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Whole Foods made headlines this week when it announced it was taking a number of fish out of its stores based on the sustainability ratings of a widely-cited environmental group. Conservationists say the movement toward sustainability has helped restore many species to healthy levels. But many fishermen are concerned about the movement’s economic impact, and many consumers are confused about their choices.
- Tim Sughrue Vice President, Congressional Seafood
- Carl Safina Founding President, Blue Ocean Institute; School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and Center for Communicating Science, Stony Brook University
Barton Seaver’s Ted Talk on Sustainable Seafood
Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Sushi Guide
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program: Promoting Ethical Consumption
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Food Wednesday. Later in the broadcast, she's a longtime New York Times and NPR reporter, and during the civil rights movement, she was one of two students to integrate the University of Georgia -- Charlayne Hunter-Gault. But first, you've probably seen the color-coded system used to rate the sustainability of seafood: green for fish considered abundant, yellow for fish stocks that are in some trouble, and red for fish to avoid.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhole Foods recently took the step of removing all wild-caught fish from their stores that warrant a red label. That means halibut, good, gray sole and octopus, bad. But wait a minute, Atlantic halibut is red rated but not Pacific halibut. A lot depends on where and how a fish is caught. It's complicated. And many say that it's just not possible to reduce sustainability to a rating system. Joining us to discuss this in studio is Tim Sughrue. He is the vice president of Congressional Seafood, a seafood company based in Jessup, Md. Tim Sughrue, thank you for joining us.
MR. TIM SUGHRUEThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone from Stony Brook, N.Y., is Carl Safina. Dr. Safina is the founding president of the Blue Ocean Institute. He's also a visiting professor with the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook. Carl Safina, thank you for joining us.
DR. CARL SAFINAHello. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, you, too -- you can call us at 800-433-8850. Are you concerned about whether the seafood you eat is sustainable or not? 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, email to email@example.com, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there. Carl Safina, as we mentioned, Whole Foods and others use a stop-light color coding created by your organization, the Blue Ocean Institute. What are these ratings based on?
SAFINAWell, they're based on a lot of different kinds of scientific studies. We accumulate all the studies that have to do with the seafood in question, whatever the population is. You know, as you said, it might be Atlantic halibut or Pacific halibut and on and on. And we look at the population trends, whether they're going up and down in abundance, whether they are abundant or depleted at the present time, what kind of fishing gear is used.
SAFINADoes it hurt the seafloor? Does it harm the habitat, or is it just fine? And the tendency of the fishing gear to kill non-target organisms, is that a minor thing or is it a big problem in the particular fishery? And we have a number of people who look at all of these things. And then we have a questionnaire, basically. Our methodology is a series of questions, and the answer to each question gets a score.
SAFINAAnd then the scores are added up for all these different questions that have to do with the ability of the fish to recover in the various aspects of the fishery, how fast the fish breed, all these different kinds of things. And the score is then converted to a color code to make it simple, but the process is very detailed.
SAFINAAnd then, once we're done with all of that, we send it out for a peer review to other scientists or fisheries managers to comment, to tell us if we've gotten it more or less correct or if we've missed something or if they have a new study that should be considered. And that's essentially how we do it, and you can see the scoring itself on our website at blueocean.org.
NNAMDIAnd we've got a link to that website at our website, kojoshow.org. Tim Sughrue, Whole Foods names Atlantic cod among other fish that's warranting a red label, but not all Atlantic cod falls into that category. As we said, how a fish is caught makes a difference. Tim Sughrue, can you explain?
SUGHRUEWell, there are various harvest methods. There's troll-caught. There is hook-line caught. There are traps. And each one of those methods of harvest has a -- they have varying amounts of bycatch. The -- I would say the least amount of bycatch goes with a hook-caught cod as opposed to a troll. Troll is very somewhat indiscriminate and catches some species that they don't necessarily want to catch.
NNAMDICarl Safina, they also make the distinction between wild caught and farm raised. Is all farm-raised fish, by definition, sustainable?
SAFINANo, not all farm-raised fish is sustainable. By definition, farm-raised simply means that people raise them on fish farms, but some of the fish farms are very damaging. And some of the fish farms are really good and really benign. And it depends on where the farm is sited. Did they destroy a wetland in order to create the farm? Or are they using an old warehouse somewhere on land and farming fish inside an old warehouse?
SAFINASo, you know, how it's done, what kind of fish are being raised, do you have to catch wild fish to feed the fish in the farm or can you feed them on a vegetable-based diet, these things also are all a part of what goes into trying to determine whether farm-raised fish is a benign thing or a problematic thing.
NNAMDIDr. Safina mentioned farm-raised fish in a building. I've recently been up to a research project in West Virginia where they've grown farm-raised Atlantic salmon to 10 pounds in half the time they take -- it takes to grow them in the ocean. They can grow them to 10 pounds in about 18 months. And there is a zero effluent to the environment in this closed system. They use biofilters and so on.
SUGHRUEAnd it's pretty exciting to watch, to know that that is going to be, I think, the future of farm-raised fish, that we're going to have land-based farm-raised fish that we can grow millions of pounds in very small amounts of land with no negative environmental effects.
NNAMDICare to comment on that, Carl Safina?
SAFINAYeah. I think that, you know, those would be very positive developments. And what we're hoping with this whole idea of evaluating fish and giving the consumer this kind of information is that they can vote with their dollars and with their purchasing power toward the kinds of practices that are better for all of us and for the overall environment. You know, without this kind of information, a piece of fish lands on your plate, and it's just there.
SAFINAIt's like a piece of bread that you don't have much to say about it. You don't know anything about it. So we're trying to just tell people more about how these things are created, how they get there, and hoping to use the market to push things in a positive direction that way.
NNAMDIIt's a seafood Wednesday conversation on sustainable seafood. It's Food Wednesday. And our guests are Tim Sughrue. He is vice president of Congressional Seafood, which is a seafood company based in Jessup, Md. Carl Safina is the founding president of the Blue Ocean Institute and visiting professor with the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Are you happy with Whole Foods' decision to no longer sell what it says is unsustainable seafood? 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIDo you use the color-coded rating system to decide which fish you will eat? You can also join us online at kojoshow.org, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tim, you have seen these issues from several perspectives. You worked as a waterman on the Chesapeake. You were a marine biologist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. And, now, you sell seafood. You've said sustainability is a subjective term. What are the challenges of labeling a particular type of fish sustainable or not?
SUGHRUEWell, it is very challenging. Like you said, it is a subjective topic. One person's sustainable species would be another person's not so sustainable. It is -- it -- the article in The Washington Post, the guy from the MSC said it pretty well. He said that we certify well-managed fisheries, not perfect fisheries, and that there are very few perfect fisheries with no bycatches and so on, so forth. It is a -- there's no gold standard for every species to be measured by. There are people like Dr. Safina -- he is -- his reputation carries a lot of weight.
SUGHRUEBut, then again, there are, you know, there's organizations like the Monterey Bay and his organization, the Blue Ocean Institute, and these have come to fruition because customers are confused by -- they aren't able to investigate each and every species, so they align themselves with organizations like the Blue Ocean Institute. And we think that's great. We think that that in the fishing -- in the seafood industry, we think that the light that has been shed on the topic is very good.
NNAMDICarl Safina, Legal Sea Foods, the restaurant chain, has questioned the practice of rating fish because, as we were saying earlier, I guess, a lot of people feel that the notion of sustainability might be subjective. Legal Sea Foods complained about categorizing all fish of a particular species when it might, in fact, be caught sustainably. Isn't this kind of complicated?
SAFINAWell, there are -- there's, you know, there are two kinds of people in the world, the people who make complicated things simple and the people who make simple things confusing. And we're trying to take something that is complicated and make it understandable because I certainly think you can do that. You can simply say that sustainability is subjective, or you can tell people what you mean by sustainability and how what you're talking about measures up against certain kinds of criteria that you use.
SAFINAFor instance, if you're catching a fish and the fish population is increasing or staying steady, that's sustainable. If you're catching a fish and the fish population is getting depleted, that's not sustainable. I don't think that that's a particularly confusing or subjective concept. So, you know, as I say, you can look at how we rate the fish, the questions we ask, the information that we apply, where we get the information from, and you can judge all that for yourself. Or, if you feel confident, you can simply take our word for it.
SAFINABut you do have the choice because all the information is there on the website to see. But I don't think it's all subjective. I think we can be very clear about what we mean. When we talk about the abundance, we mean that the fish is abundant. That's good. If the fish is depleted, that's bad. If the fish is recovering or the population is maintaining itself in a given fishery, then that's sustainable. If the fishery is depleting other kinds of non-target animals because it just catches and discards large numbers of dead, that's not sustainable. You can't sustain that.
SAFINAIt will have to come to an end because you are depleting what's living there. If you're ripping up the sea floor where everything has to live and hide and where the food for the fish that we want is produced, then that is not sustainable. That will put itself out of business. It cannot continue. If you're just laying some hooks and picking the fish up, then that may very well be sustainable. At least, as far as the habitat is concerned, it certainly is sustainable.
SAFINASo compared to dragging a net that tears up the bottom or smashes the coral versus dangling some hooks, you can easily see that one of them is what we would call a sustainable thing. You can keep doing that. And the other one is not sustainable because it will end itself by destroying the very thing that it relies on.
NNAMDIWell, in my ongoing effort to make simple things complicated, Tim, bycatch is one of the issues when we talk about how fish are caught. What is bycatch and why is that a problem?
SUGHRUEWell, for instance, the bycatch in -- let's say you're a longline fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico, and the bluefin -- the western Atlantic bluefins, which, by most people's definition, are in trouble. They spawn in the Gulf of Mexico, so the longliners that lay -- longliners are 40-mile line with hooks, say, 1,000 hooks. They lay it off every night. So in order to not catch any bluefins, they went with what they call -- they voluntarily went to weak hook which 250 pounds of pressure will straighten out.
SUGHRUESo these guys would lay their lines off every night, and when they pick it up in the morning, there would be many, many straightened hooks from the bluefins that would bite the bait and get off, and that's what they did to try to minimize the effect on their interactions with Atlantic bluefins.
NNAMDICarl Safina, what are examples of fish that would qualify for a green rating?
SAFINAWell, fish that are abundant, fish that grow quickly, fish that are caught using gear that doesn't catch too many things that you're not trying to catch and fish that are caught with gear that does not harm the habitat. Those things are considered to be good and sustainable. Those would get a green rating. They tend to be smaller things because smaller things grow faster and live in larger numbers. And so, you know, in general, the larger a fish grows, the older it has to be before it can start breeding. The -- with some animals, the breeding potential is low. Like, sharks have a pretty low breeding potential.
SAFINAThe giant bluefin tuna that we were just learning a little bit about get very big, and they don't start breeding until they are about 12 years old. But when they do, they do lay millions of eggs. But many, many of them caught -- get caught in those first 12 years of life. So the smaller the fish is, the faster it grows, and the faster it reproduces. All those things are good indicators and make the fish population a lot more resilient. And the bigger things that don't mature for a long period of time tend to be more vulnerable to depletion.
NNAMDIOn to the -- go ahead, please.
SAFINAAnd then -- no, I was going to say -- and then certain kinds of fishing gear make the difference. Like, there are Atlantic cod population -- there are Atlantic cod from the same population that are caught in a sustainable way and Atlantic cod that are caught in an unsustainable way because the difference there is mainly in the fishing gear. Some of the fishing gear really destroys the sea floor habitat, and some has no effect on the sea floor habitat.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones, here is Connie in Vienna, Va. Connie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CONNIEYeah, I think sustainability is not only critical but a very admirable goal. But as a consumer, I am overwhelmed by trying to make choices on fish because when I read about -- I read a lot about it because I have a child, and I want to give him things that are good for him. I read about farm-raised fish, and I hear that they're full of bacteria. And there all sorts of issues that attend to getting farm-raised fish. And then I see where you should look for stores that carry these labels, and nobody does.
CONNIESo, you know, if it comes from a certain farm, it's OK. And if it doesn't, it's not OK. I don't know. I'm overwhelmed, and I can't help but think a lot of other people are, too, in terms of getting good healthful food.
NNAMDIYou can't -- you say you cannot find the color-coded fish in any of these places where you shop?
CONNIEI don't know about color-coded. When I went online or when I followed some of these through, it said, you can eat Atlantic cod that's caught here or in this method. And I haven't seen any of that.
NNAMDITim Sughrue, what advice can you give to Connie?
SUGHRUEWell, I was on the Blue Ocean Institute website. And it seemed fairly straightforward to me. It expressed sustainability in the layman's terms and seemed fairly easy to follow. It would -- you know, you just clicked on a species, and it told the story about it. And I think they did a good job there.
SAFINAWell, thank you.
NNAMDIAnd, Connie, you can find a link to that website at our website, kojoshow.org. It's the Blue Ocean Institute's website, and maybe you can use that as your guide. Good luck.
CONNIEBut does that address the issue of the healthfulness of the product?
SUGHRUEWell, bacteria that -- you referred to bacteria...
SAFINAI think I can talk to that a little bit.
SAFINAOh, go ahead, go ahead, go ahead.
SUGHRUEWell, you said something about bacteria in farm-raised fish. I mean, that's -- bacteria is a function of temperature after the fish is killed. The -- when the fish is alive, it's going to have a certain amount of bacteria. And then when you kill it, decomposition starts, and the only way you retard that is -- or slow it down is by making sure it's cold and that -- they're not going to have any more bacteria than a wild fish.
NNAMDICarl Safina, you wanted to add?
SAFINAYeah. You know, one of the things that I tell people is that fish do not smell fishy. Bacteria smells fishy, so if the fish -- if the fish seem fishy, if they smell fishy, then they probably have not been kept cold enough, or they're a little bit too old.
SAFINAAnd that's one way that you can kind of tell. Not very many people ever get any kind of bacterial fish poisoning in the United States anyway. So I would say that that is not a major concern. I would also say that these cards and lists and things like that, they do have some limitations. If you wanted to know -- let's say that, among all Atlantic salmon that are farmed, you want to know whether there are one or two farms that do it really, really well if the other farms are doing it in a way that's problematic.
SAFINAOur list cannot help you distinguish between particular individual producers because we have to evaluate it at the level at which most people are confronted in the case or at the restaurant. And, in most places, you can't tell whether it's from farm A or farm B. So we have to basically say, on average, this kind of fish produced in this way is either sustainable or not sustainable. So I don't want to gloss over the fact that there are some limitations. I will say that Whole Foods is in a position of distinguishing between and among all of its producers. It knows them individually.
SAFINAAnd when they ask us to rate things, they sometimes ask us to break it down into finer categories or rate things from a specific source. So when you go into Whole Foods, my opinion is that you can trust them. I know the people there. I think they're quite trustworthy. I think they've done a lot of due diligence for years now trying to develop a really good relationship with their vendors. And I think for consumers who want to go out and shop and take something home, that's one source where I think it can be trusted.
NNAMDII got to get a -- I got to get a couple of callers and some more emails in because you mentioned Whole Foods.
SAFINAYes. Go ahead.
NNAMDISo, Connie, thank you for your call. Here is Nadine in Washington, D.C. Nadine, your turn.
NADINEYes. Hi, Kojo. Hi. First, I'd like to congratulate you for bringing such an important topic to your listeners and to you, Carl Safina, and you, Tim Sughrue, for trying to make such a complicated issue simple. I actually am calling to respond to your earlier question, Kojo, about how do I feel about Whole Foods delisting some of their more unsustainable products or making commitments.
NADINEI commend Whole Foods and other local retailers, like Giant Food, and Safeway even, for making strong commitments to sustainable seafood and actually making commitments to stop selling more unsustainable products.
NADINEAnd to Connie, including, I would say, check out some of the websites of your local supermarkets like Giant, like Safeway and even some restaurants that you may go to, like Red Lobster, a Darden subsidiary, because some of these establishments share their sustainability commitments online in ways that are easier for customers to understand because they speak in the language of their customers. Dr. Safina and Mr. Sughrue are scientists, and they share a lot of information that may be a little more difficult to dilute for the average consumer like you and I, Connie.
NNAMDIOK, Nadine. Thank you very much for your call. Sounds like I should have had Nadine on as a guest on the broadcast. Here is Melanie in Manassas, Va. Melanie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MELANIEHi. I actually wanted to make a comment on Connie's question, which is that she stated a problem that I've also thought often about which is you can get this excellent information on the website, very clear information about what's -- what fish is good to eat and what isn't. But when you go into the restaurant or into the grocery store, the fish isn't labeled as longline-caught. Or it's not labeled as far as where it was caught. So I'm wondering if there is any -- are there any stores that regularly do that or if there are some regulations that are in line that could help consumers to find that information?
SAFINAWell, the national chain that we work with, as I said, is Whole Foods. And I can't really vouch for others. I will acknowledge that that is a limitation. If you go into a fish market, you're trying to buy something for home, and you ask is something longline-caught or is some troll-caught or whatever, it's not possible to tell whether they know and whether they're actually telling you the truth. They may know their vendors very, very well. They may have a relationship with particular fishing boats, or they may be lying.
SAFINAAnd there have been a few tests of fish in different markets, like in New York City, that show that fish are not the -- sometimes, but a little too frequently for comfort, they're not the species that they're advertised to be. This is definitely a problem for the consumers. And on our end, as far as rating things, it's a problem for us to give a finer grain of information because we don't really know what you're going to see in the store or whether you're going to get the right information when you ask.
SAFINAOur hope has been, over the years, that the more people who ask, the more sellers will want to develop a reputation to grab that niche market and grab a little market share, so they will develop a reputation as knowledgeable and reliable. And I think that, to a significant extent, we've made a bit of progress -- in some cases, a lot of progress -- in that area. But there's a long way to go.
SAFINAAnd I don't want to say that all of this information is simple to use, and all of the response that you get from people who are selling fish is all reliable or even all honest. It isn't. Our main relationship, as I said, is with Whole Foods, and I feel like I can vouch for them. But I think, you know, I think we're making progress.
NNAMDIAnd we're running out of time very quickly. But, Tim Sughrue, there are a number of good new stories. What are some fish that have recovered, thanks to good fishery management?
SUGHRUEI would say the -- well, there are several that come to mind right away. Kind of like the poster child of good fishery management, I would point to the North Atlantic swordfish. National Marine Fisheries Service Institute had a plan in 1998. The average fish -- swordfish then that year, I believe, dressed at 63 pounds. They were considered fully recovered in 2009, I believe. They're over their target biomass now, and the average fish we get in four and 500-pound dressed swordfish all the time. And large swords are a sign of a very healthy population.
NNAMDIHow about a favorite in this area, rockfish?
SUGHRUERockfish is a great success story. They had a moratorium through the early '90s, and then we've harvested it about half the historical rate. And they are very plentiful. They just had a fourth highest young-of-the-year index on record last year, so there's plenty in the pipeline to provide for years to come, as well the Chesapeake Bay blue crab. The blue crab recovery started about four years ago where they left 35 percent of the females in the water.
SUGHRUEThey cut the quota on females, and the population has exploded. And it's bought -- brought tremendous revenue and jobs to remote areas of the Bay. It's been great.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. This conversation on sustainable food is one that we will have to continue on another Food Wednesday. But, Tim Sughrue, thank you for joining us.
SUGHRUEThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDITim Sughrue is the vice president of Congressional Seafood, a seafood company based in Jessup, Md. Carl Safina, thank you for joining us.
SAFINAThank you very much. And I want to thank Tim also for adding really great info to the conversation. Thank you both.
NNAMDIThis is a mutual admiration society between you and Tim Sughrue. He expressed his before the broadcast even -- again, I was trying to get you two to fight. Carl Safina is the founding president of the Blue Ocean Institute. He's also a visiting professor with the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook.
NNAMDIWhen we come back, she's a longtime New Yorker, New York Times, NPR reporter, and during the Civil Rights Movement, she was one of two students to integrate the University of Georgia, Charlayne Hunter-Gault. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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