For the last 18 months, I led Digital Marketing in Canada for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). And, as fellow Canadian Nelly Furtado said: “all good things come to an end” (in other words I was a maternity leave cover, and my contract has expired). Here’s what I think everyone should know about seafood sustainability– from someone who dove headfirst into the ocean of seafood sustainability.
1. Some Ecolabels Are Better Than Others – Here's What That Means for You
Let’s be real for a second...you’ve likely seen hundreds of ecolabels (logos on products intended to let us know they are sustainable, eco-friendly, organic, etc.), but do you know what every ecolabel represents? I sure don’t! There are 112 ecolabels in Canada. In addition to these 112 ecolabels, there are also a multitude of brand-led sustainability claims (not always verified or verifiable), ratings, and recommendations – arguably few of which have the rigor or credibility required to meet the claims they’re making. But how would you, the everyday consumer, know that?
“No one should have to become an expert in sustainability claims simply to buy dinner,” says UBC Professor Dr. Hammish van der Ven.
I agree with Dr. van der Ven! The onus is far too high on us consumers. Unfortunately, the only solution I can provide is to be conscious that not all ecolabels are equal and to research the ecolabels you see to determine if their sustainability claims align with what you are seeking. More importantly if they actually measure and report their impacts. Just because a label looks sustainable, doesn’t mean the product actually is.
The Canadian Government recommends being vigilant of greenwashing claims and weary of vague marketing environmental claims that are not supplemented by supporting context or facts. Still, without regulations around sustainability claims, it’s easy for consumers to feel like they’re drowning in a sea of greenwashing claims. To help keep you afloat, I recommend looking into the ISEAL online guide, Challenge the Label. This resource can help you decipher an ecolabel’s credibility. I wish there was a more straightforward solution, but by at least being aware that not all ecolabels have equal environmental impact, you can be a better informed consumer (and sustainability advocate).
2. The Ocean-To-Plate Journey is WAY More Complex Than You'd Expect (Seafood is THE most Traded Food Commodity in the World!)
You know fish don’t swim their way to the grocery store, but do you know how they get there? The seafood supply chain can be incredibly complex, which leaves room for errors that can result in seafood fraud.
Seafood fraud is the misrepresentation of a seafood product as something it’s not. In other words, the package says one thing, but the contents are something else. Some examples include the mislabeling of the species or weight, or the false labelling of origin. It could also mean that the packaging says it came from a sustainable fishery, when it did not. I was impressed to learn that, according to DNA sampling, there is a less than 1% chance that seafood products with the MSC blue fish label are mislabeled.
The reason the risk of seafood fraud in products that carry the MSC blue fish label is so low is because the MSC is the only global, wild-caught seafood sustainability certification that has a ‘Chain of Custody’ (CoC) Standard. The MSC CoC Standard means that every company in the supply chain is accountable and its practices are independently audited – unlike many other programs that rely on tactics such as an honor system. For the average MSC certified sustainable fish, this journey looks like:
- Fish (and other seafood) is fished from oceans, lakes or rivers – sustainably, of course!
- Every buyer, seller, processor and packer in the supply chain is MSC CoC certified, keeps it separate from non-certified seafood and maintains the traceability of the product.
- Retailers and restaurants that handle/sell fresh fish also have to be MSC CoC certified to use the MSC label at their fish counter or on menu.
- Lots of retailers without MSC CoC certification can sell a variety of (tamper-proof) packaged seafood products with the MSC label – they don’t need it because they can’t alter or swap the seafood in the package.
- Seafood is added to your grocery cart.
- You prepare the seafood into a delightful fish dish that you thoroughly enjoy. Because nothing tastes as good as sustainability!
The MSC CoC Standard requirements greatly reduce the risk of accidental product swaps, plus it helps you know that when you choose products with the MSC blue fish label, they actually come from a certified sustainable fishery.
You may never know how the chicken crossed the road, but with the MSC blue fish label, you can understand how your seafood got to the grocery store (and rest assured that you are getting the species you paid for).
3. Any Fishing Gear Can be Used Sustainably (Within reason – obviously explosives and poison are not allowed within the MSC program)
Part of my role at the MSC was community management which means that I monitored comments on our social media channels. I quickly learned that there are a lot of misconceptions about fishing gear types and sustainability. The MSC is gear agnostic because it’s not the type of gear that is used that determines its sustainability, it’s how, where, and how often the gear is used.
Let’s examine the use of trawling (which, spoiler – yes trawling can be a sustainable fishing method). Trawling is when a net is dragged along the ocean floor to catch different species. Despite the very common myths about trawling, its impact on biodiversity is not as large as you may think.
Trawling has changed drastically since the 1980s and there are many different improvements and advancements in technology that have made this method of fishing more sustainable. Trawls today glide above seafloors to reduce direct contact with bottom habitats, and some fisheries are exploring mounting deep-sea cameras to the net so that trap doors can eject unwanted species (read more about these improvements). These types of improvements, in combination with effective fisheries management, are key determinants in trawling being sustainable.
It’s also worth noting that terrestrial food production (a fancy way of saying food harvested on land) has a larger net negative impact on environmental biodiversity than trawling. Sustainable Fisheries UW states that terrestrial food production has been the largest driver of biodiversity loss since the last asteroid. Once land is cleared for crops or livestock, more than 90% of native biota are eliminated. Meanwhile, most trawled benthic ecosystems retain 90% of their pre-trawled state.
Sustainable Fisheries UW also found that replacing all bottom trawled seafood with chicken would require land clearing roughly the size of South Dakota. Replacing with beef would require twice the size of Mexico. Replacing with a typical livestock mix of 30% beef, 33% pork, and 37% chicken would need a whole Mongolia. Isn’t that some (sea)food for thought!
4. You Can Cook Some Fish from Frozen
So, I’ll admit this fact isn’t specific to MSC certified sustainable fish, but I did think it was worth mentioning. I often would see comments on our social media pages (shameless social media plug) suggesting seafood is difficult to prepare, expressing confusion about how to cook seafood, etc. During my time at the MSC (which coincided with me moving out of my parents’ home for the first time), I learned through various influencer collaborations, and from Chef Charlotte Langley herself, that cooking seafood is super easy. And depending on the species, it can require minimal planning and effort – I don’t know about you, but that’s my type of protein!
I reached out to Chef Charlotte Langley to share some tips for cooking fish from frozen. From the seafood queen herself…
“When it comes to cooking fish from frozen, go for those thick fillets or fish steaks to ensure they cook evenly. I always emphasize sourcing your fish from MSC certified fisheries because sustainability matters. Now, onto cooking – remember, frozen fish typically takes about 50% longer to cook than fresh. I love baking it in the oven or giving it a good pan-sear, and if you've got thicker cuts, grilling is a great choice too. Poaching and steaming are gentler methods that work well. Don't be shy about spicing things up; experiment with various spices, seasonings, and tantalizing marinades to make it your own. Cooking frozen fish patiently and following these tips will reward you with a convenient and incredibly delicious meal.”
Hungry for more tips on cooking seafood? Check out our How to Cook Seafood Guide.
5. Our Bodies Absorb Nutrients from Seafood Better than Some Vegetables
This fact blew me out of the water. Research has shown that, when consumed in seafood, nutrients such as zinc, iron, vitamins A and B12, and omega-3 fatty acids (all of which are essential for our health) are better absorbed and utilized by our bodies than nutrients from vegetables and food supplements (mind blown!). Furthermore, seafood is literally brain food (double mind blown!).
Bonus fact: Eating wild caught seafood results in less than one tenth the amount of carbon dioxide associated with red meat. Some fish also has a lower carbon footprint than cheese or chicken. And, certain seafoods, including small fish such as herring, mackerel and sprat have lower carbon emissions than rice and corn.
Science suggests that eating seafood is better for our mental and physical health and, depending on our seafood choices, the environment. I love this science! Could you imagine a world where people prioritize their health AND the environment?! Certified sustainable seafood for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, please! Or, if you’re not as far into your seafoodie journey as I am, start with incorporating certified sustainable seafood into one meal a week. Below are some seafood beginner recipes to help you get started:
- Chef Charlotte Langley’s Seafood Ramen with Tinned Smoked Tuna
- Chef Charlotte Langley’s Fish “Grinder” Sando
- Easy Fish Tacos with Herbed Slaw
- Chef Charlotte Langley’s Rice Paper “Dumplings” with Coldwater Shrimp, Cabbage, and Kimchi
- Sheet Pan Everything but the Bagel Salmon
One Organization Can't Do It All
After the last 18 months, I can say with certainty that there is a lot of science and hard work behind the MSC blue fish label. However, no matter how much work one organization does, it can’t do it all. And, that’s a good thing! It’s better to have a robust program focusing on one thing than it is to lightly touch on a variety of issues...especially in the case of seafood sustainability! The seafood industry is incredibly complex and requires very specific expertise to navigate. It has taken the MSC 25 years of working with fisheries, scientists, industry, government, and other NGOs to achieve 15% of global catch being certified sustainable – effectively creating positive waves of change for our ocean is a BIG job!
As someone who considers myself to be a conscious consumer, there are many other ocean-related issues that I think are equally as important as sustainable fishing. Below I have linked some resources that you can look to if you want to continue being an ocean advocate beyond your dietary choices.
- Seafood Gender and Equality (SAGE) promotes gender equality within the seafood industry through uplifting and amplifying diverse voices. SAGE also has a podcast, listen to the episode interviewing MSC Regional Americas Program Director, Erika Feller here.
- 4Ocean is dedicated to ending the ocean plastics crisis. You can take action today through purchasing one of their bracelets made from 100% recycled plastic and steel. PLUS for every bracelet sold, 5 pounds of trash is removed from the world’s oceans, rivers, and coastlines.
- Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL) works to protect coral reefs across the globe (check out their impacts here). If you are keen on protecting coral reefs, I suggest checking out this online resource to determine if your sunscreen is reef safe.
- World Wildlife Fund (WWF) works towards building a future where people live in harmony with nature. Join the community of over 11 million activists and get involved by checking out this resource webpage.
On a final note, I feel like I wouldn’t be doing my job as a Digital Marketer if I didn’t plug our social media channels. You can stay up to date with all things sustainable seafood by following @MSCBlueFish on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Oh! And if you’re hooked on sustainability, sign up for our bimonthly newsletter.