Thursday, February 28, 2013

Eat more seafood!

I wanted to start this entry by suggesting that the Chick-Fil-A cows have it wrong (see picture), but I’ll take my own lesson in ethodiversity and respect that the cows have different values than I do. You surely also have a unique set of values. If you care about the environment, seafood may be a great choice for conscientious eating.

Though seafood can also offer health and cultural benefits, I will focus on the environmental aspects today. I will also limit my discussion to fish and shellfish caught wild from the ocean. The situation is more complicated for farmed seafood because, for most species (bivalves excepted), there are concerns about their food source and waste, and about damage to natural habitats from the construction of their enclosures. With these caveats out of the way, here are two major arguments for eating wild-caught seafood.

First, seafood promotes the conservation of wild ecosystems. I love this about seafood; it’s one of my biggest inspirations for the work that I do. Who would rather eat some penned in, domesticated animal that was raised on a farm, from land that is unrecognizable compared to its original natural form, instead of a fish that swam wild in a natural ecosystem until its quick and relatively merciful death? Many people tend to worry about choosing seafood because of the negative effects that fishing may have on ecosystems, yet the alternatives usually come from a manufactured ecosystem designed to produce food, not sustain nature. This attitude did not win me friends when I worked for a major conservation organization but it’s true—if you choose a steak rather than a seafood option that gets mixes environmental reviews, you are probably doing more harm as a result.

Second, typical seafood requires fewer inputs in its production and therefore has a smaller environmental footprint than other sources of animal protein. These inputs include fertilizer, farm equipment/fishing boats, and infrastructure and fuel for equipment/vessels, processing, and distribution. Farms can also be a major source of air and water pollution. Focusing on fuel use, the most efficient fisheries target aggregations and operate on a large scale. Alaskan pollock serves as an example and can be found at McDonald’s and in a wide variety of other breaded, rectangular-shaped fish products (see picture). The least efficient are fisheries that drag heavy gear across the bottom of the ocean and thus use substantial quantities of fuel.

There are downsides to seafood. Its origin in the wild lends itself to higher prices than many alternative food sources. However, the discerning shopper can find bargains, whether they be local fish when it’s abundant and on sale or less valuable choice such as sardines, canned pink salmon, or even Alaskan pollock. When it comes to inputs, not all seafood is exemplary. If fuel consumption is a concern, you are better off avoiding choices like scallops and shrimp that are fuel-intensive. However, eating locally-caught seafood can mitigate these concerns. When seafood is flown to far-off markets, the amount of fuel involved skyrockets.

For these reasons, I will usually feel better about eating wild seafood than alternatives, animal or vegetable, produced on a farm. The degree of good feeling, though, and my ability to sustain this pleasure and pass it onto my kids, depends upon effective management—what I have referred to previously as sustainability. Given that the average consumer has limited time to educate themselves about the nuances, what can be done? Here are a few options:

1. Get educated. Use sites such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Fish Watch and The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch to learn details about various seafood options. My recommendation would be to focus particularly on the management system, which is not regularly highlighted. Ask, though, and you can help to catalyze a cultural change. This alternative does take some work but is not insurmountable. Once you’ve acquired a base of knowledge it’s less effort to maintain it, and you can pass it onto your community of friends. Realistically, though, few people will have time or dedication for this option. As an alternative…

2. Find a trusted source of advice. Please be thoughtful, though. Few sources of recommendations are transparent about the values they use to determine their list of environmentally friendly seafood and many want you to eat seafood that matches their values. Stick with a source that does break down their criteria and whose values match your own. If you want advice, you are welcome to post a comment on this blog and I will tell you what I can. Even this option will be too much for many. For most of you, this alternative may be the best fit…

3. Support watch dogs like us who work to ensure effective fisheries policies, and a strong government program of research, management, and education. You can write your congressional representatives and encourage them to generously support NOAA or your country’s fisheries agency. Or, you can invest in organizations like Bridge Environment by donating, or even by simply liking or sharing this blog.

Next week, we will switch gears temporarily and talk about pollution. Today, I visited an elementary school my son may attend next year and saw a collection of kids’ science posters about the effects of pollution on Puget Sound. All seemed to echo the message “pollution is bad.” Can you guess my response? Tune in next week to find out.

As always, your comments are appreciated.


For more information, read our other blog posts and visit us at Bridge Environment.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Blah blah biodiversity…what about ethodiversity?

Last week, I discussed the concept of sustainability as it relates to seafood. I reviewed a recent critique aired on National Public Radio (NPR) and shared my own views on one of the major challenges in evaluating seafood choices: uncertainty. You may also be interested in a blog entry by Bridge Environment’s parent organization, The Ocean Foundation, which shares some data and observations about the seeming gap in addressing uncertainty or even overfishing in seafood certification efforts. This week, I will discuss another major challenge: ethodiversity.

Fig. 1--see for more hilarity
I thought I would be clever and create that word myself, from the Greek root etho, meaning value. Turns out I’m way behind those innovators in workforce management: you know, the ones who do everything from hanging motivational posters (see Fig. 1) to organizing trust falls for better teamwork. They’ve been at ethodiversity for over a decade.

I realize that I’m stepping into a snake pit here. Political parties (one in particular) and many news organizations in the US seem to have recently developed bad cases of ethoxenophobia (ha, take that workforce management types, I coined a new word after all, now adding the Greek root xenos, which means strange or different). The general public is clearly receptive to ethoxenophobia, as evidenced by the Citadel, “A Community of Liberty” (as seen on the Daily Show). Don’t worry about liberty translating into ethodiversity, though. According to the Citadel’s website, “Marxists, Socialists, Liberals and Establishment Republicans will likely find that life in our community is incompatible with their existing ideology and preferred lifestyles.” If you are a hopeful “progressive” Democrat noting that progressives were not mentioned and hoping that you might fit in to a community living in a heavily fortified walled castle…sorry—I’m pretty sure the people organizing the Citadel consider you a Socialist if you voted Democrat and Marxist if you did so happily.

Anyway, back to seafood. Last week I made my plea to bring back meaning to the word sustainable, specifically the ability for current management systems to either restrain fishing pressure or respond to future changes in such a way that the stock and fishery remain healthy. But, I realize that I am swimming against a strong current and, let’s be realistic, I don’t have the swimming skills or singular focus of a salmon. Here’s what I am up against. When most people offer you an opinion about sustainable seafood, what they are really doing is telling you what they would like you to eat, not what choice fits your values. This makes a huge difference because of (did you see this coming?) ethodiversity!

Fig. 2--a plate full of deliciousness
Let’s take dolphin-safe tuna as an example, which may have been first ever effort to use labeling to change fishing practices. This label goes back to 1990 and is particularly effective in the US, where virtually all tuna carries this certification. It was designed to discourage the practice where fishers encircle pods of dolphins with purse seine nets in order to catch schools of tuna (adult yellowfin tuna often travel below pods of dolphins). If only life were as black and white as most ethoxenophobes would have you believe, the label might have solved all of our problems. But life is more complex. Purse seiners still catch tuna in the same waters but now often set their nets around floating material, for example seaweed, driftwood, or specially designed fish aggregation devices. Floating material attracts ocean life. Smaller fish will move towards it for shelter and possibly food from the material itself or organisms that have grown on it. Larger fish come to eat smaller fish. In this manner, floating material often ends up hosting a whole miniature ecosystem. When seines are set around such a system, they may not catch dolphins but they do unintentionally catch a wide array of organisms ranging from undersized tuna to sharks and perhaps the occasional turtle. Much of this incidental catch is unmarketable and gets thrown overboard. For reasons that reflect the underlying ecology, when purse seines are set around dolphins, they have less of this incidental catch but at the expense of the occasional dolphin.

Now, which fleet would you rather buy tuna from: the one risking dolphins or the one killing a broader range of sea life? But no…you, my loyal readers are smart and must be asking, “Why can’t we just catch tuna without risking these other creatures?” The fact is, we can, but the cost of doing so would drive the price of canned tuna to prices the market would not support. That leaves us with four choices: cheap tuna that risks dolphins, cheap tuna that risks other sea life, expensive tuna, or eating something else. Ethodiversity dictates that people will view these choices differently and the single dolphin-safe label clearly isn’t enough to promote informed decision-making.

Canned tuna is not alone—sustainable seafood certification processes and other forms of seafood labeling and ranking share this problem. Groups like the Marine Stewardship Council, featured in the NPR series, divide seafood into products carrying their blue seal of approval and everything else. Organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium provide three categories: green, yellow, and red. For a busy consumer, such simplification can be extremely useful. Instead of having to learn a great deal about the ecology and economics of fisheries, they can simply look for a label or scan a card to see if something is ok to eat. Unfortunately, ethodiversity is lost in the simplification. Fortunately there are resources if you are interested in being an educated seafood consumer. The US government provides a wealth of information about seafood choices, without picking winners and losers, through NOAA’s website. And though most people don’t look past the green, yellow, and red, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch website ( gives detailed information behind their reviews.

In next week’s blog entry, I will encourage you to eat seafood. My pitch only makes sense, though, if you do it in an educated way that reflects your values. Here at Bridge Environment we think the world is a better place because of ethodiversity and do what we can to support it.

As always, your comments are appreciated.


For more information, read our other blog posts and visit us at Bridge Environment.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Exactly what is sustainable seafood?

A blog of Bridge Environment

Fish market, note top sign "All seafood is 100% sustainable"
Do you seek out sustainable seafood? Have you ever wondered what it means for seafood to be sustainable? This week, National Public Radio (NPR) ran a series on sustainable seafood certification, the process by which some fisheries get identified as good for the environment. This process raises issues that I have grappled with, on personal and professional fronts, for over a decade. In fact, the series was brought to my attention by Natasha Benjamin, who in 2004 did an internship with me in which she focused on ways our organization might weigh in with advice for concerned seafood consumers.

The NPR stories shone a critical light on the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), one of the pioneers in sustainable seafood certification. These stories highlighted that some MSC-certified seafood products are controversial because stocks have declined, ocean habitats may be damaged, and especially because information is often lacking to make a definitive conclusion about whether a fish stock is healthy.

The stories also criticized MSC’s process. They noted that MSC often certifies fisheries that do not yet meet their sustainability criteria. Instead MSC sets conditions that need to be met in the future. The stories also noted that MSC’s evaluations are done by consulting firms, which are chosen and paid for by the industry wanting to be certified, which may produce a conflict of interest.

Though valid on some level, most of these criticisms are distractions from the biggest issues in identifying and labeling sustainable seafood. Fisheries rely on complex and dynamic ecosystems. As a result, stocks will sometimes decline even if they are well managed. Habitat damage is a larger concern, but one that MSC explicitly considers in certifying a fishery. In process, the stories failed to note that MSC explicitly chose to use conditions, with the expectation that this approach would prompt positive change in fisheries that are willing to improve their practices. The conflict of interest is also a larger concern, but the outcome of an organization that started on a tight budget and wanted to see a genuine commitment on the part of a fishery before considering them for certification.

Uncertainty, however, is one of the biggest issues in sustainable seafood and is not adequately addressed by MFC, other sources of advice, or fisheries managers. My sources who work with the organization suggest that MFC also recognizes the need to consider uncertainty more fully. First, let’s consider what exactly sustainable means? It comes from the word sustain, to nourish, and so seems particularly appropriate for discussions of food choices. In the context of environmental issues, sustainable seems to be used for almost anything, particularly when used to market a product or organization (a point made clearly and with humor here). The formal definition of the word sustainable implies a practice that can be maintained for the foreseeable future. As I’ve discussed several times, uncertainty presents a major challenge to the practice of sustaining a resource, but can be overcome. Traditional salmon fisheries in northern California were sustainable because they limited their fishing activities to relatively light levels. Native Hawaiians had sustainable fisheries based on similar moderation combined with management measures that, in rocket science fashion, responded to early signs of declines.

Seafood rating programs could embrace this concept, providing a stamp of approval to fisheries that use some combination of moderation and responsive management measures to provide a high degree of certainty that the fish stock would remain healthy. These measures are represented in the upper right portion of the fisheries policy diamonds I introduced two weeks ago. As illustrated in that blog entry, such policies would sacrifice some combination of average catch and constancy of catch to gain in sustainability and ecosystem function. For fisheries with large uncertainties, these management measures would have to be more extreme to account for larger probabilities that something might go wrong.

Unfortunately, these considerations are not a central focus of seafood guides. MSC puts a lot of faith in science, which sounds good but can cause problems regarding how uncertainty is addressed. Rupert Howes, MSC’s chief executive, says “the MSC standard is rigorous, it’s science-based, and assessment is based on the evidence. Those numbers are checked again. If new stock assessment data suggest the population can’t withstand that pressure, new conditions can be invoked, or indeed certificates can be withdrawn.”

While I am a fan of reevaluating management systems periodically, why not evaluate them from the start for the degree to which they are designed to adapt to changing conditions? This characteristic is the crux of the concept of sustainability and should be given extensive emphasis when rating seafood choices. That’s my opinion anyway, based on my values. Next week, I will talk about the other biggest issue when it comes to sustainable seafood—diverse values.

As always, your comments are appreciated.


For more information, read our other blog posts and visit us at Bridge Environment.