By Richard Gaines
---- — The New England Fishery Management Council, NOAA’s grassroots policy writing and advisory arm, is urging the U.S. Commerce Department to create a sustainability certification system with federal oversight for seafood caught by American boats from U.S. ports.
The council voted 16-0 at the end of its three day meeting in Mystic, Conn., to ask Congress to include in its rewrite of the Magnuson-Stevens Act language establishing a certification program for seafood — similar to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s stamp of approval for meat, according to the debate at the council.
The agreement will be presented in May at a Coordinating Council Meeting of the eight regional councils that were established under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
The growing impulse of consumers to eat responsibly and buy food that is environmentally responsible and sustainable has spawned a slew of private, non-profit certtifiers, but their priorities and values have created a crazy quilt of “do’s and don’t’s” that have left the industry uncertain and often battered by conflicting certifications and refusals.
Whole Foods Markets, which buys seafood in Gloucester, decided last spring that it would no longer buy cod, the primary target of the fleet in Gloucester, that was caught by trawling — dragging nets along the bottom. Instead, Whole Foods decided to buy only from hook fishermen, whose landings are also indiscriminate, but do not have an impact on the ocean bottoms.
The Whole foods’ decision highlights the range of influences underpinning the certification decision-making of the private certifers.
Today, seafood seals of approval — for sustainability or issues of perceived environmental degradation in the harvesting, such as trawling for cod — are issued by a range of certifiers, each with a unique structure, history and set of values or biases, from the Marine Stewardship Council — a global giant that certifies for Wal-Mart and many major brands — to the New York author-environmentalist Carl Safina’s Blue Ocean Institute, which essentially takes position that “if you’re eating seafood, you’re eating mercury.”
There is also the Seafood Watch, established by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Cal. A leading influence on fisheries policy and recipient of grants from the Packard Foundation, Seafood Watch explicitly condemns the eating of fish caught by trawl gear, even though the federal government protects ocean bottoms susceptible to harm from trawl gear. Most trawling is done over sandy or pebbly bottoms that are disrupted but not harmed by the force of the trawl gear. These and the other seafood certifying companies charge fees to conduct the research into the products of the contracting companies, and due to the biases and values of the certifying companies, the consumer is left in uncertainty, the New England councilors said in debate at the meeeting in Mystic.
Drew E. Minkiewicz — an attorney at Kelley Drye & Warren in Washington, D.C., who was representing the Fishery Survival Fund, a scallop industry group — told the regional council last week that the system of private, primarily nonprofit certification has become something of a re-enforcing trend. It’s like “the broken windows syndrome,” he said, referring to the theory that a brojken window in a neighborhood will encourage the bearkng of others.
“You have to pay them to have them sell your product,” Minkiewicz said.
”We have the strictest regulations, with buffer upon buffer” to ensure against overfishing, said Councilor Mary Beth Tooley of Maine, who made the motion for a government certification program. “It would be wonderful if the government stood up and said, ‘We are responsible.’ It would be wonderful. We know the percentage of imports is rediculous.”
About 90 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S is imported.
The motion also drew the support of NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard.
”I always throught it was wrong that environmental groups encourage boycotting species managed under the Magnuson Act,” Bullard said. “It penalizes fishermen twice.
”I’m proud of our management system,” he said. “It’s tough, but puts a huge burden on fishermen, and involves a lot of sacrifice, and if we are proud of it, we should proclaim that one thing the public can do is be more discerning and inquire where they fish come from.”
Laura Foley Ramsden of Foley Fisheries in New Bedford, noted that the U.S. commercial fishing industry has one of then most conservative management programs in the world.
”We deserve to get credit for this,” Ramsden said.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.