New eco-index scores fisheries

By

Lisa Duchene, SeafoodSource contributing editor

Published on
July 12, 2009

Sustainability-minded seafood buyers can now access report cards on 149 countries via a single Web site. The Environmental Performance Index, a collaboration of environmental experts at Yale University and Columbia University, ranks the countries on 25 environmental indicators, including natural resources like fisheries.

The index calculated an overall score for each country based on natural resources (including fisheries), environmental health, air pollution, water resources, biodiversity and habitat and climate change. Switzerland’s score of 95.5 (out of 100 total possible points) earned it a No. 1 ranking, while Niger received the lowest score of 39.1. The United States ranked No. 39 with a score of 81.

The index received national media attention in January when it was initially launched, following a 2006 pilot project ranking countries according to environmental metrics. But the fisheries information found on the site is not well known.

As sustainability has become a marketing buzzword and fertile ground for “greenwashing” as much as it is a wise and necessary objective, a scientifically based fisheries report card can be a useful tool in planning seafood purchases.

The site is a bit clunky, depending on the Web browser used, but is full of standardized information. Buyers can use the map to click on a country, or choose a country from a pull-down box on the right-hand side. A detailed chart appears, showing scores for each of the policy areas, then sub-categories like fisheries. The fisheries score is based on two main indexes: a marine trophic index and a trawling intensity score. Each explanation of the index’s methodology includes scientific citations and a spot where site visitors can comment.

To calculate a marine trophic index, researchers study catch landings. Each marine species landed has a number that correlates to its spot in the food chain; predatory meat-eaters have high numbers while herbivores have low numbers. Historically, fishing has tended to work its way “down the food chain” by focusing first on the big predators. When large predators are fished out, the ecosystem is more vulnerable to disease, fishing pressure and the effects of climate change, according to the Web site.

To calculate a score for trawling, researchers use fish landings to calculate the percentage of the continental shelf sea bottom in each country’s exclusive economic zone that is trawled. “Bottom trawling equipment has been described as the most destructive fishing gear in use today,” according to the site. “The target level selected for this indicator is 0 percent area trawled, reflecting the opinion that any use of this fishing method is ecologically undesirable.”

Canada (ranked No. 12 overall with an environmental performance index of 86.6), for example, received a fisheries score of 50.7, based on a marine trophic index score of 33.8 and a trawling intensity score of 67.5. Norway (with an overall rank of No. 2 and overall score of 93.1) scored 70.9 for its fisheries, with a marine trophic index of 92.8 and a trawling intensity score of 48.9. Costa Rica (No. 5 overall with an overall index score of 90.5) earned a fisheries score of 99.1, based upon a marine trophic index of 100 and trawling intensity score of 98.2.

The environmental performance index also allows buyers to put the fisheries scores in a regional context by providing the average score for the region. In the case of Costa Rica, its fisheries score of 99.1 compares to 78.2 for that of other Central American countries and 71.1 for countries with similar income levels (based on per-capita GDP).

The Environmental Performance Index is worth a visit, and a bookmark, too, for learning more about the source of your fish purchases.

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