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Several supermarkets have taken steps to change their seafood policies. (iStock)

Environmental groups that have been sounding urgent alarms about dramatic declines in fish and seafood stocks are taking Canadian supermarkets to task for the role they play in the emptying of the oceans.

A global study entitled History of Marine Animal Populations, presented in May at the Oceans Past conference in Vancouver, has intensified concern about the looming crisis. Marine researchers combing through historical records covering the past 2,000 years have determined there are 85 to 90 per cent fewer fish and marine mammals today than there once were.

Greenpeace mounted a coast-to-coast campaign this summer to persuade Canada's major supermarket chains to stop selling seafood on its "Red list," which lists species most threatened by overharvesting.

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Greenpeace activists protest the sale of threatened fish at a Toronto Loblaws store in November 2008. (Greenpeace Canada/Canadian Press)

"We’re asking supermarkets to take the lead and stop selling unsustainably produced seafood now, instead of reacting later when it’s too late," says Beth Hunter, Montreal-based oceans campaign co-ordinator at Greenpeace Canada. "Consumers may be unhappy if they can’t find their favourite seafoods at stores – but they’ll be even unhappier later if they disappear forever."

Greenpeace’s pressure campaign is seeing some results, Hunter says. Loblaws has announced its policy will be to only sell sustainably produced fish after 2013; Overwaitea and Metro are taking steps to put similar policies in place after meeting with Greenpeace representatives.

"But Costco and several others don’t have policies yet," Hunter says.

For their part, industry players say sustainability is easier said than done when it comes to fish.

"We all recognize we need to commit to doing the right thing – but the question is, what is it?" says Nick Jennery, president of the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors (CCGD).

"There’s no consensus on what’s considered sustainable stock," Jennery says. "If you look at all the NGOs and government, you get different lists of endangered species, although there is some overlap."

Those selling farmed fish aren’t off the hook either, he says. Although these are renewable resources, environmentalists have issues because many crowded, badly managed operations generate pollution, disease and escapers that contaminate wild stocks.

The government is providing little direction beyond issues that relate to Canada’s own waters, he adds: "That’s its mandate, but retailers today offer foods from around the world. This issue is global."

And unlike beef, there’s no federal inspection program for fish to grade it or ensure eco-labels are accurate.

However, Jennery says, there are promising signs that a consensus will soon emerge from this cacophony.

"Something we have our eye on is the Second Sustainability Summit that will be held in August in San Francisco," Jennery says. "About 14 NGOs are attending to get agreement. We’re hoping they can define the issues and solutions clearly so retailers can apply them to their business models."

Feeding the multitudes

The biggest problem looming for retailers is insufficient supply of sustainable seafood certified to any standard.

Suppliers are scrambling to meet demand — but there’s a limit to how fast they can scramble. Choosing the right certification program and then undergoing an evaluation for each species is a lengthy, laborious process.

A case in point is the northern prawn trawl fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador, which became the first Canadian fishery to earn an MSC certification in August 2008.

Good fish, bad fish?

Food retailers, producers and consumers who want to do the right thing are entering murky waters. There’s a bewildering array of endangered species lists, certification programs and eco-labels offered by various groups:

  • Greenpeace offers its Red list, but no certification program or eco-label.
  • The U.K.-based Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) offers certification with an associated eco-label, but it’s not endorsed by Greenpeace.
  • SeaChoice, a consortium of eight environmental groups that includes the David Suzuki Foundation, offers consumer guidelines with traffic-light scorecards.
  • The Monterey Bay Aquarium in California offers its Seafood Watch wallet cards.
  • The Vancouver Aquarium has its Ocean Wise program for restaurants.

"It took about three years and a fair amount of work to get certified," says Derek Butler, executive director at the Association of Seafood Producers (ASP), a collective bargaining organization for industry producers such as Ocean Choice and Clearwater. "Product has to go through a chain-of-custody audit from boat to retailer to ensure traceability and that fishing practices are environmentally sustainable, sound and well managed."

The association was driven to seek certification in order to guarantee market access to the U.K., Newfoundland’s largest export market for shrimp, he says:  "Four years ago, Marks and Spencer, Tesco and other British retailers said they planned to buy only MSC-certified fish in the future."

But unlike British consumers, it’s not clear that Canadian consumers are aware of the Marine Stewardship Council’s blue logo or whether they understand its significance, Butler says. "Some public education needs to be done. I assume this will be done at the retail level, as it isn’t something the ASP deals with, although our members probably do."

Under the MSC program, teams of experts from internationally accredited organizations conduct peer-reviewed assessments against its standards, he says. "About eight per cent of all wild-capture fisheries are in the MSC program at various stages. That may not sound like a lot, but it has the largest share globally."

But Greenpeace doesn’t endorse the MSC because its standards aren’t high enough, Hunter says. "None of the existing certifications do enough to be considered sustainable seafood. Many fisheries are being put through the machine quickly and getting certified when they shouldn’t be. It won’t solve the problem if tons of fisheries are certified to standards that are so low they’re barely above the norm."

Butler says this view isn’t based on first-hand evidence.

"Groups like Greenpeace and SeaChoice just pass and fail fisheries, but they don’t hire an independent team to assess them like the MSC," he says. "I think consumers want independence in the process, not just organizations declaring their opinions."

Farming issues

The waters are even cloudier for farmed fish.

The MSC only certifies wild-capture fisheries, and there’s no equivalent certification program for aquaculture operations, says Dr. Jamey Smith, executive director of the New Brunswick Salmon Growers Association.

"There are many eco-labels like the Certified Quality Program and the WWF’s Safe Quality Foods, but there’s no strong leader. And there isn’t one specifically for salmon, although there are several under development," he says.

The WWF is developing some aquaculture guidelines that are expected to be ready in two to three years, Jennery says. "They’re doing an interesting job of bringing multiple stakeholders together to agree on best practices and provide clear direction in the future."

Many popular but endangered species such as Atlantic salmon could be eaten in good conscience if they were farmed sustainably, Hunter says.

There are already some new, sustainable fish farm start-ups, such as Vancouver-based AgriMarine Inc., that look promising, she says. "These businesses are operating on a small scale because they don’t have big buyers yet. They’re looking to grow by getting commitments from large food retailers and restaurants."

Sustainably farmed seafood may be more expensive than regular seafood in the short term because these fish farms are switching to lower-intensity production, she says. "If it costs more, then it’s the real cost of production needed to protect the environment and it should be internalized. But seafood may cost the same in the long run if these practices become widespread."

Who’s the biggest fish?

Some environmental programs are starting to go beyond just providing listings, eco-labels and information.

The Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program is showing some real leadership in this area, says Dana McCauley, a chef and corporate food consultant based in Maple, Ont.

'It’s important for consumers to be aware, but there’s a limit to how much can be done by individuals.'—Beth Hunter, Greenpeace Canada

"For restaurants, it takes the work and guesswork out of getting sustainable seafood. They grab your menu, go to suppliers and make sure what you’re getting is actually sustainable seafood.  Otherwise, you have to ask your suppliers all kinds of questions — and they’re not necessarily truthful."

The program is starting to ripple beyond fine-dining establishments to larger restaurant chains, McCauley says. "The Keg, Jack Astor's and others are coming onboard. It’s a big breakthrough because these chains need such large volumes."

McCauley says restaurants are paying attention because consumers are growing more aware of the issues — but they’re getting conflicting messages about eating fish. "Medical experts are constantly saying people should be eating more fish with omega-3 fatty acids."

About 74 per cent of Canadian respondents say they would buy products from sustainable fisheries if their supermarkets provided them with the information to make the choice, according to a survey conducted by Montreal-based Leger Marketing.

Efforts by environmentalists to dissuade consumers from eating popular but endangered species such as Atlantic salmon are commendable, but it probably won’t decrease demand, McCauley says. "There’s just not that much supply of sustainable seafood today. Eating fish would become like eating caviar."

To effect real change, Hunter says, environmentalists are targeting bigger fish. "It’s important for consumers to be aware, but there’s a limit to how much can be done by individuals. This is why we’re targeting supermarkets — they have enormous influence on fisheries, consumers and other players in the supply chain."

McCauley agrees big players need to be involved to save endangered species. "The government needs to take a stand but it’s all very political. If it moved to impose sustainable aquaculture or other standards, it could put a lot of companies out of business."

But the chicken-and-egg challenge is that public pressure is what’s ultimately needed to influence government, she says.

"In England, a law was recently introduced making it illegal to sell anything but free-range chickens in grocery stores. The entire industry has had to change. But it took years of consumer pressure to move the government's hand."