Science, Tech & Environment

Sustainable seafood labels becoming common, but do they mean what they say?

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Shaw’s grocery store in Gloucester Mass displays the Marine Stewardship Council’s eco-approval label along the top of a seafood display case.

On grocery store shelves, organic and sustainable are valuable labels for a product to sport.

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Target, Walmart, and many big supermarket chains have begun offering what they promise is certified sustainable seafood.

When it comes specifically to seafood, the Marine Stewardship Council's symbol, blue, with a white outline of a fish that looks like a check mark, is a sign of green approval.

"We are the world’s leading global standard for sustainability in seafood," said Kerry Coughlin, who works for the MSC.

To earn MSC approval, you must certify that your fish were caught in a way that does not damage the marine ecosystem and not depleting the fishing stock.

"We’re a voluntary, market-driven concept and that’s the beauty of it. Fisheries are motivated to make changes because suppliers like Walmart, like Costco, like Whole Foods are saying, 'we’re not going to be purchasing seafood anymore that isn’t from a certified sustainable fishery.' " Coughlin said.

Jon Williams hauls in crab every day — tens of thousands of pounds. He's been certified by the MSC. In order to get the seal of approval, he had to prove he was not exploiting red crab or damaging their habitat; he had to limit the number of dolphins, turtles and other animals accidentally captured and he had to obey all laws, including over restricted fishing zones. According to Williams, the hardest part was prove that crabs weren't getting smaller over time.

"That would be an alarming trend - if over the years we still catch the 4 million pounds of crab every year, but the size goes down every single year, that’s not sustainable. And that’s for our own protection, we don’t want to start fishing on smaller crab either," he explained.

It took eight years to get the MSC certification, but it doesn't mean he's earning greater profits. Still, he said it's important for his business.

"We’ve seen it happen time and time and time again - this boom-bust fishing, where you over fish, and then the fishery collapses, then it takes years and years and years to rebuild," he said.

Some researchers, however, say the MSC certification process is actually deceptive over-simplification. Jennifer Jacquet, a research scientist at the University of British Columbia, calls the MSC system a "fisheries improvement project."

"They say that their goal is to raise standards over time. But that’s not how they marketed themselves to the consumer. To the consumer they’ve sold this idea that this is the best environmental choice - you are eating something that is guilt free," she said.

Jacquet said the MSC can work hard to turn around large fisheries, and take a lot of time while also potentially limiting the availability of popular seafood, or they can certify a fishery that's not really sustainable and hope, over time, to turn it around.

Jacquet would like to try a different approach with consumers.

"Eat less seafood, eat lower on the marine food web. And those are fish like sardines, herring, mackerel," she said. "The things lower on the food web are more resilient to over-fishing, (have a) faster turn around, a shorter life span."