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Can ‘sustainable’ sell our seafood?

B.C. study suggests labels on their own don’t move fish


Published on July 4, 2017

An Eating with the Ecosystem event in Rhode Island promotes the sustaining of wild seafood by encouraging people to purchase and cook locally abundant species.

©Submitted photo

Imagine you’re at the grocery store. You feel the subtle drop in temperature from a chiller stretched before you. Looking down, there are trays carrying salmon, white fish (cod, halibut, tilapia) and bags of frozen shrimp. Maybe a tank of lobster is nearby.

You’re grabbing what’s for dinner. So what do you look for? What species do you buy?

Do you care if it’s farmed or wild, fresh or frozen, local or not?

Valerie Johnson of Gooseberry Cove Cod in Ship Cove, Heart’s Ease Inlet, said markets are crying out for product from her and business partner Claude Seward. Their operation has been producing wild-trapped cod since the early 1990s.

Hooking in with CleanFish, a sustainability-focused American seafood marketing company, Gooseberry Cove Cod found its way as a cod “rancher,” into restaurants throughout Canada and the United States, from Pebble Beach to Disney World.

The local operation has more recently run into challenges, but not because of demand, Johnson said.

She explained a series of unrelated troubles, including late receipt of a licence from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) last year.

“So we lost our season last year. And this year we are waiting,” she said.

She expects to get a cod trap out in August and remains hopeful the fish haven’t run too deep by then.

“We’ve got a really good market and they can take way more than what we’ve been giving them,” Johnson said.

But is “sustainable” an idea really capturing buyers at the grocery store?

“All these factors are kind of out there and it’s confusing. That’s what, I guess, I hear a lot from people asking me for advice, as presumably an expert in this, as to which fish I should buy, which fish I shouldn’t buy,” Grant Murray, an associate professor of marine policy at Duke University and previously of Vancouver Island University (VIU), told The Telegram.

Murray led a study with VIU colleagues on consumer habits relating to seafood, with results published in April by Ocean and Coastal Management. The study included targeted interviews, but centred on a survey of 315 shoppers in Nanaimo, Coquitlam and Kelowna.

Through iPad questionnaires, people were asked what they consider when buying seafood, ranking individual factors from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.”

In the end, 80 per cent of people surveyed said sensory qualities — look, smell, feel — were the most important to them. Next came the cost.

“Price was among the top three most important factors for 47 per cent of respondents, although it was the most important factor for only 12 per cent,” the study stated.

Officially “sustainable” seafood — as suggested through a Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch listing or a Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification label, for example — is not ignored, Murray suggested.

However, “sustainable” is not convincing consumers on its own.

“People will change what they actually do at the grocery store, based on messages around sustainability. And I think that’s still true, but I think what our study maybe offers is that’s also shaped by these other conversations out there,” he said. “In fact, those other conversations about health, about taste and the smell, so esthetics of it, about whether it’s farmed, whether it’s local, are to many consumers more important than just a conversation around sustainability.”

Wholesale, big bucks and attention are going into the pursuit of “sustainable” approvals like MSC certification. Acadian redfish (Sebastes fasciatus) from Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization area 3LN on the Grand Banks landed the trademark checkmark in late May. Canada holds 42.6 per cent of the total allowable catch in that fishery, with the majority caught by Ocean Choice International. The check tells consumers their redfish comes from what has been deemed a well-managed and sustainable fishery.

Cod from area 3PS off Newfoundland earned the checkmark in March 2016. Just over a year later, in May, there was a voluntary suspension of the use based on stock concerns.

“For us, when we did shrimp, it was a matter of market access. Customers were suggesting our product would not get listed without something like an MSC certification. Same for snow crab in the U.S. market when we certified it,” said Association of Seafood Producers executive director Derek Butler.

Buyers and distributors may look for “sustainable” even more than consumers at this point, he suggested, but with freshness and price remaining the key.

That said, “sustainable” could become a greater concern for consumers in the future, considering a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report in 2016 stating almost one-third of global commercial fish stocks are being overharvested at an unsustainable level.    

Organizations have sprung up to encourage interest in sustainable fish, such as Rhode Island-based Eating With the Ecosystem. It promotes a place-based approach to wild seafood, pushing consumption of species close by and in local abundance. That often means introducing consumers to the unfamiliar, from sea robin to scup, including how to clean and cook the fish.

The organization brings together scientists, chefs and consumers for educational events, classes and tastings to — if nothing else — just learn what’s really at hand.

“By eating a wider variety of species, you’re taking pressure off some of the more targeted ones,” said program director Kate Masury, citing shrimp, salmon and tuna as the local big three.

“We don’t like to think about it as one fish is sustainable and one fish isn’t sustainable. It’s more the practice … not eating one species all the time,” she said.

Eating with the Ecosystem has launched a citizen science project and is in the process of having more than 80 people look for randomly assigned local species at their local markets, in the name of sustainability.

“You can definitely make some change just through consumers being active and asking for local species,” she said.