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wading through a sea of eco-certification

November 10, 2009

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

14 Comments leave one →
  1. November 11, 2009 10:43 am

    And sometimes those sustainable seafood guides are so confusing that two oceanography PhD students can’t figure out what to eat. I ran into this with ahi tuna the other week – on Seafood Watch it’s red, yellow AND green depending on how it’s caught and where it’s from. But of course the server did not know how it was caught. So we just ate the tuna, feeling slightly guilty and slighty stupid. I think you’re correct that a simple certification like MSC is the way to go.

    • whysharksmatter permalink*
      November 11, 2009 11:18 am

      I often wonder if the waitstaff at seafood restaurants lies to me about where the fish comes from. Honestly, how would we know?

      • November 11, 2009 11:22 am

        It doesn’t even have to be the restaurants, by the time a steak or fillet makes it here from the other side of the world, who’s to say what fish it originally came from?

      • November 11, 2009 4:56 pm

        Exactly, and that’s why those seafood watch cards don’t really help. I don’t agree with Jennifer Jacquet on much, but she’s right about that.

  2. November 11, 2009 10:50 pm

    Unfortunately, it does take effort and care from the consumer to choose sustainable seafood, and I think changing that would be great. Something along the lines of the labeling we have for organic, but for sustainable fishing practices, or at least clearly IDing the method and location. I’ve found in Hawaii, though, that they’re pretty good about labeling in the supermarkets. I was actually quite shocked. Most of them have the location (local, etc) and some even have details about the method (usually whether farmed or not, though I’ve seen some that say pole-caught). If everywhere did at least that much it would go a ways towards giving consumers the chance to choose sustainable options.

    Restaurants, in my opinion, have no excuse for not informing their customers about their food’s origins – they get their food from a specific vendor who gets their fish from a particular fishery. They should know, and often if I ask in a restaurant and they don’t know, it means I won’t order the fish that time.

    On a separate note, I’ve talked to the Monterrey Bay people before about their watch criteria, and their criteria are completely separate of health concerns (eg mercury levels, etc). The one exception is their newest effort, their “Super Green” list which are choices that are nutritious, low in toxins, and sustainably fished.

    • November 12, 2009 12:29 am

      We took genetic samples of tuna from many seafood restaurants in our area. we saw some grouper, some nile perch, but no tuna of any stripe, not one.

      In many cases the fish go through so many steps between the boat and your dinner plate, that even if there is no deception, you can still end up with something completely misidentified. if you go from a fishery to a fish market to a distributor to a shipped to a wholesaler to a new fish market to a restaurant, what are the odds that a white fillet half a world away will be relabeled by thew time it gets to your plate. Combine that with the fact that most people can’t ID fish, and you have a problem.

      I once went to a Whole Foods in DC where they were selling whole fish clearly labeled Mahi Mahi that were very clearly trout. I doubt anyone was trying to deceive anyone, they just didn’t know what a trout or mahi looked like.

  3. Ted permalink
    November 12, 2009 7:50 am

    My local supermarket has items in the fish dept. with a full (and mercifully short) history. They’ll have the fish on ice, accompanied by lots of pictures and anecdotes about the boat, her crew, and the particular catch you’re looking at. I like that, but whatever they’re got in that case is usually $15/pound or more. I try to feed my family fish once a week or so for health benefits, but I usually go for something <$10/lb, and who knows where it came from. I can only hope it was frozen on the boat and stayed that way until I bought it from the freezer in the store. I'm going to check out my choices (usually tilapia or catfish) on some of the sites you linked to in the article, and holding my breath a little.

    When it comes to seafood, living inland sucks.

    • bluegrassbluecrab permalink*
      November 12, 2009 8:44 am

      Sadly, living inland isn’t as much of a curse as you might think – much of the time around here, the only local seafood we’ve got is the one on the end of your own pole. There are a couple of places working to change that, but there’s much work still to be done. And with good refrigeration, there’s no reason that landlubbers like yourself shouldn’t be able to find fish at least caught in US waters in a way that somewhat protects habitat.

      • Ted permalink
        November 12, 2009 10:52 am

        Wow, that sucks. If I’m ever in a coastal city, first thing I ask at the hotel is which restaurants serve local seafood. Otherwise, I might as well be eating frozen tilapia at home (as long as it’s a US product, I learned from the Monterrey Bay site).

        The whole discussion just re-ignites my disgust at how polluted the local lake is. I would love to be eating the fish caught less than 30 miles from my house, even if I had to catch and clean it myself.

  4. November 13, 2009 11:07 am

    Dear Amy,
    Thank you for your post on the challenges that consumers face in choosing healthy and sustainable seafood. As you no doubt know, this is no easy task. The seafood market offers hundreds of different species, all caught or farmed in dozens of different ways. And to add insult to injury, we import it from almost every country on Earth. That certainly isn’t a recipe for success, especially when you consider the lack or inadequacy of accurate labeling for consumers.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I manage EDF’s seafood program and am responsible for the research behind the health recommendations that you see on the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Blue Ocean Institute, and SeaChoice guides (all of which we have partnerships with). As you saw, all of those groups are in agreement on the “yellow” ecological rating for blue crabs. That is, there are some concerns with the fishery, however its certainly a better choice than something on the “Red” list.

    With respect to the consumption advisory for blue crab, we collected mercury and PCB data from every Atlantic and Gulf coast state that has a commercial harvest, yielding almost 1000 data points from 15 different government monitoring programs or peer reviewed studies (I am happy to provide this list upon request). While we do not have the funding to do an exhaustive sampling of our own, we believe this to be the most comprehensive collection of such data in the country. And although there was some geographic variation in contaminant concentrations, there were values from every state that would have triggered an advisory under the EPA guidance that we follow (more information on that here – But you are correct to point out that our recommendation does not consider other toxins. In our experience, pesticides, PAHs, etc. tend to be more localized issues, for which we would recommend consulting your state’s fish advisory program. North Carolina’s can be found here – – while a national list can be found here –

    Finally, while Food and Water Watch may reference our work on contaminants, we have no affiliation with their guide.

    Hope this helps clear things up a bit.

    Best regards,
    Tim Fitzgerald

    • bluegrassbluecrab permalink*
      November 14, 2009 8:57 am

      Thanks for your reply! I would love to take a look at the data; it’s a very kind offer. I definitely don’t envy your job of trying to come up with good recommendations that people don’t need a graduate degree to sift through. At some level, people have to make personal decisions about what factors are priorities for them, as well. Anyways, I’d love to continue this conversation, perhaps off the comment log; email me at bluegrassbluecrab at gmail dot com!

  5. November 13, 2009 1:32 pm

    I’m actually inland too– SE Wisconsin area– and every time I walk past the seafood section in a grocery store I look for stickers about where the fish came from. More often than not, there aren’t any about origin (aside from farmed vs. wild caught) and I see more than a few fish that are on the Monterey Bay Sea Food “Avoid” list. I really like the idea of a sustainably caught label. Or, you know, at least something to prove that it’s actually the fish you think it is.

  6. rantingcynic permalink
    November 17, 2009 11:23 am

    This was informative. I love fish, but I don’t eat them much exactly because of this type of debate.

  7. Mina permalink
    November 22, 2009 9:17 am

    Yay for rantingcynic! When I realised that it’s impossible to get reliable provenance information for seafood, I also stopped eating it. Tough not to eat fish, but in the end they’re doing more good in the sea than in my stomach.

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    The Southern Fried Scientist

    Andrew is a graduate student in North Carolina studying deep sea biology. When not in the lab, he spends his time out on the water, usually swearing at his boat while simultaneously sacrificing some important tool to Poseidon in a desperate attempt to make the motor start. That is, assuming he can get his truck running long enough to actually put the boat in the water. He enjoys long walks on the beach, by necessity. Follow him on Twitter @SFriedScientist.


    David is a graduate student in South Carolina studying shark conservation. He is the author of the upcoming book “Why Sharks Matter: Using New Environmentalism to Show The Economic And Ecological Importance of Sharks, The Threats They Face, and How You Can Help”. His time is divided between educating the public about sharks, spending days at a time at sea playing with sharks, and eating horribly unhealthy foods. Follow him on Twitter @WhySharksMatter.

    bluegrass blue crab

    Amy is a graduate student in North Carolina studying local ecological knowledge within the blue crab fishery. She spends half her life studying the most charismatic of organisms - humans - and the estuaries on which they depend. While not contemplating grand social theories, she enjoys a good jam session and watching sunsets over the estuary. Follow her on Twitter @bgrassbluecrab.

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