Baltimore — Controversy might surround the seafood industry like a giant net, but that doesn't mean retailers can't find ways to use the current situation as a chance to escape ho-hum sales.
“Seafood is the most complex category of them all,” said Henry Lovejoy, president of EcoFish, a Dover, N.H.-based company that sells sustainable species. “That's because it's the last wild-harvested one of all the categories.”
Lovejoy, along with Rebecca Goldburg, senior scientist for Environmental Defense, made comments regarding sustainable seafood issues during an educational seminar at Natural Products Expo East here.
The issues facing seafood are daunting: Overfishing, contamination, aquaculture and general quality have increasingly challenged sales, particularly in the retail environment, where consumers are already leery of spending a lot of money on a protein few know how to cook at home.
Yet, overall sales continue to grow, propelled in large part by the good news that keeps surfacing about the health benefits of seafood consumption. The activity, in turn, has helped mainstream ecological initiatives like the protection of fisheries, stronger government specifications and new efforts to reduce contamination levels in some species.
“Challenges are opportunities,” said Lovejoy, who markets his retail line under the name Henry & Lisa's Natural Seafood.
Implementing a certified organic program for seafood will eventually become a reality, though whether there will ever be a way to cover all species remains up in the air. Goldburg, a former member of the National Organic Standards Board and currently part of a working group for aquaculture standards, said that the number of fish farms has grown considerably in a short period of time.
“Almost one-half of the seafood consumed around the world today is farmed,” she said, adding that wild seafood can never be considered for the organic label, so the emphasis has turned to aquaculture. Key controversies preventing organic certification include feed sources, open net pens and disease control, among others. Although the working group did issue draft standards for mollusks in July, it has yet to move forward on fin fish.
To help the process along, the NOSB has scheduled a symposium on aquaculture for next month, with recommendations likely by spring 2008, though the U.S. Department of Agriculture will have to approve any NOSB proposals before they go into effect,” Goldburg said.
“Some systems may not be ready for certification,” she said. A number of experts involved in the debate have begun wondering aloud whether certification is possible for all species, Goldburg conceded.
What can retailers do in the meantime? Plenty, according to Ecofish's Lovejoy. They can elect to sell organic seafood certified by European entities such as Germany's Naturland, though such labeling would require more involved educational efforts; they could choose not to sell any seafood certified as organic, regardless of source, until the USDA approves standards. On that point, retailers in California have no choice — the state has banned the sale of any seafood item labeled organic until the USDA program is in place, Lovejoy noted.
Supermarkets also have a number of resources to tap in the educational efforts. Environmental Defense, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Blue Ocean Institute and FishWise all have consumer-friendly guidance available, that includes a variety of pocket-size pamphlets that shoppers can use to make responsible seafood purchases while they are physically at the seafood case.
Lovejoy and Goldburg stressed that if consumers are trying to follow sustainable living, then retailers have to as well. In the seafood department, that means purchasing responsibly and taking earnest steps to communicate with consumers.
“Do your homework and support responsible brands,” said Lovejoy.