Seafood Sustainability and “Eco-labeling”: a slippery slope


You may have heard of some of the big “eco-labeling” firms that have become big names in the seafood industry in recent years: Organizations like the Marine Stewardship Council and the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program  are just two of many programs that have popped up in response to the growing demands from the public for more information on the sustainability status of some of our favorite seafood options.

The utility and accuracy of the information presented by these organizations was the topic of a recent conference at the fourth annual Science and Sustainability Forum in New Orleans at the end of October.  Hosted by an organization called Ocean Trust, in attendance were some of the nation’s leading fisheries science scientists and policy managers.  The underlying theme of the talks from this conference revolved around concerns that while these large “eco-labeling” firms are gaining traction and becoming a regular part of the public’s understanding of what’s ok to eat, they are also marginalizing small scale fisheries and fishermen who can’t raise the funds necessary to undergo the complex and involved certification processes associated with these programs.  As the “eco-label” lobby continues to grow, they will have more and more influence over the sustainability information that is made available to the public.  What’s more, many  of our local fisheries already have sustainability measures built directly into their operations and management systems- begging the question over the need for these programs in the first place.


“Only ten percent of global fisheries have gone through private ecolabeling programs, ” said Thor Lassen, president of Ocean Trust a co-convener and principle organizer for the forum. “There simply is not enough money to certify all fisheries in the world, nor does it make sense. We have to be more pragmatic when it comes to the ecolabeling of seafood products. “

A fundamental concern over the raising popularity of ecolabeling firms stems from the ability they have to propagate misinformation to the public.  This misinformation can have profound ramifications on our local fisheries. Although the propagation of this misinformation may not be intentional, the grossly oversimplified nature of a very complex and dynamic set of policy and environmental issues makes it misleading at best. And, in the words of Steve Cadrin, local professor and president of American Institute of Fisheries Research Biologists, “Misinformation needs to be corrected because an imbalanced agenda threatens the human aspects of sustainability”. As in so many other instances, it’s our local fishermen that take a hit.

So, what does this mean for the everyday consumer? While the experts work on balancing and correcting some of the information being mass-produced regarding seafood sustainability, here are some basic take-homes on Green Seafood Guidelines from the bright minds at the locally-based Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance that you can use to make smart and sustainable seafood choices for you and your family:

-Buy from a local fishermen when possible

-Get involved in a local Community Supported Fishery (Like the local Cape Ann Fresh Catch-CSF!)

-Eat fish that looks like fish! (stay away from overly processed fish, that is turned into squares or fingers or some other shape. And don’t be afraid of whole, bone-in fish. Good cooks know that’s where the flavor is!)

-Ask how, when, where and by who your fish is caught.  Although it may be tricky to trace all these details exactly, your seafood surveyor should have a good handle on most of this information.  If they don’t, that’s a red flag. 

Regarding seafood eco-labeling programs more specifically, be weary of any program that seeks to over-simplify the topic of sustainability- and remember that all fish caught and sold in the US are managed under some of the most strict and fiercely enforced guidelines in the world. Most importantly, educate yourself! There is plenty of good information available from reputable & unbiased sources like that will give you the opportunity to sift through some of the hot-button topics yourself and get a better understanding of the complex issues surrounding the management of our local fisheries.

To read the whole story about the fourth annual Science and Sustainability Forum, you can check out the full article at