Seafood is having its Portlandia moment


Cooking for Solutions is a delightful annual conference, fund-raiser and celebration of seafood sustainability produced every spring by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’m just back from the 2013 event, and there is reason to feel good about the progress the seafood industry is making.

Consumers, chefs and, most importantly, major retailers in the US and Europe are more aware than ever that the choices we make about what kinds of fish to eat–and not to eat–have an impact on the health and sustainability of global fisheries.

The result is that, in the last decade or so, virtually every major retailer and food service company in the US and EU has adopted a seafood sustainability policy. Some are stronger than others, but the issue is on the agenda and not going away.

“Large corporations may very well turn out to be our angels of salvation,” said Matt Elliott, an oceans expert at California Environmental Associates, which last year published a landmark report on global fishing practices.

You could say that seafood is having its Portlandia moment. I’m referring, of course, to the hilarious scene on the cable TV show in which a couple interrogate a waitress about the chicken on the menu. (“How much room did the chicken have to roam?”) Chefs who gathered last week in Monterey told me that they are asked by diners if their salmon is wild or farm-raised, and whether their shrimp is local or imported from Asia.

By themselves, consumers can’t drive changes in fishing practices. But when consumers make themselves heard, and emerge as part of a larger ecosystem that includes activist NGOs such as Greenpeace, business-friendly environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, certifying bodies like the flawed but important Marine Stewardship Council and brands like Whole Foods Market and Darden, change happens. Regulation of the oceans–a public commons if ever there was one–is important, but markets, too, can drive sustainability.

fishcloseupThe world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium has done as much as anyone to raise awareness about seafood choices–and it has done so relatively quickly. It was in 1999 that the aquarium launched its Seafood Watch program and began distributing wallet-sized cards that rate seafood items as green (“Best Choices”), yellow (“Good Alternatives”) and red (“Avoid”).  Since then, the aquarium has distributed more than 40 million pocket guides; its smartphone app has been downloaded nearly a million times.

Seafood Watch is an unavoidably blunt instrument. It rates species, not individual fisheries or fish farms, of which there are thousands. It can also be confusing. Consumers who pay close attention know to avoid Chilean Sea Bass. [An aquarium campaign called “Take a Pass on Sea Bass” surely helped.] But shrimp, salmon and tuna are all rated as “best,” “good” and “avoid,” depending on how and where they are caught or farmed. It’s asking a lot of even caring consumers to have them consult a pocket guide or smartphone each time they visit a supermarket or dine out.

So Seafood Watch has evolved, to engage with chefs and companies. “We started as a consumer awareness movement, and we have been forced–and it’s been a ‘good’ forced–to shift,” said Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, the director of Seafood Watch. Big companies employ people who do nothing but buy seafood, and a lot of it, and they can influence fisheries management. In the late 2000s, the big food service companies Compass and Aramark and giant retailer Walmart all adopted seafood purchasing policies in which they promise to favor sustainable practices.

Greenpeace, which has been rating the retailers since 2008, reports progress. The “US seafood retail industry has improved significantly” since then, Greenpeace says. Last year, for the first time ever, Greenpeace gave two companies–Safeway and Whole Foods Markets–a “good” rating, citing their “progressive policy development, public support for conservation measures, and elimination of unsustainable seafood inventory items.”

A thorough foundation-funded fisheries report, called Charting a Course to Sustainable Fisheries, had this to say about the “market transformation” strategy:

Over the last 15 years, the power of the market has served as a catalyst for certain fishery reforms. We now have the ability to define and certify sustainable seafood, educate consumers, engage businesses, and channel that interest toward fishery reform. Soon, a critical mass of engagement will be reached, with major markets making sustainability a condition of entry. We anticipate that Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification of wild seafood is likely to grow to 15-20% of global fisheries, temporarily reaching a plateau at that level.

To be sure, as CEA’s Matt Elliott pointed out in Monterey, most of the world’s wild fisheries remain in a precarious state. Some corporate policies are weak; others are taking effect gradually. Most important, the strategy of using “progressive consumerism” to drive change has yet to take hold in the developing world where seafood consumption is growing rapidly.

“To what extent can we influence the future trajectory in China?”  Elliott asked. “Right now there are dozens of organizations trying to figure out whether there is a path forward.”

The encouraging news, though, is that when it comes to managing the world’s seafood supply, we know what works. Good science, consumer activism, corporate responsibility and smart regulation can help prevent overfishing and allow depleted stocks to recover. Best of all, over time, sustainable practices will deliver more and not less fish to our plates.


  1. says

    Great article as usual Marc! I think your red/yellow/green designations under the Monterrey section might be backwards – green is “best choice” and red is “avoid,” right?

  2. says

    I really liked your tone and approach to the very complicated world of sustainable seafood. As a sustainable seafood consultant, I work with both European retailers and smaller restaurants who are willing to improve but feel it is an uphill – and sometimes losing – battle. Thank you for highlighting that things are improving. And while I know we have a long way to go, especially looking East, it always helps to be reminded of the progress. I know we all want big changes and immediate impacts from the work we do, but sometimes the small steps – the small improvements – add up in the end.

    Little fish, big impact.

    Thank you once again for the great article!

    Cheers, Emma

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