Perhaps the most emblematic piece of paper in the sustainable seafood movement is the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch wallet card.
Seafood Watch, a program of the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium, was one of the first off the mark to offer opinions on the sustainability of one fish over the other. The program launched in 1999, and has given over 1,200 recommendations on 350 species, or around 85 percent of the seafood in the US market.
The rankings, though complex and sometimes controversial, have been and continue to be hugely influential. A move from a red "Avoid" to a yellow "Good Alternative" or a green "Best Choice" is significant, and can open a lot of doors for companies selling the fish.
Hundreds of retailers, chefs and foodservice companies have committed to the Seafood Watch guidelines, and several seafood companies have joined as "industry collaborators." That is to say that the Seafood Watch rankings -- and that tiny card in particular -- have significant market power.
But given the convoluted messages on the wallet cards, one could argue the group has too much power, because, well...you know.
Over 60 million guides have been distributed since 1999, around 2.5 million per year. That's a whole lot of trees and, potentially, a whole lot of misinformation.
Even though the wallet cards are only updated every six months, one would assume they for the most part reflect the group's most current online recommendations. But, it would be a stretch to claim that.
An understandably miffed Alaska salmon fisherman brought the latest version of the wallet card to my attention at the Boston Seafood Show, noting that the only "Best Choice"option listed for salmon is from New Zealand (it doesn't tell the consumer whether it's wild or farmed), which I too found puzzling. For starters, as you may or may not know, it's not easy to find New Zealand salmon in stores or on menus across America.
The "Good Alternative" salmon option, which denotes that you can buy a fish but should "be aware there are concerns with how it's caught, farmed or managed," recommends fish from "Canada Pacific & US," meaning a consumer could deduce that Alaska salmon, the very first MSC-certified fishery, would be on the same sustainability level as -- gasp! -- Washington State farmed salmon.
The Seafood Watch has its own recommendations, and since there are dozens of eco-label certifications for Alaska salmon, it defers to those groups' decisions, Seafood Watch Senior Program Manager Ryan Bigelow told me. It almost unanimously backs MSC certifications, but even the most respected eco-labeled fisheries and farms often don’t show up on the guide at all. And while Seafood Watch's choice of assessments are largely driven on volume, Bigelow said, some individual companies that produce small volumes of fish have received ratings. Alaska salmon, meanwhile, isn't scheduled for assessment anytime soon.
It's far from just salmon that's problematic. While Pacific cod is a "Good Alternative"* if it swims in Canada or the United States, cod in Alaska gets maybe a full thumbs up. Last I checked, the US does its best to maintain control of the state and keep it in the union.
Farmed species have it the worst. Salmon raised by Salten Aqua Group in Norway's Skjerstadfjorden is a "Best Choice," but it isn't going to get purchased if a consumer only has the wallet card, which places Norwegian salmon in the "Avoid" column.
Likewise, pangasius, also called basa and swai, should be avoided. But there are plenty of Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) or Best Aquaculture Practices-certified sources. The overwhelming majority of shrimp farmers get the same treatment: any shrimp farmed in Asia is an "Avoid," despite farmers in China, Indonesia, India and Vietnam holding ASC certificates.
Alaska pollock can't be found on the West Coast guide at all, but if the fish is from Russia or trawl-caught in Canada, consumers are advised not to buy it. Other regional guides list pollock harvested by "Canada longlines, gillnets and US" as "Good Alternatives."
Confused yet? I could go on -- and if you really want to get overwhelmed you can go through the recommendations of Seafood Watch's affiliates around the world -- but start with Seafood Watch, look for yourself, and see if it makes any better sense to you than it does to me.
The group's App is updated in real time when a species moves into a new category, and while Bigelow said the group is pushing partners and consumers to download and use it, the card, despite its flaws, is far more effective at starting a conversation around sustainability. Of course, that conversation may be with a server or seafood counter employee that will be equally confused by the guide.
If, as Bigelow told me, the goal is to prompt questions about sustainable seafood, mission accomplished. If the goal is to give consumers clarity to make the sustainable choices -- and that's clearly one of the goals, Bigelow also told me -- the Seafood Watch card fails miserably. And if the card is sowing confusion around the already confusing world of sustainable seafood, it's time to put the wallet cards in the bin -- all 60 million of them.
Any comments, complaints, retaliatory rants, please feel free to Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's note: *An earlier version of this story said all non-Alaska Pacific cod is listed in the “Avoid” list. Only Pacific cod from Russia and Japan are on the Seafood Watch "Avoid" list.