How Seafood Watch Changed the Conversation around Sustainability
Food service operations are challenged to incorporate sustainability practices into their business while still producing high volumes of food. Companies are now considering what impact their production has on the environment and social systems. While there are many programs out there, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch® has developed trusted guidance for businesses interested in sustainable seafood.
Seafood Watch helps businesses select seafood that is fished or farmed in ways that support a healthy ocean. The program focuses on improving seafood sustainability by raising awareness, advancing policy, partnering with industry and educating consumers and influencers. This approach has proven to be successful and could help your operation become more sustainable as well.
Raising awareness is the first step to making a difference
Twenty years ago, Seafood Watch realized there was a need to raise sustainability awareness after a popular Aquarium exhibition on fishing’s impact on the ocean.
“As part of the exhibit, we placed tabletop tent cards in our cafeteria introducing certain types of seafood to eat and others to avoid. Those cards detailed how certain foods have a significant environmental impact based on how they were fished,” said Brian Albaum, Seafood Watch’s Business Engagement Manager. “People started taking them home. That’s when we realized there was a need and desire for simple sustainability information.”
The Seafood Watch program was launched in 1999: since then they’ve distributed more than 60 million consumer guides and have worked with over 200 zoos, aquariums and nonprofit partners to promote sustainable seafood.
Raising awareness is important because wild fish populations have decreased. Overfishing, ineffective fishing management and consumer consumption habits have played a role in the decline. Take the cod fishery for example. This fishery was once a backbone of the North Atlantic economy, but it completely collapsed in the early 1990s and has shown little sign of recovery two decades later. 1
Find innovative ways to advance policy
Seafood Watch took an innovative approach to sustainability by creating a recommendation system based on a “traffic light” model. They look at whether seafood items are coming from sources that can maintain or increase production without jeopardizing the structure and function of affected ecosystems. They assess the environmental impacts of seafood production, developing a scientific, peer reviewed report before providing a simplified color-rating: green for best choices, yellow for good alternatives or red for items that should be avoided.
“Green-rated seafoods are products we encourage businesses and consumers to use. They are fished or farmed in ways that have minimal environmental impact,” Albaum said. “Yellow-rated seafood products are good alternatives, though there are some concerns with how they are fished or farmed. We still recommend these products if businesses can’t find green options.”
“Red-rated products, on the other hand, we recommend businesses and consumers avoid because of significant environmental issues with their production. Issues may include overfishing or bycatch, which means accidently catching species outside your target. For farmed fish, our assessments consider even more issues, including the impacts waste and chemicals on the environment.”
The 12 members of the Seafood Watch science team manage a large pool of external, global experts. Together, they develop and review Seafood Watch assessments utilizing the best available data.
“Those experts are looking at scientific journals. They’re looking at government and industry reports. They are picking up the phone and calling managers and fish farmers on the ground. They are gathering as much information as they can about the environmental impact associated with fishing farms,” Albaum said. “That information is evaluated against Seafood Watch’s standards, and then a Seafood Watch report is developed. The report includes details of the environmental impact and a numerical score that determines the final color rating.”
Educating influencers helps grow the seafood sustainability conversation
Seafood Watch is committed to educating chefs and culinary professionals about the benefits of seafood sustainability. They also aim to build demand for best choices within the supply chain.
“Businesses have shown they care about sustainability,” Albaum said. “By educating front line staff and vendors in the industry, we’re able to spread awareness even more. That interest is global: We consistently receive inquiries from international purchasers and producers of seafood.”
Strong partnerships optimize the reach of sustainable seafood
The final aspect Seafood Watch focuses on is creating partnerships and relationships with businesses, fishermen, farmers, governments and non-governmental agencies to address environmental and human rights issues. Among them, Seafood Watch partners with Compass Group and Foodbuy to help provide Seafood Watch sustainable seafood options for their customers.
“Our partnership is as valuable for Seafood Watch as we hope it is for Foodbuy,” Albaum said. “They send us accurate sourcing information from the seafood they purchase. If we didn’t have those purchasing details, it would be impossible to determine the ratings.”
While Seafood Watch has many strong partnerships, they remain open to working on future business ventures.
“We’re open to discussions with large-scale buyers of seafood who are looking to get a better handle on their supply chain and want expert guidance on improvements,” Albaum said. “For any company that is looking to engage more deeply — we welcome that conversation with open arms.”
1 The Grand Banks: Where Have All the Cod Gone, National Park Service