Reason to be optimistic

First off, I’m an optimist. About six years ago, sustainable seafood became a bona fide market trend ? not just a feel-good option for a few activist chefs and boutique seafood shops, but a must-do for large-volume, mainstream companies that realized their bottom line was intertwined with healthy fisheries.

Great news.

But I wonder if all this sustainable seafood talk and serious effort is adding up to real changes, real improvement in the oceans? I hope so ? even though six years isn’t very long, oceans are vast, and there are many other factors at play.

So when Monterey Bay Aquarium’s report “Turning the Tide: The State of Seafood” hit this week, I read with interest, looking for glimmers of hope.

And, amid a picture that overall ocean health is declining, there were some bright spots: environmental certification, sustainable seafood purchasing and partnerships between conservation groups and major buyers are all on the rise. There are indications that Americans are willing to buy and pay more for healthy, sustainable seafood. And there are model fisheries, in Alaska and New Zealand, for example, that show what works, according to the report.

For seafood buyers this report is a worthwhile read ? a “one-stop shop” ? about the many factors to consider for environmentally responsible seafood purchasing: fishery management, threatened and endangered marine animals, habitat, overfishing and aquaculture issues. And the report also explains other major ocean challenges like pollution and nutrient runoff from the land ? 400 oxygen-depleted areas, or “dead zones,” globally total 95,000 square miles of ocean ? and climate change. (I’d argue climate change is yet another reason to purchase seafood responsibly and minimize stress to marine ecosystems.)

If you’ve been tuned into sustainable seafood purchasing, most of this is familiar, yet valuable to have in one place. Monterey Bay, after all, for more than a decade has called attention to declining health of our oceans. These are the folks who’ve translated these issues into consumer-friendly, simple “red-yellow-green” guidance, and put that message in the pockets of 32 million consumers. If you’re just getting your arms around sustainability, this report is a fine starting point.

Did you know, for example, that only 7 percent of coastal governments base their fishery management policies on rigorous scientific assessments? Only 7 percent.

A team of 10 marine scientists led by Camilo Mora at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego, analyzed survey responses from 1,188 fisheries experts. They also learned that fewer than 1 percent of coastal states effectively enforce compliance with regulations. The study, published in the June 2009 issue of the journal Public Library of Science, Biology, certainly challenges the thinking that legally available fish must be sustainable (and that if you’re buying it, that’s enough to call your purchasing sustainable). Now, we know better.

What’s not in this report is the hard, tidy number indicating the sustainable seafood movement is translating to healthier oceans. I’d be thrilled to see the Food and Agriculture Organization’s estimate of fish stocks that are overfished, depleted and recovering ? now 25-30 percent ? shrink. But that’s neither a failure of the report or of the buyers working hard to purchase responsibly.

Instead, it’s a mixed bag, said fisheries expert Ray Hilborn at the University of Washington: “Some places are becoming more sustainable, but some are probably not.” One bright spot, noted Hilborn, is that overfishing has at least leveled off in the United States. “Even in Europe, it’s getting better,” said Hilborn. Rebuilding is a slow process.

Think in decades, not years, say the experts. It takes time to turn this picture around. While we patiently wait, I’m optimistic the sustainable seafood effort is making a big difference underwater ? even if we can’t see it yet.

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