Wise Seafood Choices More Critical Than Ever

Op-ed piece by Monterey Bay Aquarium executive director Julie Packard and Bon Appétit Management Company CEO Fedele Bauccio urges both policy and personal seafood change

November 18, 2006 – The alarm bells are ringing for the future of ocean wildlife, and that means trouble for all of us.

The latest warning comes from an international group of ecologists and economists whose Nov. 2 paper in the journal Science forecasts the collapse of all commercially fished wild seafood by 2050 -unless we change our ways.

Fortunately, the scientists also conclude that the oceans are remarkably resilient. Their research documents that seafood species, and all ocean wildlife, can thrive and recover when populations have not been seriously overfished and when ocean ecosystems are relatively intact.

But living systems can be pushed beyond the point of no return. The collapse of North Atlantic cod is one example. And the new research warns that if we continue on our current course, the cod story will be the rule rather than the exception.

“Unless we fundamentally change the way we manage all the oceans species together, as working ecosystems, then this century is the last century of wild seafood,” says co-author Steve Palumbi of Stanford University.

We literally hold the future of the oceans in our hands when we decide what seafood to serve and eat, so it’s imperative -as individuals and businesses -that we make the best choices we possibly can.

The Science paper was published just two weeks after health researchers recommended that Americans increase their consumption of seafood. So, what are consumers to do? How can we heed the call to eat more seafood without destroying the health of the oceans?

Part of the answer involves smarter, more effective ocean management. We must think in terms of ecosystems instead of looking at how many fish of a particular species we can catch each year. We need to create more fully protected marine reserves, where fishing is prohibited in order to preserve biodiversity within the reserves. There’s now abundant evidence from around the world that animals and plants within reserves thrive and spread to surrounding waters, restoring depleted areas outside the reserves.

Restoring healthy oceans will require more than government action. The single best thing we can do as consumers and businesses is to put market forces to work in support of sustainable ocean fisheries and environmentally responsible fish farms. The way we choose to spend our dollars drives the seafood marketplace. Our purchasing power can make all the difference, by supporting fisheries and aquaculture operations that are better for the environment, while at the same time relieving pressure on others that aren’t doing as well.

Since 1999, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has made it easy for consumers and businesses to choose seafood in ways that preserve ocean wildlife. Through the aquarium’s Seafood Watch program (www.seafoodwatch.org), individuals and businesses have all the resources they need to make better seafood choices.

And businesses like Bon Appétit Management Company have taken the lead in redirecting the market nationwide through their commitment to buy only seafood that meets sustainability guidelines developed through the Seafood Watch program or certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.

The aquarium and its 100 partners have distributed more than eight million Seafood Watch pocket guides nationwide -handy wallet-size cards that rate each seafood item as a “Best Choice”, “Good Alternative” or a species to “Avoid.” It has developed materials that businesses -restaurants, food service companies and retailers -can use to shape their own seafood choices.

Bon Appétit has long been a leader in serving sustainable foods -including sustainable seafood -to hundreds of thousands of customers at its 400 corporate, university and specialty restaurants nationwide: cultural institutions like the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the Art Institute of Chicago and San Francisco’s de Young Museum; corporate headquarters for Yahoo!, Cisco Systems, eBay, DreamWorks SKG and Best Buy; and universities including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University Graduate School of Business and American University.

Bon Appétit also convinced its corporate parent -Compass Group North America, the largest contract food service company in the western hemisphere -to institute a sustainable seafood policy for all of its operations in the United States, Compass has moved all purchases of Atlantic cod to Pacific cod or pollack, reduced the use of farmed salmon and shrimp, and eliminated all other “avoid” species from the Seafood Watch list.

Other big buyers are making the switch, too -notably retail giant Wal-Mart, which pledged earlier this year to sell seafood from sustainable fisheries certified by the Marine Stewardship Council within a few years. As more companies join this effort, the law of supply and demand will assert itself. The marketplace will move to supply sustainable seafood to meet the growing demand.

As the Science paper makes abundantly clear, we don’t have much time to change our ways. The oceans have limits to their resilience.

For our future -for our very survival -we must change the way we make our seafood choices. All the tools are available. Now it’s time to use them.