Fishy ‘Eco’ Seafood Labels Investigated

You hear it all the time, “fish is good for you.” It’s heart healthy, contains essential fatty acids like Omega-3’s and it’s leaner than other meats. Perhaps you even imagine your meal came via a quiet little boat with a fishing rod dangling over the edge. But what’s lingering at the other end of that pole is more like a giant mutant man-eating shark — toxic, nutritionally inferior and neatly packaged in deceptively clever marketing.

An ‘eco’ label on fish products can say pretty much whatever the manufacturer wants, as there are currently no public labeling standards on fish. Self-regulating can lead to deceptions as Food & Water Watch just discovered. When examining eco-label certifiers, they found wild fisheries in nearly every case failed Food and Agriculture Organization criteria. Self-regulating in any food industry is risky. The compromises, self-interest and excuses justify all too easily.

In his eye-opening book, The Wal-Mart Effect, author Charles Fishman reveals the state of the seafood industry in America and how the retail giant has led the way in drastically impacting our seafood choices (among many others) — and our risks: “In 1985, the total world farmed-salmon harvest for the year was fifty thousand metric tons. Twenty years later, in 2005, Chile sent ten thousand metric tons, just to the United States, just in January.”

This increase in salmon — the once exotic delicacy now commonplace among many other commercially-raised fish — is produced in conditions not unlike the horrific factory farms we see poisoning the American landscape, except these conditions are underwater. Still, they’re susceptible to filth, disease, and unnatural soy-based diets, causing irreparable damage to the ocean environment and requiring excessive amounts of maintenance and management.

Important and trustworthy sounding organizations including Friends of the Sea, the Marine Stewardship Council, Global Aquaculture Alliance and the forthcoming Aquaculture Stewardship Council all receive criticisms from Food & Water Watch for their leniency in certifying fisheries who have only said they’re going to make improvements without actually doing so, deceptive marketing and labeling practices and strong corporate interest, with some members having stakes in Long John Silver’s and Red Lobster.

Looking for safer seafood options, locavore rules can be applied to fish too. Talking with people, fishers and catchers can help you to find regional sources from smaller operations. Avoid the factory-farmed salmon, the over-fished tuna and other exotic imports, and read Food and Water Watch’s enlightening report.

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image: bryangeek