Helping Consumers Navigate Their Seafood Options

Food & Drink

Seafood is an increasingly important source of protein in the global food supply, but the category can raise a lot of questions for consumers. What are the plusses and minuses for wild-caught vs farmed options? Are there issues with seafood imported from certain parts of the world? Do some options involve negative environmental impacts and/or have unintended effects on other kinds of sea life? Are there social issues of concern like oppressive employment circumstances?

The seafood industry is fully aware of these consumer concerns and since the 1990s they have organized multi-stakeholder associations to define sustainable and responsible practices, and then set up mechanisms to certify the players that meet those standards. This allows retailers, restaurants, or other buyers to make informed decisions so they can confidently offer seafood options that meet with their customers’ expectations. There are also often labels on the final products designed to help consumers to make informed choices. The details of these effort will be described later in this article, but first some background on the complexity of “seafood.”

What all does the category “seafood” include? First, there are fish. Some are harvested from the open ocean by different means (nets, line and pole…). Some ocean-dwelling fish are caught during times of the year when they are swimming up rivers to spawn a next generation. For some key fish species, the young are raised in hatcheries on land and then released into the wild.

There are also “farmed” fish raised in large net enclosures in the ocean. This is also called aquaculture. There are also farmed fish raised in recirculating installations on land. Then there are shellfish that are either crustaceans (shrimp, crabs, lobsters, crayfish…) or mollusks (clams, oysters, mussels, scallops…). Shellfish can also either be harvested from the ocean or raised in aquaculture settings of various types.

The supply of seafood is also very international with some that is caught or raised specifically within areas under the control of a single country and some that is from parts of the ocean outside of any such jurisdiction. This international feature of the seafood industry ends up meaning that different regulatory bodies that are responsible for managing the volume of “catch” from defined “fisheries.” There are also agencies that regulate the “farmed” operations. In some cases, fisheries regulation of is linked to international agreements or treaties.

So, one might ask, how can standards be set for such a complex food sector and how can those be tracked all the way to the consumer level? On the ocean-caught side, awareness of these issues started building in the 1980s. By the end of the 1990s the Marine Stewardship Council had been established as an initiative of the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever
and they developed a certification system. Another initiative was developed in Alaska and they set up a certification system called Responsible Fisheries Management (RFM).

For the aquaculture or “farmed” side an organization called the Global Seafood Alliance (GSA) was established to define four “pillars” of sustainable and responsible practice for their sector:

1- Protection of the environment

2- Fair treatment of the workforce

3- Human treatment of the animal species being farmed, and

4- Doing the post-catch processing in a way that ensures food safety

These four standards apply to all four components of an aquaculture business: the farm, the processing plant, the hatchery, and the feed mill.

The GSA’s certification is called Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP). The purpose of these certification processes is to “level the playing field” so that responsible players can be recognized by downstream buyers and not economically disadvantaged. Some illegal fishing or other categories of “bad actors” may still exist in the industry, but retailers who want to preserve their own brand reputation and/or meet corporate sustainability goals are able to use the RFM or BAP certifications to guide their buying power for good. Similarly, consumers can look for associated labels to guide their choices.

Historically the ocean-caught and farmed seafood communities have operated separately and sometimes as competitors. but there has always been some cross-sector collaboration among industry players and environmental NGOs have sought to address all seafood related issues

In October of 2022 the cooperation was taken to a new level through a joint meeting of those two sectors in Seattle hosted by the GSA titled GOAL 2022: The Responsible Seafood Conference. It was intended as a “pre-competitive platform for leaders in both spaces to put day-to-day business aside and share knowledge, network, collaborate and socialize – identifying emerging challenges together, and exploring solutions.” There were more than 350 participants including representatives of seafood companies, retailers, environmental NGOs, and government regulators.

Obviously, the details of “best practice” differ between various seafood types, but there are quite a few shared issues across the entire industry including: traceability, environmental footprint, ocean health, the influence of climate change, more eco-friendly packaging, as well as processing and waste handling after harvest/catch. In the case of Salmon, both ocean-harvested and farmed fish can be impacted by parasitic “sea lice” and certain diseases. Ocean fisheries can also be impacted by fish escapes from farms and/or by effluent generated within the net system.

Small ocean-dwelling fish are harvested to make fishmeal used to feed farmed fish, and that can have an impact on how much of these the populations is left for wild species. That kind of resource competition is increasingly being addressed by alternative aquaculture feeds including plant-based protein (mainly from soybeans) and oils with omega-3 fats from algae or modified Camelina. There is also increasing use of proteins and oils from insect larvae (Black Soldier Fly – or BSF) that can be raised on food processing side streams and potentially on food waste.

The bottom line is that consumers can confidently enjoy a wide range of healthy and sustainable seafood options. They can purchase from reputable stores and restaurants, and they can also look for “eco-labels” associated with the certification systems that exist for both the aquaculture and ocean-harvested segments.

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