At the New England Aquarium in Boston, Mass., Heather Tausig is leading a project that, until recently, was unimaginable.
A marine policy specialist, Tausig is helping the fifth-largest American grocery chain, Ahold USA, to buy seafood from sources that are environmentally responsible. Based on science and reason, Tausig and Ahold have built a win-win partnership between conservationists and the seafood industry, two parties that for years were irreconcilable.
Depending on who you talk to, the future of our ocean fisheries looks bleak, or just fine. This stark difference of opinion is not because of opposing data; in fact, both sides usually quote the same source to support their claims: A U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization report, “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture,” released in 2002.
“Twenty-five percent of the major marine fish stocks or species groups for which information is available are underexploited or moderately exploited. . . . About 47 percent of the main stocks or species groups are fully exploited and are therefore producing catches that have reached, or are very close to, their maximum sustainable limits. . . . Another 18 percent of stocks or species groups are reported as overexploited. . . . The remaining 10 percent of stocks have become significantly depleted,” states the FAO report.
Pretty straightforward, right?
Wrong. For example, in his recent book, “Outgrowing the Earth,” Lester Brown cites the FAO and concludes that “70 percent of our fisheries are being fished at or beyond their sustainable capacity. As a result, many are in decline and some have collapsed.”
In contrast, Lisa Duchene, writing in Seafood Business, an industry journal, reports that the seafood industry looks at the FAO findings and sees “75 percent of the world’s fish stocks are operating at a sustainable level.”
So where do we stand?
As Duchene asks, “Are the oceans half full or half empty?”
The answer depends on how you view the 47 percent of fisheries that are “fully exploited”: Are these fish stocks being optimally exploited, or are they on the threshold of collapse?
Even marine scientists have doubts. Fish cannot be counted like cows, chickens or soybean acreage, and numerous natural and human impacts affect fish populations. Even the best estimates include some guesstimating.
Last summer, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy reported on the challenge we face: “The cumulative effects of [our] actions threaten the long-term sustainability of our ocean and coastal resources. Through inattention, lack of information, and irresponsibility, we have depleted fisheries, despoiled recreational areas, degraded water quality, drained wetlands, endangered our own health, and deprived many of our citizens of jobs.”
We know the problems; unfortunately, governments still lack the political will to act, so effective conservation policies are years away.
In the meantime, fish stocks are being exploited at ever-increasing rates. Add pollution and climate change to the mix, and it’s clear why forward-looking seafood-industry executives are taking steps now to maintain healthy fish stocks for future generations of consumers and fishermen, both commercial and subsistence.
In 2000, Europe-based Royal Ahold, the parent company of Ahold USA, decided it was time to act, and contacted Tausig, whose title at the New England Aquarium is Director of Conservation for Global Marine Programs. In a recent interview, Tausig explained how she and her team had met with considerable success in bringing together fisheries stakeholders. “The aquarium was involved in marine conservation, but was not seen as an environmental advocacy organization that could not work with fishermen. Ahold approached us with the idea of auditing their seafood species and pushing them toward making better choices,” she said.
“Accountability and traceability were big issues for them, trying to find out where their seafood was coming from. Consumers were starting to ask questions about fish,” Tausig explained.
Ahold USA owns six supermarket chains with 1,600 stores and 20 million customers across the United States. In 2001, Ahold USA and the New England Aquarium reached a cooperation agreement and the aquarium’s EcoSound Project was born. The project team audits fish species individually — a monumental task. They survey scientific literature, talk with scientists and make site visits. They also look at the history and population dynamics of each species; fishery management plans; levels of bycatch (unwanted fish that are caught); the impact of fishing on various habitats; as well as social and public concerns.
“In this partnership, we make recommendations, and though [Ahold is] not obligated to follow these, both sides feel they are benefiting from the relationship. For example, the decision to stop selling Chilean Sea Bass in their stores was made at the management level based on our recommendation,” Tausig said.
Ahold USA is now strategizing with the aquarium to expand the project to other restaurants, food service providers, specialty food stores and supermarket chains.
“By influencing large-scale buying practices at Ahold USA, we can encourage fishermen and fish farmers to make proactive changes in their practices to favor sustainability,” Tausig explained. She and her team are also looking forward to working with other suppliers in the near future.
EcoSound is funded with contributions made to the aquarium by Ahold USA, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the Jessie B. Cox Charitable Trust. Developing the auditing process has taken time, but Tausig feels her team is already advancing the sustainable stewardship of marine resources.
“EcoSound is building powerful incentives for sustainable fishing, rewarding progressive action by business and industry, and encouraging consumers to make purchasing decisions that favor marine conservation. This collaborative partnership has the potential to be one the most focused, effective, and global seafood-sourcing initiatives in the world,” said Tausig.
Unfortunately, too many companies still value short-term profit over long-term viability, choosing to purchase their wild fish from unsustainable suppliers. Nevertheless, consumers can easily make a difference: Just start asking questions — and demanding environmentally responsible seafood.