QUESTION: I’m confused…just exactly what does ‘sustainability’ mean? – Katherine from Hyannis Port

ANSWER: Well we like to bill Ask Deep Blue as simple answers to complex questions, so here we go.

When a fishery product is harvested at less than depletion level, meaning the stock will reproduce fast enough to replenish itself, it is deemed sustainable. In other words, the stock will not decline at the levels it is being fished.

Here we are referencing fishery products, but the same applies to any of the Earth’s resources. Fossil fuels, for instance, can never be harvested in a sustainable manner. Nor can copper or coal. What we have now is pretty much all there will ever be.

Seafood, like wheat or apples, can reproduce; so it is possible to determine the rate of reproduction (fecundity) and harvest below this rate. Quite simple really. But perhaps not.

The term “sustainability”, much like “organic”, has gone through a quite natural etymological evolution err, it means a little more to some people and in some instances. And too it is used to market products, a situation which automatically raises eyebrows amongst the cynical.

You see, again like organic (a topic in the Ask Deep Blue queue) the designation as sustainable adds value to a product; meaning that producers can charge more for it. So perhaps it can be said that unscrupulous producers may be tempted to stamp the phrase on their products just to make more money. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has stepped in and provided criteria to clarify the issue. Too they provide assessments of stock levels and groups like the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas ( ICES), as well as fishery departments of governments, also monitor levels and issue advice on the amounts of products that can be harvested at sustainable levels. Some feel that governmental involvement opens up the door to political intrigue – lobbying and such – and producers and associations do get involved in the process of actually setting Total Allowable Catches (TACs). As their livelihoods and the livelihoods of their workers and the communities depend on the industry it makes sense to keep them at the bargaining table.

Additionally, the term sustainable in some instances addresses issues that have nothing really to do with the health of the targeted stock. For instance a stock can be harvested sustainably – below the level of replenishment – but the fishing process may capture other fishes swimming along with the targeted stock, a situation known as by-catch. Or the gear can cause havoc with the actual physical environment – picture a heavy chain being raked across a slow-growing coral formation.

It can be even more confusing if one considers aquaculture, the farming of commercial species. Aquaculture is by nature sustainable, at least when defined in the simplest terms (Aquaculture will also soon be addressed by Ask Deep Blue).

So what is a shopper to do when standing in front of a counter ready to buy a fish for supper?

Well of course the first thing is to stay informed, which can be hard as we are all it seems staying informed on a myriad of topics. Good advice is to seek out a trusted seafood specialist (fishmonger, etc.) who can advise you on your purchase (“trusted” is the key word here). Reputable dealers are well trained, regulated by applicable governing bodies, receive a great deal of information about issues affecting the industry, and keep abreast of seafood related news.

Over the last few years independent groups have been established to do the monitoring for you. Friend of the Sea (FOS) and the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) are the two leading independent sustainability certification bodies world-wide. Deep Blue officially endorses and works with FOS, but we will be unbiased here. These groups study stock levels and the collateral issues mentioned above and place their logo on products which have been examined by independent auditors and found to be in compliance with sustainability criteria. If you see the logo then you know that experts have looked into it for you and found everything to be ok. More and more products are coming onboard, and more and more producers are seeing the benefits of signing on to these programs. Again ask your seafood specialist about buying certified products. The more folk who ask, the more they will respond.


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