Buoyed By Retailers, Sustainable Seafood Is Catch Of The Day

There's a new catchphrase flopping on the deck of fishing boats these days: Sustainability.

"It was everywhere at the International Boston Seafood Show this week," says Mary Larkin, VP of seafood expositions for Diversified Business Communications, the Portland, Maine-based company which runs the show. "It certainly has been around and building momentum for a few years," she says. But this year, a lecture on sustainability "was standing room only, and companies are marketing sustainability in a way they haven't before-it is the buzzword of the industry right now."

Whole Foods is clearly capitalizing on the buzz, this week announcing the first certified-sustainable tuna fish to hit the market. Sold under the brand name American Tuna, the fish is produced by the American Albacore Fishing Association (AAFA), which consists of 21 family-owned boats in the Northwestern U.S.

The move is a big deal, says Meredith Lopuch, director of the World Wildlife Fund's community fisheries program in California, which sponsored AAFA's application. "It's not just because it is the first tuna fishery in the world to be certified, but because it's also community-based," she says. "That shows that even smaller fishermen can achieve the standards."

Wal-Mart also gets some credit for shining the spotlight on the S-word. "Wal-Mart's announcement in 2006 that it would move to 100% sustainable fish suppliers, certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, has been an enormous tool in raising consumer awareness," she says.

Still, she concedes, the typical American fish eater is pretty perplexed about what sustainability actually means: "It's still pretty much an emerging issue."

In fact, seafood is suffering from a perplexing set of marketing dilemmas. On one hand, convinced that fish is an important part of a healthy diet, consumption continues to rise. The average American ate 16.5 pounds of fish and shellfish per person in 2006, the latest year for which statistics are available, which is a 2% increase over 2005 consumption, and just a filet-o-fish under the 2004 record of 16.6 pounds.

Yet even as they're talking up the benefits of the lean protein and Omega-3 oils found in fish, some consumers are more afraid of fish than they are of public speaking. They fret about antibiotics in Chinese catfish, the relative risk of PCB and dioxin exposure in farmed versus wild salmon, and shun swordfish, fearing high mercury levels.

And of course, concerns go far beyond health: With more than 80% of the U.S. fish supply imported, and 50% of it farmed rather than wild, many fish come from farms in developing countries, making labor practices a concern. And for many people, bycatch-still a significant problem in the tuna industry, says Lopuch--is still the ultimate guilt trip. Many people just can't enjoy a tuna salad, knowing that tuna nets also kill many dolphins, seabirds, marine turtles and small whales.

Even the government has taken steps to ease consumer confusion. This week, it launched a consumer Web site to help sort fact from fish stories: fishwatch.noaa.gov. Consumers select 50 species of fish and get the lowdown from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the arm of the government that oversees the fishing industry, from anchovies to wahoo, on safety risks and harvesting practices.

Meanwhile, seafood continues to be one of the few types of food that can't use the official USDA Organic seal. Standards haven't been set, because experts are still debating thing like open-net pens, sea lice contagion, and the sources of wild-fish feed.

Communicating all those nuances of sustainable fishing to harried grocery shoppers is admittedly a leviathan undertaking, says Wally Stevens, executive director of the Global Aquaculture Alliance, a group dedicated to establishing science-based sustainability standards. "But the major breakthrough has been that consumers really do understand that seafood is good for them," he says "And despite all the debates, consumers really do get that the health benefits of seafood outweigh the risks."

And if consumers haven't heard about sustainable fishing yet? "Don't worry," says Larkin. "They will soon--it's going to be everywhere."

Tags: retail, trends
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