When the National Park Service (NPS) announced it would utilize third party seafood ratings to set guidelines for seafood options within U.S. National Parks, the agency revived a debate surrounding the eco-certification of U.S. seafood.
Tomorrow, NPS is meeting with NOAA in an attempt to reconcile concerns
and ensure that its new sustainable seafood guidelines aren’t
detrimental to fishermen, processors, and consumers alike.
In June, the National Park Service (NPS) announced a new initiative to provide healthier and more sustainable food options in national parks across the United States. As part of the program, NPS created guidelines for “sustainable seafood,” stating that parks will “provide only [seafood options] that are ‘Best Choices’ or ‘Good Alternatives’ on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list, certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), or identified by an equivalent program that has been approved by the NPS.”
In response, John Connelly, President of the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), wrote a letter to NPS, in which he asked that the Agency reconsider their guidelines. He stated that “any fish caught in U.S. waters is already ‘certified sustainable,’ based on rigorous NOAA oversight and does not need additional certifications.” His point speaks to the strict conservation standards in the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), which are enforced by NOAA.
The Seafood Coalition, an ad hoc group representing members of the seafood industry across the U.S., followed up with their own letter. In it they asked: “Why would the NPS limit its vendors to those whose products are deemed sustainable by outside interests while ignoring [NOAA’s] FishWatch, an existing and proven program?”
During a hearing of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski questioned NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis on this issue. She asked Mr. Jarvis if NPS had worked with NOAA, stating, “NOAA is the agency that makes the determinations of what is sustainable [seafood] within the country.” She concluded, “I want to make sure we’re not locking ourselves in to a standard here that is simply not the right standard.”
These serious concerns from the seafood community have caught NPS by surprise. In an interview with Seafood Source , NPS spokesperson Kathy Kupper apologized. She stated, “We didn’t mean to step on anyone’s toes. The people who worked on the [sustainable food] guidelines tried to find some easily-understood guidelines.” Ms. Kupper told Saving Seafood that NPS has set up a meeting with NOAA, but this meeting does not indicate that NPS is pulling back. “We are going forward with our standards,” she said. “We are not changing anything, we are looking at adding more.” The meeting is scheduled for Friday, August 2.
More than just ruffling feathers in the seafood industry, the NPS guidelines rekindled a longstanding debate on the meaning of “sustainable seafood.” And, as a government agency, the repercussions for what NPS deems “sustainable” carry weight.
In his letter, Mr. Connelly touched on the heart of this issue. He writes: “Why would [the Department of the] Interior and NPS require third party certification of seafood sustainability if Commerce [NOAA] were doing its job well?”
Or, in other words, if all U.S. species are by law managed sustainably, then there is no need to follow additional third party seafood certification guidelines for U.S. seafood.
The U.S. is widely considered a model of responsible fishery management. The MSA mandates NOAA must use the “best scientific information available” in setting regulations and ensuring compliance with the law’s strict conservation standards. Even fisheries that are recovering are under rebuilding plans that require fishermen to harvest only a quantity deemed sustainable by Federal managers. NOAA estimates that, as of April 2013, 33 U.S. stocks that previously experienced overfishing have been rebuilt.
Industry members question why, if all U.S. seafood is managed sustainably according to Federal conservation standards, third party recommendations are used for U.S. seafood at all.
But the groups that issue third party guidelines and provide certifications do not agree that management under MSA guarantees sustainable standards for commercial fishing. In addressing its view on the matter, the Monterey Bay Aquarium states , “when there is scientific uncertainty, we err on the side of conservation.”
This conservationist perspective can provide useful guidelines to careful consumers, but these ratings are unrealistic as a sole standard for sustainable fisheries. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch ranks species instead of specific fisheries, which can lead to generalizations that prevent many sustainable fisheries from achieving a fair rating. For example, separate stocks of the same species are listed as one, sometimes causing a healthier stock to be rated lower. Also, gear types are evaluated across the board, regardless of location. This prevents any fishery that uses bottom-tending gear from achieving a “Green/Best Choice” rating, even if it is proven to have minimal environmental effects.
In comparison, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) provides more in-depth and specialized evaluations by certifying individual fisheries. But this program is costly, and many fisheries either cannot afford certification or believe their resources could be more beneficial elsewhere. The MSC program, which is intended to address international sustainability issues, has also faced criticism for being too complex and creating sustainability standards that are “moving targets .” MSC’s certification and recertification process can be inconsistent with NOAA’s established, specialized, and proven fishery management. In her discussion with NPS Director Jarvis, Senator Murkowski spoke to this point, saying, “The NGOs that you’re relying on [MSC], in my view, have a troubling record of meddling with, at least, Alaska fishermen’s fishery management.”
Ultimately, as NPS moves forward with its guidelines, the government agency sets a precedent for both seafood providers and consumers. U.S. fisheries following the rules set by Federal conservation standards should be recognized by all agencies on the Federal level. While there is use for third party ratings and certifications as indicators of sustainability, U.S. jobs and seafood producers suffer when inferior scientific reports from seafood guides and commissioned certifications create market barriers for sustainably harvested seafood products.
These discrepancies in third party ratings go deeper than different interpretations of “sustainability.” They reveal a serious disconnect between the ratings and realities of U.S. fisheries. Saving Seafood has compiled an investigative report that details key issues with the most popular seafood guides and the obstacles they can create for U.S. seafood providers.
Read the Saving Seafood investigative report on how third party ratings and certification programs can mislead retailers and consumers.
Read the 2012 story by Saving Seafood “Whole Foods Is Wrong Says Industry, Environmentalists, Scientists, Congress and Government Data”