Ben Shannahan runs The Fish Depot in downtown St. John’s, Newfoundland, one of the world’s ancient fishing meccas.
Shannahan offers a wide variety of fish and seafood at his shop, but if you ask him how many of his customers ask for certified organic seafood, he has a simple answer. “None,” he said. “Not one person in 10 years.”
That’s because organic seafood is new territory, even here in Newfoundland, where seafood farmer Laura Halfyard grew the first crop of certified organic mussels in North America.
Trying to certify seafood from the ocean is not as straightforward as say, certifying organic beef. So the billion-dollar question is: in the ocean, what does “organic” actually mean?
“You are guaranteeing the traceability of that product, so the consumer knows everything from where we collect the seed, right to the market,” Halfyard said.
In order to meet Canada’s organic standard, she said, mussel farmers test the water and the ocean floor. To seed the mussels, they use biodegradable materials like cotton, instead of nylon, and they can’t use packing materials like styrofoam, which damage the environment.
But once they’re harvested, most of these Canadian certified organic mussels end up in one country.
“Seventy or 80 percent of it goes to the U.S.,” Halfyard said. These are fresh mussels, which means they’re on a truck and sold at markets in Boston or other cities within 24 — or maximum 48 — hours.
So these mussels are often labeled organic. But what they aren’t labeled is “USDA Organic.” Patty Lovera is the assistant director of Food and Water Watch, and she said the reason is simple: “We don’t have standards yet for organic seafood products.”
Lovera said that while the U.S. has been debating organic seafood standards for 10 years, American stores have been selling organic fish from every other part of the world. And according to the USDA, that’s left the U.S. playing catch up.
The White House is set to review draft standards later this year. But there’s still one major hold up: farmed salmon.
“We have real concerns about whether we can have organic standards for salmon,” Lovera said. And her group, like many environmental watchdogs, believes that the organic label and the ocean are simply incompatible. They don’t think any ocean-held seafood should ever be labeled organic.
Environmentalists are concerned that countries like Canada and Norway can label their products organic while still using medicine and chemicals to treat organic fish like salmon, albeit in restricted amounts. They’ve also raised concerns that farmed salmon can escape from their ocean pens and carry disease that will infect wild fish. Canada excludes wild fish from its organic standards because its food source can’t be traced.
Lovera said U.S. organic seafood standards when it eventually comes about will likely look a lot like Canada’s.
Back at Shannahan’s Fish Depot in St. John’s, customers pop in for sushi-grade tuna, cod and shrimp. Ginny Ryan has just bought three wild Arctic charr.
“I don’t trust farmed fish,” she said. “I like wild fish. I don’t care whether it’s organic or not.” Arctic charr comes from the cold waters off the coast of Labrador, which Ryan said she trusts implicitly to be clean and pristine.
The White House is set to release its draft proposal as soon as a few months from now, unless it’s yet again kicked back for revisions.
In the meantime, it seems that despite objections from environmental groups, American customers will continue buying organic seafood from other countries.
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