Sometime in May, Alaska halibut and black cod should receive a coveted earth-friendly label from the international Marine Stewardship Council. The bright blue label on packages tells customers their seafood purchases come from well-managed fisheries.
Such "purchase with a purpose" programs are becoming more popular with chefs, large seafood buyers and the general public, especially in Europe.
All fisheries undergo intense scrutiny by a scientific team and interested stakeholders before being certified to use the eco-label. There’s been some grumbling lately that the process takes far longer than the customary 12 to 18 months originally outlined by the MSC. Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska pollock, for example, took more than four years to get the MSC nod. The halibut and black cod fisheries have been in the pipeline since February 2003. Many blame the hold-up on the independent review teams being over-extended.
"It’s been a longer process than I envisioned, and more costly. That’s one of the objections that’s been cropping up," said Bob Alverson, director of the Seattle-based Fishing Vessel Owners Association, which sponsored the halibut/black cod effort. Fishermen have taxed themselves to pay for the certification, which so far has cost roughly $150,000. Alaska salmon, the first fishery in the world to merit the eco-label, is undergoing a required five-year review at a cost that is nearly twice that. The state, however, is picking up that tab.
Complaints aside, Alverson believes that being able to boast the MSC label in the marketplace is worth all the bother. "Otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it," he said.
The Gulf of Alaska pollock fishery is expecting to get its final OK for the eco-label any day. "We are extremely pleased that the entire Alaska pollock fishery is now proven to be responsibly and sustainability. Alaska pollock producers are excited to be bringing certified fish to environmentally conscious consumers in markets in the U.K., Europe, Asia and the U.S.," said Kevin Duffy, director of the At-Sea Processors Association.
In all, 11 fisheries around the world produce products bearing the MSC label: Bering Sea pollock, Alaska salmon, Burry Inlet cockles, Loch Torridon nephrops, Mexican Baja California red rock lobster, New Zealand hoki, South African hake, South Georgia toothfish, South West handline mackerel, Thames herring, and Western Australia rock lobster.
Along with Pacific halibut and black cod, 14 other fisheries are applying for the label: Australian mackerel icefish, Bering Sea freezer longline cod, British Columbia salmon, California chinook salmon, Chilean hake, Hastings Fishing Fleet Dover sole and pelagic (mid-water) fishery, Lake Hjalmaren pikeperch, South Australia Lakes and Coorong fisheries, North Sea herring, Oregon Dungeness crab, Patagonia scallops, and Oregon pink shrimp.
Fish list follies
Americans are starting to scratch their heads over well-meaning attempts to advise them on which fish are safest to eat. It’s a huge issue, as 48 of 50 U.S. states now have mercury warnings for various fish. Headlines about high levels of other toxins and contaminants also have consumers feeling gun shy about eating seafood.
To the rescue has come a series of "fish lists" from national medical and conservation groups. They provide colorful, walletsize cards that clump seafoods into categories based on how "safe" they are to eat. The problem is, the advisories are all different, and what is recommended on one list has a "don’t eat" warning on another.
For example, a list by the Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals says to avoid all salmon, and includes fish having the highest mercury levels. Yet other lists, such as Audubon, Monterey Aquarium and Environmental Defense, list wild salmon as the healthiest choice.
The waters get even murkier because nearly all of the groups mix up their health advisories with ecosystem concerns, like overfishing. No wonder people are confused!
And get this, the new Food Pyramid revealed last week actually recommends that Americans eat those fish that the government says are most contaminated with mercury, like swordfish and some tuna.
The Food Pyramid is being sharply criticized by food experts and educators because, for one thing, it is completely Internet based, and provides nutritional information only to those who have computers. "Well, that cuts out a pretty significant segment of the population. This is dietary advice for people who have computers. And that is the segment of the population that probably needs it least," said Marion Nestle, author of "Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Health & Nutrition."
Michele Simon, director of the Center for Informed Choices, commented in Salon.com: "The nicest thing I could say is that it’s a missed opportunity. The worst I could say is that it’s a joke."
The federal government’s response is that information from the Web site can be printed out and handed to low-income people. But critics say that many of the organizations serving poorer communities don’t have access to the Internet, much less a color printer.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that the Food Pyramid is only a colorful picture devoid of a single word, with a stick figure running up one side to promote exercise. A click on the color purple, for example, brings up a meat and beans section.
And that’s where you’ll find seafood.