If you are a conscientious consumer, you can look for sustainable seafood tags when you buy a fish or order seafood at a restaurant.
For example, you can look for a Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) tag when purchasing tune in a grocery store.
You can even use Vancouver Aquarium's apps Ocean Wise or Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood to tell you which restaurants use environmentally-certified seafood suppliers.
And you may be forgiven because they are sometimes confused.
Today, such a kind of eco-labeling and seafood recommendation – some of them mutually opposing – that the average consumer may find it difficult to trust, especially due to the bad marking and direct fraud that have been identified by eco-watchdogs like Oceana.
Fraser River sockeye? Okay, say MSC and Ocean Wise. Bad, Greenpeace says.
BC Cultivated Atlantic Salmon? Well, says the Academic Council for Aquaculture (ASC). Bad, say SeaChoice and Ocean Wise.
Meanwhile, seafood must be put on B.C. the Atlantic salmon is breached somewhere between, with a yellow rating, which means it is a "good alternative" to other cultivated or wild salmon that may not be so viable.
Karen Wristen of Living Oceans, one of SeaChoice's partner – who came out of consumer labels last year and focused on direct co-operation with retailers – SeaChoice said and its partner organizations still recommend MSC and ASC certified products, although they have concerns because they allow "non-compliance with standards" to remain unresolved.
SeaChoice does not agree, for example, with the recent ASC Certificate of B.C. bred salmon, saying it does not follow some of its standards on things like sea-control.
"We believe it is very important to have a certified product on the market and to help consumers differentiate, but do not help consumers differentiate the product if you do not apply your standards in the way it is written," Wristen said.
Disagreement among competing conservation groups around eco-certification is just one of the problems that Ray Hilborn, a fisheries scientist from the University of Washington, has with the whole eco-marking movement.
He thinks that he could swim in the waters and give consumers a false sense of security that the eco-certified fish they eat is necessarily more sustainable than the fish caught by the small non-certified operators.
"Look at Alaska pollock," Hilborn said. "It is certified by MSC. It is on the yellow label for Monterey Bay – a good alternative, but it is not the best choice, and Greenpeace is on the list."
It also points to New Zealand hockey. It is an MSC certificate but has rated it as "not eating" by the New Zealand conservation group Forest and Bird Seafood Guide, which was approved by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) New Zealand chapter. Since the MSC was created by the WWF, the conflict is essentially the cluster's WWF chapter against its parent organization.
Eco Certification, Canadian story
To a large extent, Canada can be guilty or attributed to the sustainable movement of seafood marking. The movement originated from the Atlantic collapse of cod fisheries in the early 1990s, Hilborn explains.
It estimates that American philanthropic funds such as David and Lucile Packard Foundation and Gordon and Betty Moore spent about $ 160 million a year on the conservation of non-governmental organizations and science on fisheries. Hilborn was among many scientists who benefited from this funding.
In an effort to do what some governments fail to do – to protect fish stocks from overfishing – some conservation groups have developed ecological certificates and seafood fruits, such as MSCs and seafood. In this, they introduced a new player – the consumer in the fishery management.
There was a need to put pressure on traders and restaurants to sell or serve only certified seafood, which in turn puts pressure on the fishing industry to apply for a sustainable seal of seafood. Hilborn now sees it as a kind of industry for himself.
"The MSC makes money by selling its label," he said. "Many retailers pay non-governmental organizations to tell them what they can buy, so it's become a profitable center for non-governmental organizations. It's certainly a concern that I have – that's a job now.
The MSC is in its fiscal year 2016-17. It generated $ 33.5 million in revenue, of which 76% – $ 25.5 million – comes from licensing the logo. MSC says it does not benefit from its fees. Third-party evaluation fees, for example, go to evaluators rather than MSC.
"Each pen is re-invested in MSC," the organization says.
Hilborn admits that improvements to the way that world fishermen have been operating since the 1990s, but for governments, international conventions, and better science and fisheries management around the world for most of those improvements, rather than eco-labeling.
Only about 12% of the world's sea catch is confirmed by the MSC. A MSC certificate is usually focused primarily on First World consumers.
"It's simply something that rich people feel good," Hilborn said. "For most people in the world, worrying about whether their tuna comes from sea dogs is a luxury they can not afford.
"What people do not realize is that plenty of fish stocks are growing in most of the world – certainly the world where fisheries are managed – with the exception of the Mediterranean."
In Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Northern Europe, Russia and Japan, many of the main stocks are on the rise, Hilborn said.
"Why do they increase? Because governments are launching science programs, management programs, and have started to manage their fisheries intensively."
He admits that conservative groups have positively impacted public pressure on certain excessive supplies such as Atlantic blue tune. But, for the most part, he said, bringing the consumer to the picture did not have a significant impact on how the world's fisheries are managed.
"In my personal experience, almost all MSC certification has not changed the way fisheries actually worked," he said. "All they have done is to do all kinds of paper to make scientific studies, but they did not change what's happening on the ground."
But Alasdair Lindop, a science that works for Ocean Wise, has pointed out that governments control only what is happening within their 200-nautical miles of economic exclusion zone. Outside, the open ocean is "free for everyone".
Without conservation groups such as Ocean Wise, Sea Seeds and MSCs that exert pressure on those ocean-going fishing facilities, there is little government can do except to sign international conventions that might be difficult to implement.
Deirdre Finn, program leader of Ocean Wise, said the reason for the development of so many eco-labeling consumer demand. Consumers of conscience want to know that the fish they eat is captured by sustainable and ethical methods.
"Nothing existed about 20 and 25 years ago and we've seen how much it has grown and there is a reason for it – because people are now looking for it when they are in a store or in a restaurant," Finn said.
But what about these charges of washing green?
One of the most abusive criticisms of the MSC in the German documentary Wilfried Huismann's new movie The Dark Side of the Seal MSC comes from a former fan.
Daniel Pauly, renowned fishermen scientist at British Columbia University and chief investigator of Sea Around Us, says Huismann that MSC has "lost souls."
The film describes Pauly as the founder of MSC. Pauly told Business in Vancouver that he was not a founder, but was closely associated with MSC and was a strong fan when it was formed two decades ago. He is no longer.
Pauly told BIV that MSC lost support from many conservation groups because it confirmed "one disgusting fish after the other".
"I've completely moved away from the MSC," he said. "I'm not doing the agitation against them. If they ask my opinion … I will say my opinion, but I do not write articles about them, because, basically, I do not regard them as part of the conservation community either."
Asked what the fruit recommendation program thinks to be reliable, he pointed to Vancouver Aquarium Ocean Wise.
Ocean Wise, however, is not a certification program, but a rating or a recommendation.
It bases its seafood charts at the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program. Both analyze the peer-reviewed science of fisheries to evaluate the seafood and give it a scale that allows users to decide whether to buy them or not.
Certification is a far more exhaustive and expensive process. MSC uses a third party verification system that can last 12 to 18 months. Fishing boats can be certified without meeting all the required standards, but are expected to improve certification maintenance. Companies that have become certified are subject to estimates and annual audits of independent assessors.
It also uses the custody chain check system, which includes sampling DNA, to ensure that the product bearing the MSC logo comes from a certified vessel. This avoids some bad marks that have been identified by groups like Oceans.
According to the Oceana Canada report of August 2018, out of 400 seafood samples tested in Canada by retailers and restaurants in five cities, 44% was misplaced.
In Vancouver, the study found Chilean rock crab sold as Dungeness, an Asian dairy that is sold as a cod, and was sold as a halibut and chum sold as sockeye. The report calls on the Canadian food inspection agency to conduct vessel verification on the plateau.
This type of custody check has already been done by the MSC, which is why it is still the most reliable seal for seafood, said Christina Burridge, executive director of BC Seafood Alliance, representing B.C. seafood industry.
"It's a comprehensive chain of custody," Burridge said. "If you are any customer, you know that what you paid is what you get, and that security is worth a lot of money."
But does the MSC certification necessarily mean that fishing fleets that have caught fish more viable than smaller, non-certified fisheries?
In some cases, the opposite may be true. For example, it can be said that cabbage fish and mining fish are more sustainable than the MSC's certified sea turtles in Mexico, simply because of the equipment they use.
Many smaller fishermen do not need, can not afford or do not want a MSC certificate. That does not mean they are not committed to sustainable fishing. The Vancouver skipper Otto community supports fishing is one of the local examples.
It uses a subscription service in which buyers buy the share of catches of small bait and pop "fishermen's families". He has no MSC certificate and he does not need it because he does not sell to large marketers.
But since consumers like some kind of eco-certification, Skipper Otto has reported and received a positive recommendation from Ocean Wise.
Since it is based in BC, Ocean Wise has a better understanding of B.C. fishing sector from other eco-labeling groups, said skipper Otto Sonia Strobel.
But he agrees with Hilborn that there are problems with some eco-labeling programs because the concept represents an element of social pressure that must not always be based on solid evidence.
"It may be exaggerating to say that, but sometimes I think they have the power to do more evil than good, because sometimes green washing will sometimes be painted with a very large brush stroke that is inaccurate," Strobel said.
Ultimately, it should be the job of the government to properly manage the fishery, she said. But until it reaches a point where all governments around the world properly manage world fish stocks, he emphasized the need for recommendations like Ocean Wise.
"I think that they are now filling the gap, which has some advantages." "Of course, I think that Ocean Wise plays the role that needs to be played right now, and the government does not do its job, but I absolutely agree – fish should be the government's role."
In response to the growing proliferation of the seafood certification program and the confusion that could be caused by consumers and traders, a new organization called Global Sustainable Seafood was formally included in 2015.
The headquarter based in the Netherlands, this umbrella has developed tools to determine the standards for essentially certifying the certificate. To date, it has officially recognized seven certification programs, including MSC and ASC.
ASC has recently certified a number of Atlantic salmon farms that operated in B.C. Marine Harvest and Cermaq. The Grieg Seafood certificate is pending.
Ocean Wise still recommends against all bred salmon in B.C. raised in open-net pens. Seeds look at the prices of B.C. breeding salmon is a good alternative.
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