A letter about sustainable fishing.

In the last two weeks NPR aired a three part story on sustainable fishing.  I was asked about it at work and hadn’t heard it so I looked it up.  In the programs that I create I tie in a conservation message, sometimes more than one so that instructors can pick what they would like to talk about and meet the interests of the group as well.  One of the conservation programs in the programs is the Seafood Watch program by the Monterrey Bay Aquarium in California.  Click here to view a past blog about the Seafood Watch program and click here for their website.  So the question at work was basically hinting at that we should think about what we are saying in our programs.    After I wrote it I thought others would appreciate this information too.  So here is my email reply about it:

To _______,

Thank you for sharing the NPR story with me.  What you find below are my thoughts:

I had a chance to listen, read and look at the pictures in the three part series on the MSC certified sustainable fishing by NPR.  I have never put too much emphasis on the MSC labeling because I knew it had flaws similar to the “fair trade” epidemic with a quick way for companies to make money off of looking good to their consumers.  Although I do think both the MSC certification program and fair trade labeling can be a good thing.  Sometimes, such as the case of the MSC certification, it seems like they sell out to big companies.  After listening I did learn more about the shortfalls of MSC and specific details such as for every one swordfish caught an estimated two blue sharks die and since in 2005 when Walmart committed to providing as much MSC certified fish to their customers the MSC certified 7 times more seafood than ever before.  Supply simply outweighed demand.

I then moved on to look into the Seafood Watch program at Monterrey Bay Aquarium.  I knew they used several factors and continuously updated their recommendations based on current research.  What I like about the Seafood Watch program is that the environment is first and on the website it lists several criteria that they look for when determining what level the fish should be placed on such as bycatch, escapes and introduced species, disease, feed, chemical use.. etc.   But they obviously must be funded too and so I question this statement that I saw in their document:

The mechanism used to prioritize the reports is a simple numerical scoring system based on input from three filters:

  1. Importance to the U.S. market (i.e. shrimp would score higher than whelks)
  2. Importance to our strategic business partners
  3. Importance to our conservation partners

How do they handle research and information that is not in favor of their “strategic business partners”?

You can find their entire guidelines here.

They also post their reports on the web.  Here is the Atlantic salmon report.

Anyway I am sure there are issues with seafood watch as well but the fact that they have both an internal science review and external peer review makes me feel more secure with their findings.  They are taking a more scientific approach than a lot of the certification processes.  They have a 15 member scientific board that you can view here.  Many certification processes are often contracted out to 3rd parties to measure the sustainability or possibility for certification.  This opens the door for lots of error and bias from the 3rd parties.

Ok and how does this relate to education and programs?  I found it funny in the interview that the leader of the MSC at the end said something like, if nothing else the MSC program has got people to think about sustainable fishing.  Well I agree and I don’t agree.  I agree that people need to be aware about what is happening to our fresh and salt water ecosystems but if their goal was to simply increase knowledge of sustainable fishing, certifying fisheries that are not sustainable was the wrong route to go.

I have done several programs with adults and kids in which I have brought up the issue of the fishing industry and the many ways we capture and farm seafood.  Many people don’t understand the immensity of fishing that goes on throughout the world and envision people holding onto one pole off of a boat when in reality there are miles and miles of long lines or seines.  So one of the activities I used to do was to fill a few kiddie pools up with plastic fish and then some bycatch species (sharks, sea turtles).  Next, have students catch as many plastic fish as they can in a kiddie pool with a rod and see how many sea turtles or sharks they catch (none).  Then introduce a seine or net and have them catch as many fish as they can and how many bycatch they catch.  This demonstrates the need for fisheries to commercialize to meet a demand, fishing rods are too slow, take more staff and aren’t profitable.

My main goal is to bring awareness to the issue and then provide people with an opportunity to learn more.  The seafood watch program, I think succeeds in this route.  I would have to dive more into the program to verify if their methods of collecting and analyzing data proves to be a good source to measure sustainability.  Although,  I remember hearing in the NPR report that really our fisheries will never be 100% sustainable because the demand is too high.

Ultimately consumers are looking for someone to trust to do the research for them.  In the third part of the series one of the stats they say that about 80% of adults surveyed (not sure how many or where they were surveyed) would spend more money if they knew the seafood was sustainable.  They just don’t have the time or energy to do the work.  And I completely understand that!

I have yet to email my contact at the Seafood Watch program but I would love to hear their opinion of the story that aired.

Thanks again for sharing the story!  I am an NPR listener but somehow missed this one.


Link to the NPR story – don’t forget it is a three part series:

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