By Kim Thompson, Sustainable Seafood Expert for the Menuism Seafood Blog, and Betsy Suttle
We often don't know where the food on our plate comes from. When it comes to seafood, this might be particularly true. While U.S. seafood is among the best managed in the world, we import 91 percent of what is consumed in this country. Much of this imported seafood comes from countries with minimal or no effective management in place to ensure healthy stocks, ecosystems, and communities. Aside from the country of origin, U.S. consumers often have no way of knowing how imported fish was caught or produced, or if future fish stocks, ecosystems, and communities are being protected.
• Shrimp: China, Thailand, Ecuador, Mexico, Philippines, Vietnam
• Atlantic salmon: Canada, Norway, Chile
• Tilapia: China, Indonesia, Ecuador, Honduras
• Scallops: China, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Argentina, Philippines
• Oysters: China, South Korea, Canada
• Tuna: Mexico, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Ecuador, Vietnam
The fact that the U.S. imports seafood is not so much the issue as how much and from where. The U.S. imports more seafood than it exports, resulting in a trade deficit of $11.2 billion -- second only to our trade deficit in oil. While there is room for improvement, it is widely recognized that U.S. fisheries are among the best managed in the world. In fact, a 2009 study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) found that U.S. fisheries ranked second in the world for compliance with the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization's Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. The U.S. also has the world's largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ), or territorial seas, of which nearly 40 percent is designated as marine protected areas (MPAs). These MPAs have varying degrees of restrictions to further enable the efforts of fishery managers to protect our ocean ecosystems.
MPAs are still a new tool, and while little is known about their impacts, statistics show that other management tools such as quotas, limited access, and gear alterations are improving the state of our fisheries and ocean ecosystems. According to NOAA Fisheries' Status of Stocks 2012, six fisheries were rebuilt (a total of 32 since 2000), 10 were taken off the overfished list, and four were removed from the overfishing list. While these efforts are helping local fishing communities in the long run, every time a new MPA is created, quota is reduced, or new fishing gear is required, it is the fishermen who take a hit by losing fishing grounds, catch, and having to pay to obtain new gear to come into compliance. All of these sacrifices have enabled U.S. fisheries to reach or be on a trajectory towards sustainable levels, and this should be taken into consideration when purchasing seafood, especially if there are price differences.
Fishing and aquaculture are important to the U.S. economy. Some key numbers to consider:
• $4 billion: Average annual value of all U.S. marine fisheries landings from 2008-2010
• $1.2 billion: Total annual U.S. aquaculture production (freshwater and marine)
• 1 million: Jobs associated with the U.S. commercial fishing industry
Buying local helps keep dollars and jobs in the U.S. and rewards those who are abiding by a stringent suite of rules and regulations designed to promote healthy ocean ecosystems and communities.
There are about 100 federal laws that guide U.S. fisheries and aquaculture management, including the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management, Environmental Protection, Marine Mammal Protection, and the Endangered Species Acts. While we may sometimes complain about bureaucracies and red tape, these regulations are designed to ensure that
• fish stocks are healthy,
• fishing and farming methods minimize impacts on the environment,
• the seafood on your plate is safe to eat, and
• fisheries and farms can provide economic sustainability for those who depend on the
Illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing is untraceable and a major contributor to seafood fraud. It also violates conservation and management measures with negative consequences for fisheries, marine ecosystems, food security, and coastal communities across the globe and often operates with slave and child labor. IUU fishing vessels rob those who are fishing legally of up to $23 billion per year. The U.S. is working with the international community to combat IUU fishing.
Seafood that is caught and sold in the U.S. has fewer steps in getting from the source to the consumer, and there are checks and balances all along the way. Choosing domestic seafood minimizes fish fraud and the purchase of seafood caught by IUU vessels.
Aquaculture production has greatly improved over the last few decades. In 2011, the U.S. released national aquaculture policies to ensure that impacts on the coastal environment and communities are minimal. Rather than importing from questionable aquaculture producers, we must be willing to accept and improve upon well-managed domestic aquaculture to supplement responsible wild-capture fisheries to meet the growing demand here in the U.S.
There are also fisheries and fish farms from other countries that have been certified by credible third-party entities such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), Global Aquaculture Alliance's Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP), and Friend of the Sea. In some cases, select fisheries are participating in fishery improvement projects with groups like the WWF to minimize their impacts and eventually obtain MSC certification. Certified products should be clearly labeled.
These are good alternatives, but well-managed domestic sources are the best option for healthy ocean ecosystems and coastal economies.
In a market dominated by imported seafood, it can be harder to find U.S. seafood, but it is worth the effort. When possible, consider purchasing seafood products that are harvested regionally. Your actions will help support local fishermen, producers, and communities and the long-term health and sustainability of domestic fisheries and aquaculture production.
To learn more about well-managed U.S. seafood, visit NOAA Fisheries' FishWatch.
Related Links from the Menuism Seafood Blog:
• July is Bristol Bay Salmon Season
• Forget Sea Bass. It's All About Sablefish.
• Meet the California Spiny Lobster
• Sustainable Alternatives to Bluefin Tuna
Kim Thompson is the program manager for the Seafood for the Future (SFF) program at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California. SFF is a nonprofit seafood advisory program dedicated to promoting healthy and responsible seafood choices in Southern California. The program works with restaurants, fishermen, seafood purveyors, government agencies and other nonprofit groups to execute its mission. Visit SeafoodForTheFuture.org to learn more about SFF partners and recommendations.
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