Food: Something's fishy

Loblaws and others are promising to sell only certified fish — but does that really mean anything?

You mightn’t think a fish classified as a “slimehead” would prove appetizing, yet orange roughy’s mild flavour makes it a popular dish baked, broiled or fried. Shoppers seeking it at Loblaw supermarkets this summer, though, might have been sorely disappointed: where the deep-sea fish is normally displayed, they may have encountered an empty stainless steel tray—with a note inside suggesting they consider tilapia or sole instead. The problem is that bottom trawling has devastated the species—certain Australian stocks, harvested only since the 1990s, have dwindled by an estimated 90%. To protect the pittance that remains, Loblaw has stopped selling it.

The empty trays are perhaps the most visible evidence of a sea change underway behind the scenes at Canada’s largest grocer and fishmonger. Last year, Loblaw promised that all seafood sold on its shelves—canned, frozen, fresh, wild and farmed—will come from sustainable sources by the end of 2013. That includes not only in-house brands like President’s Choice, but also national brands like High Liner. Implications extend well beyond the obvious: half of Loblaw’s product categories, including pet food, fertilizer and dairy products, contain seafood ingredients. And the policy will apply at all its banners coast to coast, among them Loblaws, Zehrs, Atlantic Superstore and Provigo. “We’re very concerned that seafood is in dramatic shortage,” says Paul Uys, Loblaw’s vice-president of sustainable seafood. “Certain species, such as orange roughy and Chilean sea bass, are increasingly difficult to come by—and prices are obviously increasing.”

Loblaw’s definition of sustainability owes much to its partner, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). One of the oldest international eco-certifications, MSC offers a widely recognized blue check mark. Its promise: any seafood bearing its logo has not been overfished, nor harvested in ways that harm ocean ecosystems. Already popular in Europe and gaining steam in the U.S., the MSC is taking the world by storm—and with other Canadian retailers including Metro, Sobeys, and Walmart also seeking certified products, it’s coming to a supermarket near you.

A wide variety of logos, such as those for fad diets like Atkins and South Beach, have been shown to increase food sales. Yet arguments over credibility inevitably surface, and the MSC’s check mark is no exception. Its certification of B.C. sockeye salmon this summer is just the latest in a series of controversial decisions. Several long-term MSC supporters now worry that the organization has become corrupted by commercial interests and may only accelerate the depletion of the world’s oceans. “This was something that was created as a bridge between conservation and supplying people and markets in a responsible fashion,” says Daniel Pauly, an internationally recognized marine biologist involved in the certifier’s creation. “And now it is at the forefront of stupid exploitation and destruction.”

Overfishing is but one of many forces that can ravage fish populations, and is not always among the most significant. But consider the following: between 1950 and the mid-1980s, the estimated global catch of marine fish rose fourfold from 19 million tonnes to 80 million, a level at which it has hovered ever since. During that time, average annual consumption per human rose from 10 kilograms to 16 kg—and the number of rumbling stomachs increased considerably. The math points to aquatic Armageddon.

The modern fishing arsenal includes fish aggregating devices, GPS and bird radars that can detect flocks congregating around schooling fish. Research from Dalhousie University suggests that given just 15 years, a modern industrialized fishery can reduce the biomass of large predatory fish communities by 80%. Little wonder, then, that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization claims more than four-fifths of the world’s fish stocks are harvested at or beyond sustainable limits. Populations of cod, flounder, hake and halibut have fallen before our awesome harvesting machine.

Governments the world over share responsibility for fishery collapses. The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, for example, presided over the collapse of Atlantic cod stocks in the 1980s. “DFO has not done its job vis-a-vis the Canadian people,” says Pauly, a professor at the University of British Columbia. “It saw its mission as responding to the short-term interest of the industry that was exploiting these stocks.”

Food giant Unilever and an NGO, the World Wildlife Fund, believed market forces could do better. They partnered during the late 1990s to found the MSC, which promised that henceforth, shoppers could turn the tide on overfishing by choosing products bearing its blue logo. Pauly was an early supporter, joining other scientists in helping develop its criteria. Among other things, the MSC seeks proof that wild fish populations can endure current levels of exploitation, and that the fishery is not laying waste to other species or ecosystems.

Promptly spun off as an independent charity, the MSC is now run by a London-based secretariat. Applicants must hire an accredited consultant to score fisheries against the MSC’s requirements. Certificates are valid for five years, subject to annual audits. For distributors and retailers, the MSC offers a three-year “chain of custody” certification, which requires that they maintain inventory control systems allowing them to trace product all the way back to its source.

Although there are competing initiatives, none can match the MSC’s growing cachet among supermarkets and consumers. Earlier this year, the WWF published a study by Accenture, the accounting firm. Accenture found that while MSC wasn’t perfect, it was the best of all certification schemes examined, earning a stellar score of 95%. High Liner Foods, a Nova Scotian seafood marketer, says the MSC “has emerged as the most credible organization in this field.”

Meanwhile, provincial governments in B.C. and Nova Scotia help fund eco-certifications, which can cost between $100,000 and $500,000. DFO is aligning its own sustainability plans to complement the MSC’s. Last year, federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea assured reporters her department was doing everything it could to help fisheries get certified, saying, “the cost of not doing it would be, well, we can’t even talk about that.”

Here’s why: uncertified fisheries might find themselves shut out of lucrative export markets as the movement gains momentum. Canada exports 85% of the seafood it harvests every year (by value). Little wonder, then, that haddock, swordfish, shrimp, lobster, scallop and yellowtail flounder fisheries are among the 17 Canadian fisheries under assessment. A dozen have already achieved certification. And with more applications arriving monthly, it’s a feeding frenzy.

B.C.’s salmon fishermen and processors know the cost of being behind the curve—their tardiness handed a competitive advantage to Alaskan competitors, who achieved MSC certification a decade ago. “It certainly closed off markets to us,” says Christina Burridge, a project consultant with the Canadian Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Society (formerly the B.C. Salmon Marketing Council). “The markets that are prepared to pay the most for fish are also those that are most conscious of sustainability issues.” So that same year, in 2000, her employer began its own bid for certification. Burridge spearheaded it. It proved the longest, hardest-fought MSC certification ever. And it cost about $500,000—double the initial estimate.

The chief problem is that some B.C. sockeye species are in trouble. Each year four-year-old sockeye swim up the Fraser River in a spectacular bid to return to the freshwater streams where they hatched four years earlier. There they spawn and die, their bloated corpses testifying to nature’s almost Shakespearean cruelty. The number of returning individuals offers vital clues about the species’ health and helps determine how much fishing will be allowed—and is therefore subject to much scrutiny and speculation. Poor returns in 2007 and 2009 resulted in moratoriums, and fishing is greatly reduced from generations past. Last year, between 11 and 13 million were expected to return up the Fraser, but just 1.3 million were counted—a cataclysm that prompted Prime Minister Stephen Harper to establish a judicial inquiry—the latest in a series of such initiatives stretching back decades. But this year proved once again how little we understand the species: returns proved bountiful beyond all expectations. The Pacific Salmon Commission estimates 30 million headed up the Fraser, the most since 1913.

Concern over sockeye populations was already acute in 2000 when Burridge’s employer hired Scientific Certification Systems Inc. to conduct a pre-assessment of four areas (the Fraser, Skeena and Nass watersheds, and Barkley Sound) that comprise substantially all commercial sockeye fishing in B.C. This confidential process is the only stage during which there seems to exist genuine risk of failure. Burridge says SCS determined that certification was likely possible, but would require changes to fisheries practices. Full assessment is a more transparent process that involved input from recalcitrant NGOs like the David Suzuki Foundation and Sierra Club. It typically takes three years, but the biological and political complexities of sockeye contributed to reams of contradictory research and heated arguments. Frustrated by the lack of progress, the Marketing Council replaced SCS with another independent certifier, Tavel Certification, in 2008.

At long last, Tavel released a 600-page report in January giving a green light. Statistically, this was inevitable: of the 200-plus fisheries that have entered the public certification process to date, only two have suffered rejection. Indeed, one wonders what would motivate an independent certifier to do that, given the impact that might have on its ability to attract future customers.

The Watershed Watch Salmon Society’s response to the sockeye certification reveals the MSC’s often complicated relationship with conservation groups. The society supported the Skeena, Barkley and Nass certifications. “We think it will improve DFO’s ability to manage the salmon,” says executive director Craig Orr. Fraser sockeye was another matter entirely. “The evidence is just so strong that the fish are not doing well” on the Fraser, Orr contends. “The bar has been set too low on certification.”

Fish are not officially threatened or endangered until designated so by a recognized body. Last year, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) controversially placed all Pacific sockeye on its list of threatened species, listing overfishing as a “key threat” to populations. The MSC, however, disagrees: it claims “there is general agreement that commercial fishing pressure is not the cause” of recent poor runs. And it also maintains that any well-managed fishery should be able to gain certification, regardless of the status of the underlying species. Its representatives point to sockeye moratoriums as evidence DFO properly regulates Fraser sockeye. Fisheries biologist Otto Langer finds that explanation ludicrous. “You simply must have fish to have a sustainable fishery!” he exclaims. Opponents of Fraser sockeye certification, including the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, availed themselves of the MSC’s last-ditch option: they mounted an official objection under MSC rules. It was futile. “No objections have ever been successful,” says Orr. “That takes wind out of your sails, but we felt we had to try.” The certificate was issued on July 30, and expires in five years.

When Burridge’s client first applied a decade ago, the MSC’s check mark might have given them a leg up on competitors. Today, a fishery’s survival may depend on it. Burridge says it will take some months before certified product reaches the market, and that can’t happen too soon. “It is virtually impossible to sell uncertified salmon to the northern European markets,” she says. “And we are beginning to see it in North America, with companies like Loblaw.”

Paul Uys has spent more time aboard commercial airliners since Loblaw made its commitment in May 2009. As vice-president of sustainable seafood, part of his job involves working with suppliers. “Galen and myself have just been to St. John’s earlier this week,” he said during a phone interview from California. “We met with the top seafood suppliers on the East Coast.” (“Galen” is none other than Galen Weston Jr., Loblaw’s executive chairman.)

Suppliers cannot afford to blow off these meetings. The company vows to drop suppliers that cannot or will not meet its new requirements. That message was not well-received when Loblaw first began hunting for certified products about four years ago. “We had vendors who just put their hands up in horror,” he recalls.

While major suppliers are now on board, smaller ones are struggling with the costs and paperwork. “What we’re looking for is in some ways quite onerous for them,” Uys admits. Even national brands face a daunting challenge: last year, just 20% of High Liner’s wild-caught seafood came from certified fisheries — a level that exposes the company to considerable commercial risk.

With so many retailers chasing so few certified products, price increases pose a genuine (albeit as yet unrealized) threat. Even Uys wonders aloud whether Loblaw can fully meet its own deadline. “We do face challenges,” he concedes. “How much seafood can we get? Where will we get it?” But Loblaw’s stable of certified products (now numbering 20) is growing rapidly. They’re exclusively canned and frozen, but the chain hopes to begin offering certified fresh product at its counters next year.

Better labelling may also result. A startling portion of seafood packaging — some estimates say as much as one-third—contain incorrect or misleading information. Pauly’s research has found that while fishers mislabel seafood (particularly if they’re poaching), profit-seeking distributors and retailers are the prime culprits. For the past year, the Metro grocery chain has been telling suppliers it will soon demand more detailed labels. “We feel very strongly that in a couple of years, customers will be looking for the origin of the product, how it was caught, and the scientific name of the species,” says Marie-Claude Bacon, director of corporate affairs.

As critical intermediaries between fisheries and consumers, supermarkets are uniquely situated to influence supply chains. The level of commitment varies among retailers; Greenpeace, which has rated supermarkets on seafood sustainability for several years, ranks B.C.’s Overweitea the top performer, followed by Loblaw. (Overweitea was also the first ever to get a passing grade—albeit barely—from Greenpeace.) It accuses some retailers, such as Costco Wholesale, with making few discernible efforts.

Unveiling a sustainable seafood policy is not without peril, though. None of the four species Loblaw has delisted to date (Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, skate and shark) were top sellers, but each gives customers reason to shop elsewhere—a risk supermarkets are struggling to mitigate. Metro, which plans to delist several species in September, will monitor sales closely to ensure customers are responding positively. “There’s no way we’re going to lose money over this,” vows Bacon. “We’re in business to sell products to our customers, products that they want and are looking for…Without our customers we’re nothing.”

Protecting troubled fish species requires resolve—something many government regulators demonstrably lack. With human appetite growing and stocks dwindling, additional moratoriums will likely be necessary so as to avoid collapses. The MSC has yet to prove its own mettle. “How badly do you have to screw up before the MSC will remove your certification?” asks Langer. “That has yet to be seen.”

Some worry that over time, the MSC has become corrupted by the same forces that caused government regulation to fail: bowing to short-term commercial interests. The Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic instrument of Walmart’s founding coterie, is now its largest financial supporter. Says Beth Hunter, oceans coordinator at Greenpeace: “There’s a concern that in the rush to sell all of those MSC products that Walmart has signed up to sell, they’re going to be pushing fisheries that aren’t sustainable to be certified, and pushing [them] to produce at levels they shouldn’t be.”

UBC’s Pauly concedes that the MSC is improving business practices—for example, its insistence of traceability makes product mislabelling more difficult. But as for its prime objective of conservation, he believes it has failed. “When it starts certifying fisheries that are very much in question, then you can ask yourself whether the MSC has lost its way,” he says. Langer’s relationship with the MSC is similarly complicated. Like Pauly, he also believes the organization has proven a positive force, and argues its market-based approach offers more promise than relying on government. Langer’s perspective is broad: he worked for DFO for decades, and served on the MSC’s stakeholder advisory committee for nine years. But recently he began to feel his concerns were being ignored. The Fraser sockeye certification was the final straw—he resigned from the MSC’s panel immediately afterward. “How do you manage a fishery sustainably when you can’t even determine how many fish are out there?” he marvels. “Now’s a good time to pull the plug.”