Sustainable seafood casts a wider net
As demand rises and wild stocks fall, wholesalers like Wal-Mart and Unilever ask for 'eco-friendly' catches
Sally Eason says this may be the year that her third-generation fish-farming operation turns a profit. That's partly because more people want to buy fish caught or farmed using environmentally friendly practices, she says.
"This year I'm hearing more of these people who have traditionally been concerned about price saying, 'Have you had your product tested for pesticides?' A year ago these guys didn't care about that," says Ms. Eason, a tall redhead who runs Sunburst Trout Company with her two sons in the watershed of western North Carolina's Shining Rock Wilderness Area.
As Eason says, the sustainable seafood movement seems to be gathering momentum, but the question remains: Will it actually help protect the oceans from environmental concerns such as overfishing, or will it just mean more expensive fish sticks for US consumers?
Wal-Mart threw its weight behind sustainable seafood in February, when the giant retailer said it would eventually stock its North American stores with wild-caught fresh and frozen fish from fisheries certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, a Britain-based organization that addresses overfishing by setting standards for fisheries.
Other big businesses have made similar commitments.
Darden Restaurants, which serves about 300 million meals annually in its Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and other restaurants, recently announced plans to require a certification process for its shrimp farmers, an industry that has attracted increasing attention for its negative effects on the coastal and ocean environments where shrimp are farmed.
"Up until now, the sustainable seafood movement was a white-tablecloth industry," says George Leonard, science manager for the Seafood Watch project at Monterey Bay Aquar- ium. "Very quickly it's gone from a niche concept to a mainstream concept."
Scott Burns predicts more big businesses will follow Wal-Mart's lead this year. Mr. Burns is director of the marine conservation program at the World Wildlife Fund, which is working with Wal-Mart on its pledge. He says the seafood buyers he talks to at these big companies worry about dwindling supplies of fish.
Nearly 25 percent of the world's stocks of fish are overfished or depleted, says the most recent report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Last week, the Marine Fish Conservation Network, a Washington-based environmental coalition, reported that the population of cod on Georges Bank has declined 25 percent since 2001.
"That's bad from a biological point of view, but also it's really bad from an economic and food security point of view," Burns says, noting that fish provide a crucial source of protein for people in the world's poorest regions.
The depletion of fish is compounded by a rising demand for seafood. On average, Americans ate a record 16.6 pounds of fish and shellfish per person in 2004, according to the latest numbers from the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Global demand is also going up, says Leonard. This is why leaders in various sectors of the seafood industry see economic and environmental promise in marketing sustainable seafood.
Dierk Peters, a manager of "sustainability initiatives" in the frozen-foods department of multinational corporation Unilever, says supply is a major reason that sustainablility is a smart business decision. "If overfishing continues, our fishing business will be over one day," Mr. Peters says. "It's about securing the long-term supply of our raw material."
This concern from corporations has brought the issue into the limelight, but will it effect significant change?
"The commitments are great, and they're causing everybody to sit up and take notice, but the real devil's in the details," Leonard of Seafood Watch says. "How do we implement this?"
The scale of companies like Wal-Mart demands the certification of large fisheries, rather than the small and closely managed ones the Marine Stewardship Council has certified up to this point.
Consumers are also increasingly concerned about the origins of the food they eat, Peters says. Vacationers aren't known to flock to Las Vegas to eat sustainably harvested fish, but chef and owner Rick Moonen says the menu at his 385-seat restaurant, RM Seafood, attracts attention because it offers only fish caught using sustainable practices.
"It's been better for my bottom line," Mr. Moonen says. "People are seeking me out."
Others have yet to see "sustainable seafood" boost their business. "I haven't seen any effect of 'sustainable' anything," says Rod Taylor. He owns an oyster and bay scallop farming business in Fairhaven, Mass., that supplies wholesalers nationwide. "All the chefs care about is, 'What does this plate cost?' "
Gary Wood, a shrimp farmer in Gila Bend, Ariz., says competition from imported shrimp makes it difficult for shrimp farmers here who use sustainable practices.
"The supply chain is not set up for sustainable seafood," says Mr. Wood, who sells his shrimp on the Internet. "We have to do it ourselves." (Story below.)
Trout farmer Eason says she has to find consumers more interested in quality than price. Her family produces a caviar, something her dad began 60 years ago. Eason hopes this year they'll make money. "My dad's 82 and I would love for him to say, 'By Jove, they did it.' "
If you love shrimp but can't stomach the problems that come with some ways of farm-raising and wild-catching them, you might look inland.
The Seafood Watch project at Monterey Bay Aquarium in California advises against eating farm-raised shrimp because coastal shrimp farms can destroy mangrove forests, pollute water, and threaten wild fish populations with antibiotics and disease.
Seafood Watch also says shrimp caught with bottom trawl nets are undesirable because of the five pounds of "bycatch," or inadvertently caught sealife, that often accompanies one pound of shrimp.
But in the Arizona desert, where the mercury pushes 115 degrees F. in the summer, farmed shrimp are thriving at Desert Sweet Shrimp. "The shrimp love the heat; they do extremely well here," says Gary Wood, whose family has been farming shrimp in Gila Bend, Ariz., since 1997.
The shrimp grow in ponds supplied by well water. Wood doesn't use preservatives or chemicals to make the shrimp gain weight, a common practice in the industry. Because of the heat and the fact that they're far from the ocean, they don't have to contend with diseases the way coastal shrimp farmers do, Wood says, so they don't use antibiotics, either. Recirculated pond water is used to irrigate their alfalfa crop and olive trees.
How do the shrimp thrive in fresh water? "We discovered you can take the shrimp and acclimate them to the water," Wood says. In nature, when it rains heavily, shrimp living in saltwater mangrove swamps and estuaries adjust to the fresh water, he says.
The result, he says, is a distinctive-tasting shrimp, which Wood ships to customers around the United States through his Internet-based business.
Loyal customers include otters at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. As part of a sustainable practices initiative, the aquarium decided last September to ask Desert Sweet Shrimp to supply the six tons of shrimp their otters eat each year. "Our otters are incredibly finicky," says Michelle Jost, who manages the aquarium's conservation programs. But the otters immediately took to the cultivated crustaceans. "No training needed," she says. "The otters absolutely love it."
• The Monterey Bay Aquarium's guide to sustainable seafood is available at: www.mbayaq.org/cr/seafoodwatch.asp