, 2009

Season’s greetings, SeafoodSource readers. Before you settle down for that long winter’s nap, travel to your family’s holiday celebrations or just settle down for some well-deserved time off at home, take a quick look back at 2009 and review what we think were the 10 most captivating news stories of the year. Throughout this list you’ll notice several entries regarding sustainability and environmental issues. Awareness and respect for natural resources is something the seafood industry will continue to address in the years to come. And in many ways, it’s just getting started.

Major food retailers and restaurant chains are not only implementing sustainability policies along their supply pipelines but are partnering with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to help them shape their environmental mission statements. For the November issue of SeaFood Business, I revisited one of the first industry-NGO partnerships — Ahold USA-New England Aquarium — and highlighted some of the new unions taking hold, such as Sysco-World Wildlife Fund and Compass Group-Monterey Bay Aquarium. Buyer commitments to source farmed seafood with a certification stamp, such as the Global Aquaculture Alliance’s Best Aquaculture Practices, are also on the rise.

European Commission fisheries ministers spent much of 2009 working on reforms to the 27-nation bloc’s Common Fisheries Policy. But it hasn’t been easy. Fisheries and Marine Affairs Commissioner Joe Borg has had his hands full trying to slash quotas for key fish stocks like North Sea cod. And the European Union also could not hammer out a bilateral fisheries agreement with Norway recently, as the two sides could not overcome differences regarding mackerel quotas.

File this one under “most underreported stories of the year.” Back in June, a vast majority of scientists polled at the ninth annual International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant in Guiyang, China, said methylmercury contamination in seafood is not a serious health threat to consumers. The Center for Consumer Freedom distributed a survey at the conference, and found that the hype regarding mercury in fish is largely unwarranted. Now about that Jeremy Piven character…

The EU made a major move to reduce illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, as exporters to the EU now must file catch certificates to ensure the fish was harvested legally. And the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization announced that 91 counties agreed to sign a treaty that would close fishing ports involved in IUU fishing. The treaty aims to remove incentives for fishermen to break the law.

Catch shares, or individual fishing quotas (IFQs) have the support of the United States, which drafted a national policy encouraging the adoption of the controversial fishery management scheme. Some fishermen lament the privatization of fisheries and say the set limits are based on flawed stock assessments. Like them or not, IFQs govern the hooks for several fisheries — Alaska halibut and king crab, Gulf red snapper, to name a few — that are clearly benefiting from catch shares.

Seafood fraud has been a thorn in the industry’s side for years. And since the laws have not been adequately enforced, cheating has been tolerated as one of the costs of doing business. No longer, says the National Fisheries Institute-founded Better Seafood Board, which brought six U.S. government agencies together to educate officials and find solutions for seafood substitution and short-weighted packs of seafood. The Government Accountability Office reported earlier in the year that the agencies “do not effectively collaborate with each other.”

The global economy seems to be off life support, but it isn’t out of sickbay just yet. Because seafood is generally more expensive than other proteins like poultry and pork, it became a tougher sell as consumers tightened their belts. When the big banks went bust, credit lines evaporated. The ups and downs (mostly downs) of the past two years have created one of the most challenging business-operation climates in memory.

Carbon dioxide emissions are believed to be the leading culprit in global climate change. But recent studies indicate that the oceans are acting as a “carbon sink” for these emissions, and the cumulative total since the industrial revolution is making the seas acidic — a process now known as ocean acidification. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute released a study that said potentially irreversible changes in ocean chemistry could cause U.S. wholesale shellfish revenues to drop by 25 percent in the next 50 years.

The plight of the bluefin tuna, the monarch of the sea, reached critical mass in 2009. The much-maligned International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas finally cut the eastern bluefin quota by 40 percent, but critics say it’s too little, too late. Reduced supplies will resonate in Japan, which is the largest market for this prized species. Time magazine recently lauded Australia’s Clean Seas Tuna for having one of the 50 Best Inventions of 2009 for its groundbreaking southern bluefin tuna breeding program.

Perhaps no other story riled up so many readers than the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s proposal to require post-harvest processing on Gulf oysters during the summer months. Before stepping back to conduct a full assessment of the region’s processing capabilities, the federal agency simply wanted to eliminate illnesses from the bacteria Vibrio vulnificus. But its proposal struck many as too strict and the oyster industry and shellfish lovers basically replied, “Back off!” It’s a heated issue that involves more than food safety; it’s about the federal government’s role in our every day lives and the freedom to choose what we eat. For more on this hot-button issue, please see the Top Story in the January 2010 issue of SeaFood Business.

Happy holidays,
James Wright
Associate Editor
SeaFood Business

Editor’s note: and the SeafoodSource e-newsletter will not be published on Friday, 25 December in observance of Christmas. The e-newsletter will return on Monday, 28 December.

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