The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Seaspiracy’s lasting impact on sustainable seafood businesses

With each passing day, Seaspiracy becomes increasingly irrelevant, buried in the never-ending content queue of the world’s largest streaming platform. The last month has been full of fact checks, flame wars, and funding accusations. Though it brought out the worst of everyone on social media, it brought the marine science and stakeholder community together. There is a clear consensus that the film was awful. Even Ray Hilborn and Daniel Pauly agree!

I sneer at the filmmaker’s silly “fact page,” a regurgitation of each false claim in the film listed in chronological order.  But I acknowledge—the joke’s on us. The filmmakers had no intention of presenting facts or having an honest discussion about ocean health; they sought to create a piece of horror entertainment by slandering the seafood industry. And they succeeded. For those of us in the sustainable seafood world, the cut is deep and unlikely to heal soon.

Sustainable seafood businesses didn’t deserve this. Those referring to the best available science, making public sourcing policies, exercising due diligence in their supply chains, and seeking certifications are disproportionately impacted. The film concluded that there is no such thing as sustainable seafood, making liars and cheats of those seeking it. A seafood company that makes no sustainability claims is now less likely to receive negative feedback than one that does.

Herein lies the most disgusting part of this film: it disincentivizes sustainability. Sustainable seafood products are often more expensive than unsustainable alternatives, and studies suggest consumers are not willing to pay a premium for environmentally sustainable seafood. Attempting to source seafood sustainably costs time, money, and perseverance. Like brushing your teeth, you can’t just do it once and be considered clean. A diligent seafood sustainability program requires regular re-assessments and constant attention, or else plaque will accumulate. Commitment to sustainability prohibits a fisherman from fishing in a marine protected area even though it might be full of valuable fish; it stops a chef from putting a popular item back on the menu; it requires a mid-size grocery store chain to invest valuable resources into a seafood certification program each year.

But why bother if customers are going to criticize these efforts? Maybe it would be easier to just buy the most affordable seafood products and ignore sustainability entirely.

I have worked in seafood for over 10 years, taking jobs that pay less to work for companies and organizations prioritizing sustainability over profits. I am deeply offended by the claim that there is no such thing as sustainable seafood and the assertion that everyone who works in this industry is conspiring against all marine life.

But I will concede that it is too difficult for the average consumer to correctly navigate the resources available, let alone make informed seafood purchases at the store. Sustainability is a moving target and the best recommendations are ever-changing. This is confusing to most consumers and inspires little confidence in seafood sustainability rating systems that change constantly. Stock assessments are closer to weather forecasts than they are to the ten commandments.

But the claim that there is no such thing as sustainable seafood is entirely untrue.

There are many ways to refute this claim, from pointing to the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), or by citing the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (GSSI), an internationally agreed-upon benchmark for seafood sustainability. Daniel Pauly put it well when he explained there is a scientific definition too, called Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY). Telling a fisheries scientist there is no such thing as sustainable seafood is as ridiculous as telling a meteorologist there is no such thing as freezing temperatures.

But clearly, people are susceptible to poorly-reasoned lies wrapped in entertainment. A rogue filmmaker too easily delivered a dizzying blow to some of the most widely supported and well-funded marine conservation organizations and sustainability authorities in the world. Scientists will always be at a disadvantage to a streaming platform whose content is only obligated to entertain, never inform. Yet this experience proves the risk in narrowing our audience and ignoring the consumer’s perspective.

My first inclination for demonstrating trust in sustainable seafood systems is to support seafood harvesters and producers. Early in the pandemic we created a seafood map to bring much-needed demand to community supported fisheries, fishing co-operatives, first receivers of seafood landings, and seafood wholesalers that were stuck with foodservice supply of high quality fresh or frozen seafood and needed help selling directly to consumers. This was a huge success, but it may have perpetuated a common criticism of sustainable seafood: it’s expensive and not accessible for everyone.

To respond to those consumers overlooked in our seafood map project and to speak directly to those that do not believe sustainable seafood is A Thing, I will put together a short guide for navigating the offerings at any grocery store in the United States. Whether you’re shopping at a major grocery store chain in Seattle or at a gas station in Nebraska, this guide will allow you to make an informed seafood choice.

A great way to counteract Seaspiracy is by sending a message to the industry that sustainable seafood matters to you as a consumer: you’re willing to seek it out, ask questions about its traceability, and pay a little extra for it when possible.

Stay tuned for our guide.

Picture of Jack Cheney

Jack Cheney

Jack has sourced, sold, cooked, and sustainably certified seafood over the past 10 years. In addition to his contributions to Sustainable Fisheries UW, he is working to increase traceability into supply chains and educate consumers, chefs and retailers on the value of environmentally sustainable seafood. He earned a Master's in Marine Affairs from the University of Washington in 2015.

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