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Organizations Help Consumers Pick Healthy and Eco-Friendly Seafood

June 30, 2008

By Doreen Hemlock and Lucia Baldomi, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Jun. 29–The labels are hard to miss: blue and white with drawings of fish and the words “Marine Stewardship Council.” They’re popping up at stores across South Florida to identify seafood as eco-friendly.

It’s all part of a growing movement to ensure abundant and healthy supplies of seafood for years to come. As seas are overfished and fish farms polluted, an array of businesses, consumers and conservation groups are uniting to take action. Their focus: to monitor and certify that wild catches are limited to sustainable levels and that farms are run in ecological ways.

Some global corporations are taking the lead.

Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, has set 2012 as a target date for selling only certified fish, and fast-food giant McDonald’s has switched from threatened species to more plentiful pollock for its fish sandwiches.

Consumers also have new resources to check if seafood at the market or on the menu is healthy to eat. They can check Web sites such as www.edf.org or text message a service, Fishphone, and receive health information. For example, large predators such as marlin tend to contain high levels of mercury and should be avoided.

Joyce Parisse is thrilled to know the shrimp she buys at Wal-Mart carries a certification. She’d even pay more for her dinner.

“You’ve got to be more environmentally conscious,” said the 51-year-old casino waitress from Coral Springs, as she checked package labels to find sustainable seafood. “My kids are going to be having families soon, and what’s going to be left for them?”

The problems at fisheries are serious.

University of Miami researchers say so many fish were taken from the oceans between the 1950s and 1980s that the yearly catch has been declining ever since. New technologies that improve efficiencies have not reversed the trend.

In the past century, 90 percent of large fish were caught, and the average size of fish dropped by half. None of the world’s coastlines today teem with the heavy densities of fish commonplace in 1900.

Even the deepest seas have been mined. Stocks of orange roughy fish, for example, which lives up to 150 years in water 2 miles deep, were nearly depleted in only a decade by trawlers scraping the ocean floor, said Ellen Pikitch, director of UM’s Pew Institute of Ocean Science.

Most seafood now comes from farms, but problems abound there, too. Some farms are overcrowded, polluted or pumped with antibiotics that seep into nearby waters. Massive harvests of sardines and other food for fish farms also are prompting imbalances in marine ecosystems, endangering additional species, researchers say.

“You can’t have fish if they don’t have homes. You can’t have fish if they have nothing to eat,” Pikitch said at a seminar this spring organized by the New York Times Institute.

To address the problems, new organizations are certifying fisheries and farms for healthy practices.

For seafood caught in the wild, the buyers can look for a blue label with a drawing of a white fish and the name Marine Stewardship Council, a London-based conservation group.

Since 2000, it has certified more than 1,100 products in 36 countries, including at least 100 in the United States, such as wild Alaskan salmon. No South Florida fisheries are on the list.

Consumers can find the label in Broward and Palm Beach counties at some Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Target and Fresh Market locales, said Council spokeswoman Lisa Bailey.

The Marine Stewardship Council also is considering certification for fish farms. But for now, consumers can look instead for labels from such groups as the Aquaculture Certification Council, based in Washington state. It focuses on shrimp, tilapia and catfish. Parisse recently bought shrimp from Thailand at Wal-Mart in Coral Springs with the group’s blue label and the words “Best Aquaculture Practices Certified.”

To find what’s most eco-friendly, some groups offer “seafood selector” lists online that can be printed wallet-size. They show, for example, that farmed Atlantic salmon is among the eco-worst and wild Alaskan salmon among the eco-best, according the Environmental Defense Fund.

Among South Florida catches, avoid red snapper and grouper, which are being overfished, said Dane Klinger, seafood researcher at Blue Ocean Institute, which runs Fishphone.

The concerns come amid a surge in seafood consumption worldwide and in the United States. The average American ate 16.5 pounds of seafood in 2006, up from 15.3 pounds in 1999.

U.S. consumers today spend about $70 billion a year on seafood, with about $46 billion spent at restaurants, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For many consumers, health ranks tops, but figuring out what to eat can be confusing. Health-alert lists suggest avoiding wild sturgeon because of high mercury levels and suggest eating Latin American-farmed tilapia, which feeds on plants.

Linda Eginton, of Dania Beach, has bought only wild-catch for 19 years to avoid hormones sometimes used in farmed fish. Recently, she noticed the Marine Stewardship Council labels at Whole Foods Market and likes the help it can offer to make eco-friendly choices.

“I want fish to be as organic and natural as possible,” Eginton said. But knowing which to pick can be tough: “I tend to rely on stores to do that for me.”

By Doreen Hemlock and Lucia Baldomir

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Copyright (c) 2008, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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