Environmental Defense Fund Partners with Gulf Fishermen to Launch Gulf Wild™ Seafood Assurance Program

Gulf Wild


In a bold effort to restore consumer confidence in Gulf of Mexico seafood, EDF is working with a group of forward-looking Gulf fishermen and other conservation and fishery improvement organizations to launch a new seafood assurance campaign called Gulf Wild™. The Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance, a trade organization of fishermen in the individual fishing quota (IFQ) catch share program for Gulf red snapper and grouper, developed Gulf Wild™ in collaboration with EDF to help consumers, chefs, and retailers identify responsibly managed, safety-inspected, authentic Gulf seafood that can be tracked directly to its source.

Shareholders’ Alliance president and Gulf fisherman David Krebs announced Gulf Wild™ earlier this week at the opening of the 2011 International Boston Seafood Show. Krebs said one of the current challenges that Shareholders’ Alliance fishermen face today is “educating conscientious consumers and chefs about the conservation measures we are undertaking, and showing them how these measures are helping species like Gulf grouper and Gulf red snapper.” 

Red snapper and grouper on ice, each with the small blue and white Gulf Wild tag attached to the gill.

Gulf Wild™ fish labeled with a sequentially numbered gill tag, which is trackable on mygulfwild.com.

Gulf Wild™ requires participating fishermen to verify that the fish were caught in a sustainable manner under a unique set of “Conservation Covenants”, which guarantee conscientious harvesting. Additionally, Gulf Wild™ fishermen have already been operating under a red snapper IFQ program since 2007 to better manage the fishery.

With that IFQ in place, Krebs said, “Gulf red snapper is moving from a ‘red-listed’ fishery to a more sustainable one.”  Since the inception of the red snapper IFQ, overfishing has ended, wasteful discards have dropped by 80%, and fishermen have seen a 40 percent increase in the total allowable catch.

Key to the Gulf Wild™ program is a tracking system that allows the buyer to “find my fish.” Each Gulf Wild™ fish is marked with a sequentially numbered gill tag just minutes after it is brought on board, whose unique credentials are uploaded to the web when the catch reaches shore. That information is made public via myGulfWild.com, where you can enter the unique tag number and confirm the fish species, catch location, landing port, and even information about the vessel and its captain.

Finally, in direct response to consumer concerns stemming from the BP oil disaster, Gulf Wild™ incorporates a stringent safety-testing protocol that goes above and beyond federal requirements. An independent international testing laboratory will routinely sample Gulf Wild™ fish to test for oil-based contaminants such as PAHs, dispersants, and heavy metals.

To start, Gulf Wild™ tags are now on Gulf red snapper and grouper, with more than a dozen species from the IFQ catch share program to follow. We will continue to expand and improve upon Gulf Wild™ in the months to come, in partnership with an advisory panel of respected experts from the culinary, food safety, public health, conservation, and seafood marketing communities.

I am excited about the Gulf Wild™ project for a number of reasons. First, it highlights the efforts of a rebounding fishery that has transitioned to more sensible management and made notable environmental and economic gains as a result. Second, it shows that there are success stories to be told in the wake of last summer’s BP oil disaster. Last, but not least, Gulf Wild™ can serve as a model for other fisheries around the country as a way of building consumer confidence while creating new market value at the same time.

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Alaska Pollock Remains Good Seafood Choice Despite Current Challenges

Today the Monterey Bay Aquarium – with whom Environmental Defense Fund partners on its Seafood Selector – updated its popular Seafood Watch pocket guides. A number of new and revised rankings were part of the update, including the first-ever farmed salmon to reach the ‘Green’ (Best Choice) list.

Perhaps the most notable new ranking is for Alaska pollock, which was moved from ‘Green’ (Best Choice) to ‘Yellow’ (Good Alternative). If you’ve never heard of pollock, it’s related to cod and is actually the fourth most popular seafood item in America. It’s the whitefish used in fish sticks, fish filet sandwiches, and surimi (imitation crab meat). Pollock is the largest fishery in the United States (and the largest food-fish fishery in the world), with annual catches averaging two billion pounds.

Some people may interpret the ‘Good Alternative’ ranking to mean that the Alaska pollock is no longer sustainable. Rather, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s new report, which took more than a year to write, highlights some environmental challenges facing the fishery, but ultimately concludes that pollock is still a good choice for both seafood consumers and businesses. (This fact was confirmed yesterday when the pollock fishery was recommended for re-certification to the Marine Stewardship Council).

Here’s a brief outline of Monterey Bay Aquarium’s findings:

1. Pollock biology
The good news: Pollock mature quickly, are short-lived and reproduce often, making them resilient to fishing pressure. Important spawning areas are also off-limits to fishing.

2. Status of pollock stocks
The good news: pollock populations are not overfished, and are still considered healthy;
The bad news: they have steadily declined from all-time highs earlier this decade. The stock is also influenced by changing environmental conditions, and climate change is affecting the Bering Sea faster than many other places on Earth.
Outlook: Fishing quotas have been reduced in each of the last four years to account for less pollock, and the latest projections show the stock rebounding by 2012.

3. Bycatch
The good news: the pollock fishery is one of the ‘cleanest’ – averaging less than 1% bycatch relative to overall catch.
The bad news: bycatch of chinook salmon – a commercially and culturally important species in coastal Alaskan communities – steadily increased from 2001-2007, peaking at 120,000 fish.
Outlook: the pollock industry instituted a voluntary bycatch avoidance program in 2008 that helped reduce salmon bycatch by more than 80% in just two years. Additional regulations are scheduled to go into effect in 2011.

4. Habitat & ecosystem impacts
The good news: the latest government study concluded that groundfish fisheries (including pollock) have only minimal and temporary impacts on the Bering Sea floor.
The bad news: the study also showed that midwater pollock trawls contact the bottom more than originally thought (~44% of the time), which reduces sensitive habitat features in parts of the Bering Sea. There are also concerns about the effect of the fishery on Steller sea lions and northern fur seals.
Outlook: The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has closed sensitive areas to pollock fishing in an effort to protect bottom habitats and important marine mammal sites. Additionally, new science will continue to identify sensitive areas in need of protection.
5. Management
The good news: the pollock fishery is managed by one of the strongest catch share management systems in the world. It is well-equipped to tackle conservation challenges quickly and effectively, and features a number of characteristics shared by few others:

  • The pollock fleet regularly catches less than their quota, meaning that in many years, they intentionally leave millions of pounds of fish in the water;
  • The North Pacific Council has set the Total Allowable Catch at or below the levels recommended by its scientific advisory body every year since 1977;
  • Most pollock vessels have 100% observer coverage – which is paid for by industry – minimizing the government’s cost to effectively manage this fishery;
  • The cooperative nature of the pollock fleet means they can share information and respond to environmental issues – such as salmon bycatch – in real-time (as opposed to the slower nature of the Council process);
  • The pollock management plan features a number of protections for the marine ecosystem at-large, including a provision to ensure that pollock populations are large enough to provide adequate food for marine mammals and other predators;
  • The management system and the pollock industry cooperatively collect an unprecedented amount of scientific information about the fishery and the marine ecosystem. These data are used for stock assessments, monitoring quotas and bycatch, assessing habitat and ecosystem impacts, and improving the conservation and management of marine resources in Alaska.

The bottom line is that pollock remains a sustainable seafood choice for both consumers and businesses. The fishery has demonstrated unparalleled sustainability leadership in the past and is well-positioned to address new environmental issues. Their innovative catch share management system is more responsive than conventional approaches, meaning they can identify and address issues as they arise (as opposed to most fisheries, which often find out once it’s too late). Finally, all Monterey Bay Aquarium and Environmental Defense Fund seafood rankings are updated as new information emerges, meaning any changes in the pollock fishery will quickly be reflected in future assessments.

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Seafood Choices, Helpful Tools from EDF and Monterey Bay Aquarium

Salmon steak with tomatoes and limeLast week, as part of its 25th anniversary celebration, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program released a report entitled, “Turning the Tide: The State of Seafood.” It outlines the challenges and opportunities facing the global seafood industry, and how consumers, businesses and policy makers in North America can make a difference in the health of our oceans.
One piece of the report that was covered extensively, was the creation of a “Super Green” list of seafood choices, which are both fished or farmed responsibly AND good for your health. I worked with the Aquarium over the last several months to develop and refine this list based on EDF’s extensive research on the topic. Here are the best choices that we identified:

  • Albacore Tuna (from the U.S. or British Columbia)
  • Mussels (farmed)
  • Oysters (farmed)
  • Pacific Sardines
  • Pink Shrimp (from Oregon)
  • Rainbow Trout (farmed)
  • Salmon (from Alaska)
  • Spot Prawns (from British Columbia)

A second tier of good choices with slightly lower, but still beneficial levels of omega-3s includes Arctic char, farmed bay scallops, U.S. crawfish, Dungeness crab, U.S. longfin squid, and longline-caught Pacific cod from Alaska.
Too often the debate around this issue is portrayed as black and white – either that all seafood is healthy and should be consumed whenever possible, or that it’s all contaminated and we should get our omega-3s from sources other than fish. Well we now know that that doesn’t have to be the case. You can still enjoy the health benefits of seafood consumption, while minimizing your exposure to contaminants and supporting responsible fisheries and aquaculture operations. Now that’s a win-win for everyone.
For everything you could ever want to know about your favorite types of fish (including fishing/farming practices, biological information, nutritional content, recipes and consumption advisories), visit EDF’s Seafood Selector. And for up-to-the-second information on all things-fish related, follow me on Twitter @hawaiifitz.

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Good Advice for Seafood Lovers

Tim Fitzgerald is an oceans scientist for EDFEver stare at the seafood counter and wonder where all that fish comes from? Maybe not, but I do, and a new article in Martha Stewart’s Body+Soul magazine wades through some other issues that might be on your mind – overfishing, fish farming, omega-3s and mercury.

Although the article sugar coats a few things (e.g. wild fish generally being a safe, sustainable option – not true), it contains some good advice. First and foremost – get to know the people that sell you fish. They can be your best ally in making good choices and are often a wealth of knowledge.

Second, don’t be afraid to ask questions like, ‘Where is this fish from?’, ‘Is it farmed or wild?’, etc. This will help steer you in the right direction.

Third, its OK not to know all the answers. The seafood market is a big, confusing place. Luckily EDF’s Seafood Selector has done the hard work for you, and provides clear guidance on what fish are healthy for you and the oceans. Its available online, in print, and optimized for mobile devices.

Our oceans are in trouble, and seafood lovers are on the front lines of the crisis. Making smart choices at the fish counter (and in restaurants) can go a long way towards revitalizing our critical marine ecosystems.

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