Power Marketplace’s public service journalism 💙 Give Now
Food and Drink

Sustainable fishing: What’s the catch?

Marketplace Staff Aug 5, 2010
Food and Drink

Sustainable fishing: What’s the catch?

Marketplace Staff Aug 5, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: Remember when lumber companies started getting “sustainable?” They were marking the ends of their two-by-fours with special stamps that showed they’d been responsibly grown. The tag line, I think, actually was sustainable forestry. Well, the same thing is happening in fishing.

Fisheries and supermarkets are promoting their sustainable credentials. Most recently, the West Coast’s tuna fishing industry. From Oregon Public Broadcasting, Rob Manning reports.

Rob Manning: Mark Schneider has caught all kinds of fish over the last 20 years. He gave up crabbing because hauling in the pots was too hard on his shoulders. And he quit fishing for salmon when there were too few salmon.

MARK SCHNEIDER: The last year we caught fish, there was a small opener in 2006 that we were able to fish just 75 salmon. That was the last time we fished salmon.

So Schneider switched to a more promising catch: albacore tuna.

SCHNEIDER: We actually are a salmon boat trying to be a tuna boat.

So how’s that working for him?

SCHNEIDER: Well, this last trip, we were half-full when we came in. We had six tons, about 12,000 pounds. We fished four days — my wife and myself.

That sounds like a lot of fish. But there are a lot of West Coast albacore in the sea. And that’s a big reason why they’re the first tuna certified by the London-based Marine Stewardship Council.

MSC certification is meant to assure customers that the fish they’re buying were caught in a sustainable manner. In other words, fishermen aren’t driving a species toward extinction and aren’t harming the ecosystem.

That starts with fishermen. But there’s a big middle man.

Fish processing plants cut, separate, and pack the fish, so it’s ready for supermarkets and restaurants. And if processors are handling MSC fish, they need keep sure non-certified fish out of the products labeled as sustainable.

Christa Svensson is with Bornstein Seafood, an MSC-certified processor. She says it took her four months to craft a plan that the Marine Stewardship Council would endorse.

CHRISTA SVENSSON: I had to sit down with everybody and say “How are we going to keep this separate?.”

Svensson says tracking the fish has gotten easier this year, because virtually all Oregon tuna is MSC certified now. She says her company — and West Coast fishermen — saw business opportunities in Europe, where the label is a lot better known.

SVENSSON: Some of it was marketing. How do you gain markets, or what are the opportunities that are out there? And we kind of said “Hey, you know, the sustainable movement isn’t probably going to go away.” You have trends and you have fads.

But unlike the processors, fishing boats didn’t have to change much. That’s because West Coast albacore fishing never relied on “unsustainable” techniques — like nets or long lines used elsewhere.

So then the question is — if the sustainable label isn’t improving practices, what is it doing? Other than adding up to five cents a pound wholesale — and even more, once it gets to the consumer.

MSC’s North America Director Kerry Coughlin says the cost pays for research that backs up claims of sustainability.

KERRY COUGHLIN: Everyone claims they’re fishing sustainably, but are they? It’s all very complex, and while the overall approach can be one that’s generally sustainable, you really can’t know without a thorough scientific assessment, whether it truly is.

Not everyone is sold on the idea, though. Including fisherman Mark Schneider.

SCHNEIDER: Our markets have indicated that they aren’t that interested in supporting a price increase, just to show that there’s a label.

Schneider says the U.S. has good federal guidelines to make sure species aren’t being over-fished. Those rules haven’t kept the southern Oregon salmon Schneider used to fish from declining. But he argues that’s not the fishermen’s fault. He blames dams, pollution and predators, like the hungry sea lions barking outside his boat.

In Astoria, Ore., I’m Rob Manning for Marketplace.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.