Fish conservation movement moves to the source

It was 4 a.m. in San Francisco's Fish Alley and Paul Johnson stared with disgust at the 1,000-pound bins stacked to the ceiling with quivering rockfish. Rivers of yellow roe the fish had been spawning coursed into the harbor, where one boat was still unloading and a second circled impatiently to disgorge yet more fish.

"I just remember looking over my shoulder at this 80-year-old Italian I knew, Victor," Johnson said of that morning in the late 1990s. "He just looked at me and said 'What a waste, huh?'"

The founder of the Monterey Fish Market, with stores in San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif., dedicated himself right there to fighting overfishing in his purchasing and sales policies. That was also about the time others began realizing the oceans were in trouble, and several campaigns emerged that urged consumers to choose their fish responsibly. Most visible were the popular wallet cards that list stressed species and recommend certain purchases.

But critics say the efforts have not tangibly affected consumption of troubled species. The movement is now taking a broader approach that considers the way fish habitats are managed, how the fish are caught, and even who is catching them.

Amid reports like one published last year in the journal Science forecasting that the oceans will run out of seafood by 2048, here's the good news: Regular consumers can still make a difference.

The new labeling

The Marine Stewardship Council, a London-based conservation group that certifies sustainable fisheries and suppliers, began offering a label in 2000 that lets consumers know the fish they are buying comes from a responsible source.

2007, use of the label &

a blue oval with a white fish sketch &

has exploded, growing from 500 products to more than 800 worldwide, with 120 in the United States. The label guarantees that the fish comes from stocks that are healthy and plentiful and was caught with minimal impact on the environment in a well-managed habitat.

Each labeled fish is fully traceable to the person or company that caught it. Before a store is allowed to sell fish with the label, it must prove to MSC that it can properly manage the product and keep it separate from fish that have not met the same standards.

"It's becoming more and more important to people," MSC spokesman James Simpson said of the rapid growth. "How do you choose sustainable fish? You want to know there's been a bunch of serious scientists working on this really hard, so rather than having to learn a whole lot about this, or carry a card with you, you can know that someone else has done the research."

Some corporate giants have responded. Wal-Mart, for example, began offering sustainable seafood last year and plans to exclusively market fully sustainable species within the next seven years. Since 2002, McDonalds has shifted roughly a third of the 50,000 metric tons of whitefish it buys annually to fisheries it considers better and healthier, say company executives.

"We've had some issues of fish availability in the past because of unsustainability," said McDonald's vice president of corporate social responsibility Bob Langert. "We want to have fish 25 years from now."

Many sustainability advocates say the only way to achieve long term and faster impacts is to build on this corporate awareness, and shift the burden from consumers to the companies catching, buying and selling fish.

Know your fish dishes

Some say consumers are reluctant to switch to eating fish species in good condition because they are unfamiliar with them or intimidated by their reputation.

That's why Johnson this summer published "Fish Forever," a cookbook and guide to understanding and preparing seafood such as sardines, mackerel and squid.

"The reason we've got so many salmon and shrimp farms is we all want the same old thing," Johnson said, noting that those are often the only items people know how to cook. "That's why I put simple, easy-to-do recipes in there."

Restaurants are an important place to influence the situation: Nearly 70 percent of all fish eaten in the United States is eaten at restaurants, said Washington, D.C. chef Barton Seaver, who opened his 100 percent sustainable seafood restaurant Hook in April.

Just as chefs helped create the overfishing of certain species by promoting them to consumers, many acknowledge they can reverse trends by showing consumers that better choices can be tasty, too.

"You can't say 'Don't eat Chilean sea bass, eat anchovies,'" said 28-year-old Seaver, who includes a pamphlet from the Blue Ocean Institute with each check. "It's not going to work unless you show them that it can be great."

And if you want lots of detailed information on the fish themselves &

before they became dinner &

more than a dozen government and environmental Web sites offer information about which fish and habitats are in crisis, including FishWatch, a new site run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Support the best efforts

Many sustainability advocates are also rejecting blanket boycotts, saying that many fishing operations are working hard to recover their species, and their efforts should be rewarded with steady business. In addition, they argue that big spending clients are the only ones who have the clout to successfully pressure these fisheries for change.

"If you as a consumer just say no and all your friends say no, it's not enough to matter," said Mark Powell, vice president for fish conservation at the Washington, D.C.-based Ocean Conservancy. "We're trying to build a new model. We're saying don't reject unsustainable fish, roll up your sleeves and help us fix the unsustainable fisheries."

Instead, advocates encourage consumers to seek out and patronize retailers who are buying responsibly.

Companies like Chicago-based seafood wholesaler Plitt Seafood Company have begun doing just that. Rather than purge their inventory of Chilean sea bass or Atlantic cod or other fish on the "avoid" list, in the last few years Plitt has used its economic muscle to try to force change in troubled fisheries.

"If people can't buy imported shrimp from us they're going to buy it from someone else," said Plitt's marketing director Mary Smith.

Already, Smith said, there has been some success in red snapper fisheries, where letters from Plitt to government officials helped reduce the amount of fish anglers are allowed to catch. In addition, Plitt buys its red snapper as well as other species, like Alaskan salmon, only from specific, individual fishermen that it believes are environmentally responsible.

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