The race for the moral high ground in sustainable fishing is heating up here in the US. Things started getting hot back in April when supermarket chain Whole Foods announced it would stop selling seafood not certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council or red-listed by either the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program or the Blue Ocean Institute. The response has been pretty strong from many local food and fishing community advocates. A recent article “Beyond Red Lists: the power of community supported fisheries,” in the online environment magazine Grist lays out the argument for ditching your sustainable seafood guide and buying your fish from a local fisherman. Wired Magazine’s Geekmom recently blogged about “The Ins and Outs of Community Supported Fisheries” (CSFs). CSFs build on the conventional wisdom underpinning the local food movement, that locally produced food is better for the environment, supports local jobs and offers a fairer price to local food producers. The hip CSF trend has been growing rapidly, with more than 20 CSFs established in the US since 2006.
But is locally caught fish inherently sustainable? NOAA says that CSFs can promote less intensive fishing practices by helping fishermen shift their operations away from the traditional business model of catching high volume to make ends meet. This could reduce pressure on fish stocks as fishermen focus on delivering smaller quantities of high quality seafood on a weekly basis over the course of the season. CSF subscribers pay up front for their fish, which can encourage some fishermen to limit their fishing effort because they can earn more by controlling their costs.
But what if the fishery is already overfished? What if there is poor management and too many fishermen out there putting too much pressure on the resource? How is a well-intentioned “locavore” supposed to know? Should she just trust the local fisherman?
Ultimately, if you care about a healthy ocean then the seafood you consume has to come from a well-managed fishery regardless of how big the boat is or how the fish made its way to market.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of supporting local and sustainable fishermen but the problem is the vast majority of Americans don’t have a goat farm down the road producing artisan cheese (and if they did, maybe they couldn’t afford it), and not everyone can go down to the harbor for their weekly allotment of black cod, pacific halibut, or fresh oysters. The less fortunate of us still go to the supermarket for our seafood, which means that seafood cards and certification, imperfect though they may be, still play an important role in helping the average consumer.
Miguel Jorge is the Director of the National Geographic Society’s Ocean Initiative and a member of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) Board of Directors.