At the intersection of marine conservation and social, economic, environmental and food justice

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Defining ‘Sustainable Seafood’: Is it all about the fish?

This post comes to us from Taylor Witkin, Masters student in Marine Affairs at the University of Rhode Island, and was originally posted on SustainFish on October 10, 2016.

Ask a Whole Foods customer at the fish counter to define sustainable seafood and he might refer to fisheries conservation or pollution-free aquaculture. Or he might tell you that sustainable seafood is a tuna steak with a green Seafood Watch label in front of it. Folke et al. 1998 suggest that sustainable seafood originates from practices that make use of an ecosystem’s capacity without degrading it whilst protecting it from economic and social forces that incentivize misuse of that ecosystem. Though these definitions fit the concept as it pertains to the practice of fishing, sustainable seafood is also a marketing tool. Similar to the ascension of organic in terrestrial food markets, to completely define sustainable seafood one must address the role of marketing and its impacts on fishers and seafood markets as the concept becomes more mainstream.

Multiple organizations have sought to define and promote sustainable seafood. Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA), and others, have created guides like Seafood Watch that make it easy for other-wise unknowledgeable consumers to identify seafood that MBA deems sustainable. Seafood Watch’s guiding principles account for fisheries management structures, rate of bycatch, ecosystem degradation, and greenhouse gas emissions, to name just a few. However, these guides do not consider the social and economic complexities within the seafood industry. Tacking ‘sustainable’ onto seafood adds value to products. So the system can hurt fishers trying to compete in markets that value sustainability if certain regulations do not exist or equipment needed to receive certifications is too expensive.

In 2015, environmental non-profits like Oceana (which I worked for) lobbied for a bill that would allow Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries agents to enforce a federal law requiring turtle excluder devices (TED) on shrimp trawl nets. Despite the lack of enforcement, many shrimpers used TEDs to voluntarily reduce turtle bycatch. But before the bill passed, Seafood Watch listed Louisiana shrimp as “avoid” because Louisiana did not enforce the use of TEDs. Many Louisiana shrimpers’ fishing methods fit Seafood Watch’s guiding principles, but because of rigid rules defining sustainable seafood, those watermen could not add value to their catch; with a red “avoid label attached to their shrimp, they could not compete in markets that placed a premium on sustainability.

As a seafood retailer and then employee at a large environmental NGO, I have questioned the benefits of bringing sustainable seafood, as a marketing concept, into the mainstream since local, small-scale fishing fleets usually have lower ecological footprints than industrial fleets, despite ecolabels. Does excluding small-scale fishers from markets because of a marketing tool represent the concept of sustainable seafood? As consumers increasingly value sustainability, how can small-scale fishers compete with large operations that can pay for sustainability ratings? The concept of sustainable seafood must include economic consequences as well as ecological benefits. Truly sustainable seafood is harvested with minimal impact to an ecosystem and with as much benefit to fishers as possible.

Monday, December 5, 2016

South County Hospital Wins the Local Food Challenge

As a member of Food Solutions New England (FSNE) we're excited to share this post from the FSNE blog. This post comes from John Stoddard, Healthy Food in Health Care Coordinator for the global non-profit organization, Health Care Without Harm. John works throughout New England on facilitating local and sustainable food procurement for health care institutions, with a specific focus on Connecticut and Rhode Island. We collaborated with Health Care Without Harm on a Seafood Throwdown in Rhode Island in September.

Health Care Without Harm congratulates South County Hospital for winning the Rhode Island Health Care Local Food Challenge.  South County outperformed their competitors in local food purchasing, education, and employee engagement, and has won $1000 in honor of their great efforts. “At South County we make every effort to provide a comfortable and healing environment for our patient, staff, and visitors, and the food we serve is a big part of that”, said Meghan Keenan, Director of Food and Nutrition.  “We also recognize our role in the community to support our local economy and our local food producers, and that a strong local food economy means a healthier community overall”.
RI Food Challenge Roger Williams demo

Five Rhode Island hospitals competed in the Local Food Challenge in addition to South County, including Bradley Hospital, The Miriam Hospital, Newport Hospital, Our Lady of Fatima Hospital, and Roger Williams Medical Center. “All of the hospitals in the Challenge deserve congratulations”, said John Stoddard, Healthy Food in Health Care Coordinator for Health Care Without Harm. “Each participant went the extra mile to purchase local foods and educate about local foods in their facilities.” 
The Local Food Challenge began in May 2015 and concluded in September 2016 with a Seafood Throwdown at the Rhode Island Seafood Festival in Providence.  Participants competed throughout the year in the areas of purchasing, education, and employee engagement around local foods.  Through the Challenge, participants collectively spent over $314,000 on local foods, held 17 educational events, and 251 employees were given access to local foods through Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s Veggie Box program.  Congratulations to South County and all the participants for their work.  Our farmers, fishers, and the whole community thanks you! 
Health Care Without Harm administered the Challenge through a LASA grant, while utilizing the support of our partners, Farm Fresh Rhode IslandNorthern Rhode Island Area Health Education Center and The Hospital Association of Rhode Island (HARI).

Thursday, November 17, 2016

"We Don't Need the Rest" A Lesson in Not Taking More Than the Ocean Can Give

“Bonito!” Ernie calls out with excitement. As we move the boat across the purse net we gather the rope, cinching it closed, herding the fish together. A larger striped silvery fish swims in and out of sight between lots of pogies and a few small squid and butterfish. The first bonito gets stuck on the net right below Mo who grabs it, wriggles it loose from the net, and tosses it into the boat. Yes! Bonito!

Owen Nichols holding our first bonito
Owen Nichols holding our first bonito
Shannon takes a minute to stitch up a hole in the net that’s big enough for a bonito to escape through. Water splashes my arms and I just keep giggling - feeling so happy to be with friends learning about their way of fishing. I pause to take a breath of fresh salty air when a pogie flops out of Owen’s dip net and onto my back and I burst out laughing again. The sun is shining on calm water all around us and it’s a perfect temperature with just t-shirts under our oil skins on a morning in late June. Owen, Russell, and Ernie, fill dip nets with pogies, scooping them out of the trap’s purse and into bins Shannon is stacking. Mo and I splash around in the bottom of the boat retrieving escaped pogies off the floor and back into the bins and tossing butterfish outside of the trap.

Almost all the pogies are in the bins when Shannon says, “We don’t need the rest.” What? After all this we’re going to release the rest? We’re not taking everything? As Owen, Shannon and Ernie lift up the net and fling the rest back out to sea I notice my instinct to take everything we could. That instinct to hoard fish, permits and quota is driving our fisheries and fishing communities to the brink. Instead of saying “we don’t need the rest” industrial fishing operations, corporate ownership and privatization policies reward those who take more than the ocean can give. Shannon’s generational connection to the ocean goes beyond immediate financial gain and values the next generation’s ability to feed people.
Mo, Shannon and Ernie release the extra fish
On the way back to shore Russell gestures to the vast ocean horizon, “however many fish are coming through, we’ll always only catch the very very small fraction of whatever happens to pass into our nets. If there’s a lot of fish swimming around we’ll probably catch more and if there aren’t as many, we’ll catch less.” The traps  naturally catch a healthy amount of fish relative to what’s swimming any day or year or decade or century. Weir traps have been used in North America for thousands of years. 65,000 stakes of ancient weirs were discovered by workers digging Boston’s Back Bay subway in 1913. Archaeologists say that between 3,700 and 4,700 years ago, native peoples captured tomcod, flounder, eels and herring in an ancient bay. Now weir fishing is extremely rare. SlowFish 2016 gathered community based fishermen from across North America in New Orleans, LA for three days of sharing stories, their catch, and strategizing about policy. Shannon and Russell attended along with Erica Porter who fishes her family’s weir in Nova Scotia, Canada. They run a low tide fishing weir, one of the last weirs in Nova Scotia. Erica’s been fishing the weir with her dad since she was 17.
Russell Kingman and I talk on the way back to the trap dock
Ernie Eldredge has been fishing the weirs full time since he graduated high school. Ernie’s father fished the weirs before him and now Ernie fishes with his daughter Shannon Eldredge, NAMA Board President, and her partner Russell Kingman. Back at the dock, Ernie hauls up the bins of pogies and takes a look at the three bonito in the bucket. Ernie thought it would be the last day of fishing but now that there were a few bonito in there, he might have to test his luck. Maybe the bonito will start showing up in greater numbers.
Ernie hauling the bins up to the Stage Harbor trap dock