If you’ve ever had the chance to visit the beautiful Monterey Bay Aquarium, consider yourself lucky (it’s truly stunning). In 1999, the Monterey Bay Aquarium launched its Seafood Watch® Program, designed to help consumers choose seafood that has been caught or raised in a sustainable way. According to their website, they’ve distributed over 57 million consumer guides and enjoyed over 1.8 million downloads of their mobile app. But what does “sustainable seafood” actually mean? And what differentiates a fish that is farmed or caught “sustainably” from one that isn’t?
According to Seafood Watch®, the working definition of sustainable seafood includes seafood from “sources, whether fished or farmed, that can maintain or increase production without jeopardising the structure and function of affected ecosystems.” The difference between “fished or farmed” is an important one and necessitates different standards of evaluation, but for the purpose of this article we'll just focus on open-water, marine fisheries.
Standards for Fisheries:
Seafood Watch® has ten guiding principles when deciding whether or not wild-capture fisheries are sustainable. Due to space constraints I won’t mention them all here, but each one is integral. These include minimising bycatch (or the unwanted sea creatures caught while fishing for a different species), ensuring that all affected stocks are healthy and abundant, and having no more than a negligible impact on any threatened, endangered, or protected (TEP) species. These principles are translated into four criteria that Seafood Watch® uses to assess whether wild fisheries are catching both targeted species and any bycatch in a sustainable way.
Criterion 1 - Impacts of the Fishery on the Species Under Assessment:
In order to maintain its viability, a fishery must at the very least replenish the stock of fish caught every year. In theory, there is a “magic number” where fishermen can maximise profit of the target species while ensuring that they will have revenue in seasons to come. This value is known as the maximum sustainable yield, and Seafood Watch® defines a sustainable fishery as one where the cumulative fishing mortality is at or below this figure.
This clause implies that a fish population is already at a sustainable number -- the rules are different if a species is already depleted. In this case, mortality must be at or below a level that “allows the species to recover to its target abundance.” While these numbers are notoriously difficult to calculate, Seafood Watch® acknowledges that yields must take into account scientific uncertainty, management uncertainty, non-fishery impacts, and the inherent variability associated with the natural world.
Criterion 2 - Impacts on Other Capture Species:
It’s obvious that a sustainable fishery should take into account the population of the target species, but it’s less intuitive to include bycatch. Seafood Watch® has a relatively stringent definition of bycatch, including endangered or threatened species, bait species, and discards. Many fishing vessels claim that they release discards alive; however, Seafood Watch® considers all discards as bycatch unless there is “valid scientific evidence of high post-release survival.”
This section also emphasises the fishery’s responsibility to utilise marine resources effectively by minimising post-harvest loss and using bait resources efficiently. Furthermore, a fishery must take special care when it comes to TEP species, which are by definition more susceptible to population changes and overfishing.
Criterion 3 - Effectiveness of Management:
It goes without saying, but all of these standards and criteria are fairly worthless without proper management and oversight. Ensuring the sustainability of a fishery requires a significant amount of data, and Seafood Watch® requires that management have enough expertise to “assess the affected species and manage fishing mortality to ensure little risk of depletion.” This also includes measures to ensure the sustainability of the entire ecosystem, not just the most economically beneficial species.
Criterion 4 - Impacts on the Habitat and Ecosystem:
This is perhaps the broadest and most comprehensive standard of them all, as it encompasses a great deal more than just the single profitable species that most fisheries are after. Seafood Watch® requires that sustainable fisheries avoid negative impacts on the “structure, function, or associated biota” of marine habitats where fishing occurs. This typically means avoiding the use of “high-impact gears” like trawls or dredges, which are pulled across the seafloor and disrupt virtually everything in their wake.
They also require that fisheries “maintain the trophic role of all marine life,” which allows species to fill their natural ecological niche and maintain their status in the food web. In a similar vein, fisheries cannot harvest a particular species to the point that their dependent natural predators are devoid of a food source. Essentially, any practice that significantly disrupts the ecosystem in a meaningful way as defined by the most recent scientific evidence is strictly prohibited.
Example: Red King Crab
Using the above standards, Seafood Watch® has catalogued nearly all seafood choices and created a series of recommendations to help consumers make “ocean-friendly choices.” They have two databases to search, one for seafood and one for sushi, and each are incredibly user-friendly. Seafood Watch® breaks down their recommendations into best choices, good alternatives, and those to avoid. I chose to look into Red King Crab, one of my personal favourites, to see how it fared.
Red King Crab from Bristol Bay, Alaska is considered a “best choice” due to this fishery’s healthy population, minimal bycatch, and highly effective management. Crabs from Norway’s Barents Sea are also given the green light, albeit for different reasons. Red King Crab is an invasive species in the Barents Sea (meaning it is not native to the area), thus practices that would normally be forbidden such as removing excess females, minimising regulations, and enacting higher quotes are encouraged. On the other hand, Russia, whose fishery borders Norway’s, improperly managed the species invasion and has “fostered expansion of the stock” in a way that has earned it the “Avoid” rating.
Furthermore, Russia is notorious for engaging in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. According to a 2014 report by the World Wildlife Fund, 20% of American crab imports came from Russia, yet Russia reported zero exports to the United States. This is concerning for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is that U.S. companies may be legally responsible for this behaviour. The U.S. Lacey Act prohibits the possession of illegally harvested or sold seafood, and one U.S. company was forced to forfeit $2.75 million worth of king crab in 2011.
As the above information details, there is a lot more to sustainable seafood than it would originally appear. Thanks to the work of organisations like Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch®, we’re able to skim the surface of the seafood industry to help ensure that generations to come have access to fisheries around the world. Check back next week for a different take on seafood, specifically looking at how it fits into global nutrition as a whole. Thanks for reading!
Disclaimer: I am not a licensed nutritionist nor a registered dietician. The opinions expressed in this article are my own, and each individual is ultimately responsible for his/her dietary and nutrition practices. Please consult a physician before starting a new dietary program.