ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Notes from the Sustainable Foods Institute - A Shifting Food Suppy

Blue Fin Tuna

For several years now, the Sustainable Foods Institute at the Monterey Bay Aquarium has held a stimulating conference for journalists and food writers in an attractive location -- the aquarium itself.

So while scientists, food industry reps, academics and journalists talk about the future of food,outside the conference room, sea horses bop, sea otters munch and mystical pink jellyfish swirl in their tanks.

There's always a moment when I leave the talk about dwindling fish and the warming global climate and visit a quiet room to watch the giant blue fin tuna. Somehow the discussions about the rapid disappearance of bluefin are all the more meaningful when you actually can marvel at these wondrous creatures swimming about. 

That's really the point of the aquarium -- to communicate what goes on in the invisible oceans so that we understand them a little better. The conference takes this a step further by connecting the impact of farming and fishing, and yes, cooking, on our food supply and natural world.

What struck me about this year's conference was a slight glimmer of hope amid a usually gloomy subject. This note was struck in the opening remarks by Aquarium director Julie Packard, who noted that 37% of all retailers were now avoiding unsustainable fish supplies, up from just 20% a few years ago. This is due, in part, to the aquarium's Seafood Watch program, one of several by reputable organizations.

She also revealed a few tantalizing figures from an upcoming survey of 22,000 consumers which showed that a third - a figure I found surprising - had heard about sustainable seafood. And among those consumers, most “strongly agreed” with the statement “I worry about the future availability of healthy seafood.”

There were other positive tidbits throughout the two-day conference. Earthbound Farm - the largest organic produce company - revealed that 44% of the spring mix salad segment (which includes spring mix, baby spinach, mache, and arugula) was now organic. And that segment is the largest of the salad business itself.

For those fretting about the 3% share of the market held by organic food, and the less than 1% of farmland in organic production, this figure was stunning. Nearly one of every two salad purchases is organic. We always hear that organic is more expensive, less efficient, a luxury, etc., etc., but these arguments miss the cutting edge of the market.

Now in its 25th year, Earthbound and its partners farm 33,000 acres, a part of it in the Salinas Valley near the Monterey Bay. By farming organically, they avoid applying hundreds of thousands of pounds of pesticides and millions of pounds of fertilizers, much of which ends up in streams and the sea. The fish are clearly better off. So are the people who work in these fields. Locavores might frown, but for the supermarket shopper the company is bringing an organic choice to the table.

Finally, in a discussion about humane animal production, Tim Amway of the American Humane Association said he expected 35% of all livestock operations to be certified humane in the foreseeable future, based on business in the pipeline. Now only 3% are certified. Now we can quibble about which certification regime makes the most sense, but nonetheless this figure was startling. More than a third!

What these figures show is that markets can change. But consumers and companies -- both pushing and pulling -- have to make the right choices. And if they do, we're all better off.

- Samuel Fromartz

Breeding Bluefin Tuna in Atlantic Gone in 3 Years

WWF said today that spawning bluefin tuna - a delicacy in some circles - could be fished out of the Atlantic ocean in just three years.

As European fishing fleets prepare to begin the two-monthMediterranean fishing season on Wednesday, spawning tuna aged four years and older are headed into history. "For years people have been asking when the collapse of this fishery will happen, and now we have the answer," said Sergi Tudela, Head of Fisheries at WWF Mediterranean.

Fish on the dish in a warming planet

Global warming has started to erode coral reefs, churn up more storms and drive salt water into fresh water sources - such as this threat to the Ganges in India.

Now a new study shows that while fisheries in the northern hemisphere may bear the brunt of the impact environmentally, people in the poorest countries will suffer the most hardship as fish populations decline. Worldwide, more than 2.6 billion people rely on fish for at least 20 percent of their protein intake. 

Two-thirds of the 33 most vulnerable nations are in Africa, where fish accounts for half of all protein intake in many countries. Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo were most at risk, though Russia stood out ranking third. Peru and Colombia in South America; and Bangladesh, Pakistan and Vietnam in Asia also made the list.

Add this report to the pressures from overfishing - from the hungry demand of Asian and European nations -- and Africa may well be at the leading edge of unsustainable fisheries.

For another perspective check out this video of a lecture by researcher Daniel Pauly, a fisheries biologist who studies populations trends

- Samuel Fromartz

Fish: Good News and Bad

The LA Times reports that fishery managers on the West Coast have decided to try and save the region's fishery by granting fishermen exclusive rightsto a portion of the catch. We've written about catch quotas before, but this is positive news in a place where three fisheries were declared an economic disaster eight years ago.

The new approach, often called "individual fishing quotas," will give commercial fishermen from Morro Bay on California's Central Coast to Puget Sound in Washington state the right to bring in their portion of the catch when the seas are safe and they can command higher prices.

It will also eliminate rules that forced fishermen to shovel tons of dead fish overboard because they didn't have permits to sell particular species inadvertently caught in their nets.

"We expect in five to 10 years this will be one of the best-managed fisheries in the country," said Johanna Thomas, Pacific Ocean policy director of the Environmental Defense Fund.

The same can't be said for Atlantic cod, which looks like it's crashing again. Kate Wing over at Blogfish writes:

The cod of the Gulf of St. Lawrence have 40 years left, at best, and only 20 years if fishing stays at current levels. Douglas P. Swain and Ghislain A. Chouinard report on this imminent extinction in the latest Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, only, being scientists, they call it extirpation. Technically, extinction requires you to prove all the fish are gone, while an extirpated population is barely hanging on -- too small to sustain itself, much less feed people or wildlife.

What's the Cost of Depleted Fisheries?

It's clear that the world’s fishstocks are in trouble, but what's the cost of decades of mismanagement?  A new World Bank/FAO study puts the price tag at $50 billion dollars a year, or $2 trillion over the last three decades.

This isn’t just another doom and gloom study; the report's actually hopeful that the “economic hemorrhage” in this “underperforming global asset” can be transformed into one that creates “an economic surplus and….a driver of economic growth.”

So how do we get there? Catch shares, a fisheries management system that has picked up a lot of momentum recently as people recognize how well they work.

A study in Science magazine last month was the most authoritative validation to date of this approach. After examining 11,000 fisheries around the world, researchers found that those with catch share were much healthier, fishermen were at less risk from accidents, and the impact on other species was significantly reduced. Catch shares go beyond just keeping a good fishery healthy. They can even rebuild depleted fish stocks.

Catch shares work by allotting shares of the overall catch to individual fishermen, boats or fishing groups. Shares can be sold or rented, which gives fishermen a direct stake in the future of the fishery. The better the fish stock, the more valuable the fishermen’s shares.

For decades, scientists have shown how overfishing was killing off wild fish populations at a huge environmental and social cost. Now economists have put a price tag on the problem. And recently yet more scientists have shown us how catch shares can solve the problem. We know what’s at stake, we know what it’s costing us and we know how to fix it. So can we get on with it already?

- Tim Fitzgerald, Environmental Defense Fund

Can Corporations Save the Fish?

I know, a few sustainability advocates can already feel their hair raising from that headline. But consider this article by Nicholas Day at Yale's Environment 360.

Worried about the reliability of future supplies, major corporations —including Wal-Mart, Unilever, and McDonald’s — are increasingly using their economic clout to bring about change in an industry that has a long history of decimating the very resource on which its business has been built.

He makes the point that I've been hoping to make for some time. That is, "it is far easier to improve fisheries management by involving a few dozen companies and conservation groups than by targeting millions of shoppers in consumer campaigns."

Consumer campaigns help, but they are costly to wage and hard to get people aboard. Now, that doesn't mean they should be avoided but rather seen as part of a larger campaign of putting pressure on companies and coming up with solutions, like sustainable seafood.

Mark Powell, vice president for fish conservation at the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy, says that by using economic clout to push fisheries toward sustainability, corporations are helping achieve "the Holy Grail, which is actual, on-the-water improvement."

"It's true there's a limit—the ocean is not infinite,” says Powell. “But we could have as much sustainable seafood as we have total seafood right now.”

Hummm... Mark's a friend of mine, but I wonder. It might require making mackerel and sardines into a delicacy. Chefs, get busy.

Clare Whacks a Chef with a Fish

Dear Chef-You-Know-Who-You-Are,

I figured our telephone conversation the other day might be awkward. Confrontation usually isn’t my thing. That’s why I’m a food-writer and not an investigative journalist. Believe me, no one was more surprised than me to discover you have bluefin tuna on the menu so brazenly, nestled right between the locally farmed oysters and beautiful organic greens from a nearby farm. I could have accidentally thought you were into sustainable ingredients. Silly me. So when I called you to ask “Why do you have bluefin tuna on the menu?” Uh, it wasn’t to chat with you about the fat content and deliciousness of the fish like you assumed.  It’s because everyone – including my 80-year old mother in the middle of Iowa – is aware of the demise of this spectacular fish.

I’d like to give you a pass because you simply didn’t know, but frankly? You’re in the industry. You talk to your fish purveyor frequently. And telling me that you only sell four pounds a week didn’t really make me feel better about spotting it on your list of offerings. Worse? You shared with me -- an identified reporter -- that half the time, you can’t get bluefin and that you’re substituting yellowfin. I was just wondering, Chef, if your customers aware of that? Or in addition to serving an extremely overfished species, you’re duping your diners as well? Because you see, when you said, “Well, it’s delicious, and that can win over my conscience,” that sorta sealed the deal for me on whether or not I’ll ever be calling you for a source in one of my stories, or if I’ll bring a group of friends to your place. The chances are pretty slim, you know, just so you know.

And if you’re wondering how I found out about your menu item in the first place? I came across this chill website called FoodieBytes. Have you heard of it? It’s got a cool feature where I can just go to “food search” and type in things like bluefin tuna, monkfish or shark’s fin and find restaurants in cities like Chicago, Washington DC and San Francisco that boast about them on the menu.

So, hey. Thanks for your time, but I’ve got few other calls to make.

Clare Leschin-Hoar

Sustainable Sushi? Coming Soon...

SushiCardsThree heavyweights in Ocean Conservation - Monterey Bay Aquarium, Blue Oceans Institute, and Environmental Defense Fund - have joined forces to come to the aid of sushi lovers with sustainable seafood guides.

It's a good move considering that bluefin tuna is one of the most prized sushi delicacies but amounts to eating an endangered species.

Given that reality and confusion about other overfished species, a sushi lover with a conscience may be inclined to give in and order the gyoza, edamame, and chicken teriyaki and call it a night. But let's face it, that's not why you went out to eat.

Well, no longer! The guides, which will be officially launched on October 22, make the point that there are a lot of sustainable seafood options. In tuna alone, it gives a cautious "good alternative" to bigeye and yellowfin tuna if troll or pole caught. But if the fish are caught on a longline (that ensnares sea turtles and other bycatch) it's listed under the "avoid" category.

Here's a "green" list of "best choices" from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch sushi guide:

    Aji/Sawara/Spanish mackerel*
    Amaebi/Spot prawn (BC)
    Awabi/Abalone (US farmed)
    Gindara/Sablefish/Black cod (AK+, BC)
    Hirame/Pacific halibut+
    Hotate/Bay scallops (farmed)
    Ikura/Salmon roe (AK wild)+
    Iwana/Arctic char (farmed)
    Iwashi/Sardine (US)
    Izumidai/Tilapia (US farmed)
    Kaki/Oysters (farmed)
    Kanikama/Surimi/Imitation crab
    (AK pollock+)
    Katsuo/Bonito/Skipjack tuna
    Masago/Smelt roe (Iceland)
    Mirugai/Giant clam/Geoduck (wild)
    Murugai/Mussels (farmed)
    Sake/Salmon (AK wild)+
    Shiro Maguro/Albacore tuna (troll/pole, BC or US+)
    Suzuki/Striped bass (farmed or wild*)
    Uni/Sea urchin roe (Canada)

Here's the list of good alternatives:

Amaebi/Spot prawn (US)
Ebi/Shrimp (US, farmed or wild)
Gindara/Sablefish/Black cod (CA, OR, WA)
Hamachi/Yellowtail (US farmed)
Hirame/Flounders, Soles (Pacific)
Hotate/Sea scallops (Canada, US)
Kani/Crab: Blue*, King (US), Snow
Kanikama/Surimi/Imitation crab (except AK pollock+)
Katsuo/Bonito/Skipjack tuna (Hawaii)
Maguro/Tuna: Bigeye, Yellowfin (troll/pole)
Masago/Smelt roe (Canada)
Sake/Salmon (WA wild)*
Shiro Maguro/Albacore tuna (Hawaii) *
Tai/Red porgy (US)
Toro/Tuna Belly: Bigeye, Yellowfin (troll/pole)
Uni/Sea urchin roe (CA)

Now here's the "red" avoid list:

Ankimo/Monkfish liver
Ebi/Shrimp (imported, farmed or wild)
Hamachi/Yellowtail (Australia or Japan, farmed)
Hirame/Flounders, Soles, Halibut (Atlantic)
Hon Maguro/Bluefin tuna*
Ikura/Salmon roe (farmed, including Atlantic)
Kani/Crab: King (imported)
Maguro/Tuna: Bigeye*, Yellowfin*
Sake/Salmon (farmed, including Atlantic)*
Shiro Maguro/Albacore tuna (imported) *
Tai/Red snapper
Toro/Tuna Belly: Bigeye *, Bluefin*, Yellowfin*
Unagi/Freshwater eel
Uni/Sea urchin roe (Maine)

* indicates that consumption should be limited because of toxicity concerns.
+ means some or all of this fishery is certified as sustainable to the Marine Stewardship Council standard.

Looking at this list, I'd say it's a good start. But the impetus should really fall to the chef or restaurant so you don't have to ask whether the uni is from Maine, California or Canada. But come to think of it, I usually ask chefs where the fish is from -- and they are inclined to tell you if you're interested. At least, that's been my experience.

At Last, Some Good News on the Fish Front

For those worried aboutdwindling stocks of fish, the journal Science released an encouraging study this week.

The news on the health of oceans has been consistently dour, whether talking about vanishing bluefin tuna, disappearing coral reefs, the loss of biodiversity, the plight of sharks and whales or the failure of fisherman and the erosion of communities as catches shrink. Never mind global warming, which is taking ocean temperatures higher.

Now the good news.

Scientists studying fisheries around the world found that a novel form of privatization has protected the fish. Once a fisherman owns a share of the fishery, he has a direct incentive to increase the value of those shares, known as Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs). How so? By making sure the fishery would grow and thus become more valuable.

Christopher Costello and Steven Gaines of the University of California and John Lynham of the University of Hawaii assembled a database of 11,135 fisheries from 1950 to 2003. They found that those with ITQs were dramatically healthier. “Implementation of catch shares halts, and even reverses, the global trend toward widespread collapse,” the paper states.

In the US, the prime example is with Alaskan halibut. Before ITQs, fisherman would race to catch their quota, which shrank with each year, until it was just three days long. When the fishery was open, the catch was a race to the bottom: the fisherman would net the fish, then flood the market, sending the price crashing. The other downside of this “derby” was that fish exceeding the quota would be dumped overboard — along with unintended bycatch scooped up in the frenzy. It was a lose-lose proposition for the fish and the men.

In 1995, the stocks were privitized and shares divied up. Since then, the stocks have rebounded — and so has the price. The Economist notes:

Where mariners’ only thought was once to catch fish before the next man, they now want to catch fewer fish than they are allowed to—because conservation increases the value of the fishery and their share in it. The combined value of their quota has increased by 67%, to $492 million.

Halibut was not the first, nor was it unique. ITQs were first applied to fisheries in Australia. Iceland has had remarkable success with cod, even as cod off the Georges bank of New England dwindle to nothing. It has more ambitiously been applied to red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, a fishery that shrunk by 97 percent before this step was taken.

The Economist writes that ITQs transformed fisherman from “rapacious predators into stewards and policemen of the resource.” The only problem is that they are by far the rarity when it comes to fisheries and they do not apply in international waters, where vast industrial fishing fleets roam the seas.

Attempts to use ITQs in international waters have failed, because it is too easy for cheats to take fish and weaker regulations mean there are no on-board observers to keep boats honest. And ITQs will not work in slow-growing fisheries, where fishermen may make more money by fishing the stock to extinction than they ever would by waiting for the fish to mature. But in most of the world’s fisheries, market mechanisms would create richer fishermen and more fish.

The interesting thing is that with populations crashing, a market incentive appears to work. Not unlike pollution credits, or other schemes to get people to do the right thing. Banging on the head with regulations can work, but the effort expended in time, litigation and compliance is costly. But create an incentive -- with the fish at least, the result is self-evident.

MSC Clarifies Alaska Salmon Status

In light of Alaska's decision to shift the responsibility of certifying salmon to an industry body, the Marine Stewardship Council issued this press release. The key point: the current certificate is valid until 2012, so the certified sustainable status of Alaskan salmon is not in doubt. MSC says:

A change of clients is permitted under the MSC program and is not unprecedented.  It is also important to note that a change of client does not affect the value and credibility of a fisheries’ certificate as a globally recognized third-party verification of sustainability.  The Alaskan salmon fishery was re-certified in November 2007 and the current certificate is valid until 2012.

As the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has stated ... their position as a client for an MSC certification is unusual. More typically fisheries clients are groups of fishers and their associations or seafood industry and commercial entities, who are better placed to directly benefit from all the advantages third party certification can bring.

Quick Bites - Alaska Quits MSC?

(Updated) Alaska Quitting MSC? -  The state of Alaska wants another party to arrange sustainable fish certification for its salmon fisheries with the Marine Stewardship Council, Sustainable Food News reports ($-sub). The state Department of Fish and Game has been the client which arranged for this service -- a rare role for a government body. Now,it is hoping another group, such as a fisheries industry body, takes over the role. Alaska is the largest certified sustainable fishery in US waters, if not the world. Fisheries pay fees to get certified by the MSC, which independently reviews fish populations, catches, management and fishing methods. But the state feels it has a higher standard than even MSC. More on this item over at

You Can Go Home Again - Vancouver celebrated the first return of a sockeye salmon to a lake in 100 years. "Seeing that first fish, it almost made us cry," George Chaffee, a councillor with the Kwikwetlem band, said.

Holy Jalapeno! - Turns out tomatoes weren't the culprit in the recent outbreak of salmonella. Instead the FDA has turned its attentions to jalapeno peppers. Tomato growers predictably were angry. "They will never say that tomatoes were not implicated, because to do so would [imply] they caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damages for nothing," Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, told the WSJ. The salmonella outbreak sickened 1,200 people across 42 states.

unHappy Meals - The WSJ also has an item on Los Angeles city council member's attempt to ban junk food in an area of the city with high obesity rates. The 32-square-mile chunk of the city is home to some 400 fast-food restaurants, where 30% of adults are obese, compared with about 21% in the rest of the city.

Chewy Nuggets

What’s for Dinner? - Michael Ruhlman has an interesting thread at his blog on staple meals - what people actually cook for dinner. The variety among people who responded (177 comments and counting) is pretty astounding, with a lot of ethnic food -- more than I would have predicted.

Let’s Do the Math - An engaging post at Ethicurean points to a study that the majority of greenhouse gas emissions occur “during the production of food, not from transportation.” Eating locally is equivalent to driving 1,000 fewer miles a year. But switching out of red meat - for just one day a week - to a vegetarian meal equals 1,160 fewer miles driven per year.

Out of Softshell Crabs - Senators want to declare the Chesapeake blue claw crab a disaster, triggering $20 million in emergency aid for the fisherman. The bay suffers from hypoxia stimulated by agriculture and urban water run-off - essentially choking oxygen out of sea life.

Sustainable Sushi? - I took a quick look at at the rising tide of sustainable fish in Japan, of all places. They still love their bluefin tuna and whale, but sustainable fish is slowly gaining ground (beachhead?) in supermarkets.
- Samuel Fromartz