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How to Navigate the Maze of Seafood Sustainability

How to Navigate the Maze of Seafood Sustainability

You can find answers to which seafood products are eco-friendly.

As awareness about sustainability rises, you'll be confronted with how to make informed decisions about the seafood you purchase and serve. Finding the answers about which products are eco-friendly is not quite as straightforward as one would think. But you can find them.

Environmental, non-governmental organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund deserve credit for heightening awareness of seafood sustainability and for creating systems to certify or rate fisheries. But to simplify, these systems categorize fisheries as either black or white. My contention is that most fisheries fall in between these two extremes and need the continuing support of restaurateurs and distributors to remain viable.

So, as a restaurateur, how do you navigate through the maze of seafood sustainability? The first and simplest solution is to purchase seafood certified as sustainable by an organization such as The Marine Stewardship Council. Purchasing products judged to be sustainable means you are making eco-friendly choices. But seafood from fisheries that are certified this way total only 7 percent. So what about the remaining 93 percent? You have to dig deeper. Many fisheries have taken up the challenge but haven't yet achieved the goal of sustainability. These fisheries need your continuing support to get there. Here's how you find these fisheries that are transitioning towards sustainability:

  • Read food, restaurant and seafood industry publications. Industries in progress are looking to tout what they are doing.

  • Ask questions: Your seafood supplier can give you information on species and what they are doing for sustainability. Ask about the condition of the fish stock, how the fishery is managed and whether the way the fish are caught is friendly to the environment.

  • Check company websites. If a company is working toward sustainability, they will be talking about it.

  • Follow the work of non-governmental organizations such as the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, which work with industries in progress.

On a related note, when you go to purchase your next pound of crab meat, you can feel good about the Asian blue swimming crab industry. It offers one of the many examples of what I call a positive transitional fishery making strides toward sustainability. This is an industry-led sustainability effort that involves crab producer associations in Asia and the major blue swimming crab importing companies in the United States. The U.S. importers formed the National Fisheries Institute Crab Council to focus on the future of the blue swimming crab fishery. We see it as the right thing to do as well as making good business sense. Council member companies proudly display a sustainability logo on their packaging.

The Council also funds crab fishery improvement projects implemented by our industry partners in Asia with an unprecedented self-imposed 1.5 cents fee on each pound of imports. Some additional funding has come from the World Bank. These efforts have started to yield results. Programs presently underway in Asia now better monitor the crab population, protect reproductive female crabs and key nursery habitats, test various fisheries management options and educate fishermen. A major achievement came earlier this year when Council member companies agreed to purchase crabs only above a set minimum size. This was followed by actions of the Indonesian government to support this policy through regulation.

Taking the time and making the effort to identify and source from fisheries in transition helps a fishery to its ultimate goal of true sustainability.

When you look for and support companies that understand sustainability is a process, you help ensure that we have a healthy seafood supply for generations to come. It's worth the effort. Meanwhile, here are some resources: Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, Marine Stewardship Council, Asian Blue Swimming Crab Sustainability Efforts

Steve Phillips is president and c.e.o. of 17-unit Phillips Seafood Restaurants, which has served Maryland-style seafood for 50-plus years. Phillips also owns processing plants in Baltimore and, in the 1990s, Steve Phillips launched the blue swimming crab industry in Asia, where he opened his first crab processing plant in the Philippines. In recent years, crab has become one of America's top 10 favorite seafoods.

TAGS: Operations