Sushi Guides a Raw Deal?


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
October 21, 2008

Today marks the official release of three - count 'em, three - sustainable sushi buyer guides, a collaboration of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Blue Ocean Institute and Environmental Defense Fund.

You might be asking, "Why three guides instead of one, unified voice?" I recently posed that very question to each group while working on the November issue of SeaFood Business, our inaugural Sustainable Seafood Buyers Guide. After all, the three groups have been sharing information for years to publish their individual sustainable seafood guides. But each has a slightly different bent, or agenda, if you will.

The main focus of Environmental Defense Fund of New York concerns ocean contaminants like methylmercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and whether human health is at risk via seafood consumption. EDF shares their information with both the MBA and Blue Ocean and is considered an authority on the subject.

The MBA's Seafood Watch, the most widely recognized and influential guide, focuses on critical thresholds and takes a precautionary approach with its determinations on wild and farmed species. And Blue Ocean Institute has adopted a quantitative approach, averaging all the available information, including stock assessments, habitat quality and fishing gear impacts.

All three use slightly different systems to rate seafood species' sustainability and their conclusions aren't identical, which is grounds for criticism from the seafood industry. And rightfully so - nobody benefits from confusion. But the guides are all very similar, begging the question of whether their efforts would have more impact if there was just one guide seafood consumers could look to for answers about sustainability.

"It's an interesting result when three independent organizations reach the same conclusions. You now have a choir saying we all agree on the facts," says Kate McLaughlin, seafood program director for Blue Ocean Institute. "There is some weight having all three groups coming to an agreement using three different methodologies."

Sushi is a healthy, exciting food that greatly benefits from the element of adventure. So I wonder what the chances are that sushi consumers will take the time to dig out their pocket guides - or send a text message to their fish mentor of choice - and then carefully decide to pass on bluefin tuna and farmed salmon as suggested.

Pocket guides like Seafood Watch caused much consternation within the seafood industry when first launched. In a media advisory yesterday, the National Fisheries Institute warned that the sushi guides may cause confusion and steer consumers away from eating fish. Maybe, but seafood companies looking to implement sustainable sourcing policies and marketing campaigns should be glad they exist. Despite their perceived faults, the important job of raising awareness about sustainability is getting done.

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