Sustainable Oceans, Sustainable Fish: Market strategies and consumer demand
In conjunction with KBCS, we’re posting a transcript of Martha Baskin’s latest story. Listen to her radio story here:
While it may seem there are plenty of fish in the deep blue sea, it’s a different story just below the surface. Overfishing, ocean acidification and our own consumption habits are just a few factors contributing to the decline of wild fish. The solution for some fish sellers is to become “sustainable.” But what does that mean? Green Acre Radio takes us on a tour of the Pike Place Market and PCC Natural Markets to find out.
Narration: John Yokoyama has owned the Pike Place Fish Market since the 1960s. Selling quality fish at the best price is a trademark. But industrial scale fishing and the silent collapse of the ocean – scientists estimate that 70% of world’s fisheries are exploited or near collapse – are causing him to rethink business.
“I used to go fishing with my dad off Whidbey Island,” Yokoyama says. “If we didn’t get a bite in15 minutes we’d get upset. We used to be able to catch all the species — true cod, ling cod, rock cod, salmon, halibut.
“I go out there now, I’ll be lucky if I get a bite. And all the bottom fish have disappeared in the Puget Sound area. Those are all decimated. There’s nothing left.”
His experience, says Yokoyama, is echoed by fish suppliers all over the world. And it’s brought him to a lofty goal. To only sell sustainable fish – and define what that means – within six months.
“We have to take a stand here,” he says. “The ocean is depleting. The products are depleting in the ocean. You see it everywhere.”
As fishmongers ply their trade, I ask about a fish with a sticker that reads “sustainable.”
Yokoyama: “It’s the fishing method. Especially with bottom fish. The fishing method that’s used like the big purse seiners that drag the bottom. That’s considered unsustainable fishing.”
Pike Place Fish Market now looks only for fish caught with a hook and line or pole caught. It took them awhile to find the suppliers, but eventually they did.
Yokoyama’s son, Ryan, explains: “We’re pretty much following the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch so if they say so. And what makes that sustainable is it’s being caught in a way that doesn’t hurt the environment or take away the mass depletion of the fish.”
The market’s fresh striped bass has both a sustainable and aquaculture sticker. Do they go together?
“Well it sees to, as far as the suppliers,” Ryan says. “They’re selling it as a sustainable product and so that’s what we’re going by right now.”
As Yokoyama moves forward he wants to be able to track every fish, “from when it comes in our doors to where the fish was caught and who caught the fish. That’s our next venture as far as tracking the sustainability of what we’re selling here.”
But the quest won’t be easy.
There is no USDA-approved organic label for seafood. Marianne Cufone, Fisheries Director at Food and Water Watch, a consumer organization, says labeling is dominated by independent certifiers.
“Essentially companies that charge for a label and will put a ‘sustainability’ label on a product and all that really means is that the product has met their own private standards,” Cufone says.
Greenpeace ranks PCC as the #1 retailer in the nation for sustainable seafood policies. Curious about canned tuna, the cheap fish with the bad reputation, I arrange to meet Eli Penberthy, PCC’s seafood expert. The market has been taking a hard look at their tuna. If they can’t identify where or how it was caught, the brand or product won’t be sold.
“We’re phasing out Crown Prince tongal tuna and also Natural Sea tongal tuna,” Penberthy says. “Tongal is a species that can be sustainable if it’s caught in the right place, which is just one area along the Malaysian coast. What we found is that this is just coming from Thailand and it’s being caught with nets that can cause a lot of bi-catch and other environmental destruction.”
Another brand says “wild caught” but that doesn’t mean it’s sustainable, says Penberthy.
The sustainability prize goes to a local albacore tuna packed under the Tuna Guys label. But at $7.59 for 6 ounces, it doesn’t come cheap. A less-costly alternative is the Wild Planet label. “We just love working with them because they have a little bit lower price point — like, you’ll see this is $2.39 and this is a skipjack tuna, so it’s not albacore but it’s still pole caught.”
Paying $2.39 for a can of tuna may seem expensive when there are even cheaper brands, but any tuna that’s not pole caught means it’s been caught with a dragnet that combs the ocean floor capturing anything in its path.
Penberthy also recommends Wild Planet’s sardines and wild pink shrimp from Oregon.
“What’s amazing also about Wild Planet is they package it in cans that don’t have BPA, which is very rare with canned food,” he says.
BPA is a chemical lining used in most canned food and plastic containers. It’s been shown to interfere with normal hormonal balance. “So it’s something more and more conscientious consumers are trying to avoid,” Penberthy says.
Consumer demand, says Sheila Bowman with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program, is a critical driver in solving problems threatening seafood supply and ocean health.
“What Americans vote for and purchase and want to eat really does have widespread consequences. We can impact tuna fisheries around the world,” Bowman says, “by making changes in the tuna that we eat here in the US.”
Demanding pole-caught tuna may not seem like a big deal, but it sends a powerful message. “Because then the feedback goes up the chain to the supermarket buyer, to the distributor and all the way back to the tuna fisherman who starts to understand how they can provide what consumers want to eat,” Bowman says.
Next week we’ll continue our series with a look at one of America’s most favorite seafoods, shrimp. Green Acre Radio is brought to you with support from the Human Links and Russell Family Foundations. Engineering by CJ Lazenby. From the studios of Jack Straw Productions and KBCS.