Wading Through a Sea of Eco-Certification

With seafood season in full swing, I thought I’d repost this review of certification programs.  I’ve learned lots since writing this article, most notably that the compiled data from the EDF study comes from a huge database of government sources. This gives me more confidence in their truth, but the areas tested are still light on estuaries.  Everything else still stands.  Please check back at the old site for comments.

Another thought process to add to the many considerations of food ethics: if you choose to eat seafood, which fisheries are sustainable and eco-friendly?  For those of us who live on the coast, seafood confused fishrepresents local food that supports local businesses and helps make the connection between producer and consumer.  So step one, deciding to eat seafood, has been taken.  But then what?  A number of nonprofits have taken on that burden and created seafood guides and certification to help you as an informed consumer.  Only problem is, they sometimes differ in their listings based on what criteria they use and how they weight those criteria.

Let’s take my favorite animal as a case study, the blue crab.  If I throw a pot off the dock and catch a few crabs, am I contributing to a fishery crash or putting my health in peril by eating my catch?  Some certification systems say yes and others no.  This requires delving deeper into the certification schemes.

Starting with perhaps the most well-recognized Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, blue crab is listed as a “good alternative”.  I’m not entirely sure what scoring system makes their list, but they do justify their placement a bit by describing habitat and pollution impacts to the blue crab stock.  As a side note to their listings, they also place a health alert on the blue crab due to concerns about mercury and PCB’s.  They get their information on these toxins from a report by Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which is actually referenced by most of the certification schemes.  EDF splits their certification into sustainability criteria and health criteria, which helps consumers make their decisions based on their own personal priorities.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium and EDF are also credited with providing the information for the Canadian seafood alert card, issued by SeaChoice.  They place blue crabs under the “some concerns” category and make a special note that there are mercury and PCB concerns.  Back in the US, there are two more card seafood guides that also point to EDF as the source of their information: the Blue Ocean Institute and Food and Water Watch.  The former also includes management in their criteria for sustainability and sources outside of EDF in their final considerations.  This actually places blue crabs as a “yellow”, in the middle of their scale.  They explain this placement due to lack of information on the habitat degradation/protection, stock, or pollution status of the Gulf of Mexico fishery.  In addition, the crab gets a flag due to EDF’s concerns over toxins.  The latter lumps all these concerns together, putting blue crabs on the “dirty dozen”, primarily because of toxin concerns.  They even list the blue crab as a sustainable alternative to lobster.  Clearly, they have a different set of priorities than most of the seafood guide schemes.

All of this is a lot of information to take in.  I’ll pose a few issues that bothered me in the information gathering process while deciding whether or not to eat the blue crab  caught off my dock:

1) These certification schemes all rely on one study by EDF, which relied heavily on compiled data from previous studies reporting mercury and PCB’s in muscle tissue, not a comprehensive study to determine how extensive toxin exposure is in the fishery.  Plus, they are not considering loads of other common toxins such as pesticides, PAH’s, lead, or other heavy metals.

2) Certification at the national scale may not provide helpful information for widely distributed species.  For instance, the blue crab fishery is split into 3 distinct operations in the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake, and Albemarle-Pamlico Sound.  Just because the Gulf doesn’t monitor their stock and there are high levels of contamination in their crabs doesn’t mean that a blue crab from Virginia or North Carolina is not a sustainable and healthy choice.

3) Although the guides all offer sustainable species on their list or suggest “best options”, there is no certification on the actual fish in the store.  It takes the motivation of a consumer, prior to their trip to a restaurant or grocery store, to find one of these guides, print it out, and hope that the species of interest and location it was caught is on the little card.  Wouldn’t eat be easier, and perhaps even smart marketing, to provide a labeling system like the organic label to guarantee a particular product?  The Marine Stewardship Council is offering just such a system and my guess is that the idea might spread.  Check out their criteria for getting their stamp here.

~ Bluegrass Blue Crab