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Finding transparency in muddy waters

According to the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise conservation program, worldwide people are eating more seafood than ever before.

As of 2012, globally people are consuming an average of 42 pounds of seafood per person annually compared to 22 pounds per person in 1960.

This is good news for health advocates like dietitians and doctors who encourage consumers to eat fish at least twice weekly. But what does a conscientious grocer do to meet consumer demands while supporting healthy water and seafood production systems?

Enter eco-labels
Beyond major trends with innovation in the water-based side of the food system, sustainable options remain a concern for Canadian consumers. That’s where developing partnerships with conservation programs like Ocean Wise or SeaChoice can help provide transparency for consumers and ensure grocers are sourcing stocks from sustainable sources.

Ocean Wise and SeaChoice are just two of many science-based conservation programs that partner with retailers and even restaurants to help consumers make informed choices. Fortunately, there’s also the Sea Food Alliance for Seafood Solutions, which is a collaborative organization where various conservation agencies can share research and best practices; this strengthens each individual program through knowledge and resource collaboration.

Where Ocean Wise is concerned, seafood catches can be considered sustainable only when they meet these four key criteria:

  • — Protect the health of the surrounding aquatic environment and habitat;
  • — Limit amount of bycatch, or accidental catching of other types of fish as a byproduct of the fishing methods used;
  • — Be a resilient species that thrives easily; and
  • — Have a comprehensive management plan implemented.

Get the low down on farmed fish
Whether or not a fish farm (or aquaculture operation) is sustainable all depends on what type of system is used and how it affects the environment and wild fish stocks in nearby waters. This means each farming system is assessed individually. However, there are some general criteria that can help briefly explain the situation to inquisitive consumers.

Sustainable options

Closed net in-land aquaculture systems including recirculating tanks, raceways, or certain pond systems are generally sustainable options. These types of aquaculture systems separate the fish farms spatially from wild fish stocks, which reduces the risk of interbreeding, environmental pollution into nearby waterways from the farms, or increased demand on the habitat resources like food. But to be given the sustainable stamp, these aquaculture systems must have water management systems in place to clean any waste waters before putting it into waterways where other wild fish stocks live.

Unsustainable options

Ocean-based open-net pens, like those often used for farmed Atlantic salmon or rainbow trout, are typically unsustainable. Open-net farms located within the same environment as wild species mean the environment can easily become contaminated from wastes produced from the farmed fish. There is also the potential for farmed fish to escape their enclosure, interbreed with wild fish, spread diseases like parasites, or compete for food and overwhelm the habitat.

Earlier, I mentioned that most in-land systems are sustainable, but there are exceptions. To be given the sustainable stamp, in-land systems must not displace other sensitive wildlife habitats. For example, in Asia there have been clearing of mangrove forests to build pond aquaculture systems. This is not a neutral impact on the surrounding environment, so this type of closed in-land system is not considered sustainable.

In the end, it’s not exactly black and white when it comes to seafood choices. All the more reason to lean on the organizations that specialize in the science of healthy oceans to help your customers and buyers find clear choices on the shelves.

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