Watching Seafood Watch: Can consumers help save marine life?

In 1997, the good folks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium printed up table cards for their cafeteria explaining which species of seafood they served and why. Then a funny thing happened. Visitors took the cards home. They wanted to rethink their own fish buying.

Thus was born the idea for Seafood Watch, the wallet-sized cards and smartphone app that recommend which seafood to buy or avoid. Launched in 1999, the program is, by some metrics, a big success.

Seafood Watch has distributed more than 52 million printed consumer guides since then. The app has been downloaded more than 1.5 million times. More than 200 restaurants have become Seafood Watch partners, as have ARAMARK and Compass Group, the nation’s two largest food service organizations; that means they have pledged to sell only seafood deemed environmentally responsible by Seafood Watch’s respected and rigorous ratings. Whole Foods Market is also guided by Seafood Watch.

Perhaps most important, Seafood Watch has changed the conversation about fish. As Julie Packard, the executive director of the aquarium, recently put it: “There’s really been a dramatic shift in our public understanding of seafood.”

And yet.

Seafood Watch’s own website says:

With more fishing capacity on our oceans than at any time in history, some 90 percent of the world’s fisheries are fully fished or in decline.

One example:

The breeding population of Pacific bluefin tuna is now at only four percent of its original size, and decline will continue without significant, immediate management changes.

Oceana, an oceans advocacy group, has a similar message:

Overfishing is rapidly depleting many of the world’s fish populations. The global fish catch peaked in the late 1980’s and has been declining ever since.

The problems with aquaculture, meantime, are well documented. They range from pollution and disease to the exploitation of slave labor on shrimp farms in Asia.

All of which leads me to wonder. Is Seafood Watch helping to save marine life? Or is its work a drop in the bucket?

Possibly, both. The truth is, it’s hard to know. Last month, I participated in the aquarium’s annual Sustainable Foods Institute, a gathering of scientists, business people, chefs, food experts and reporters, and talked with Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, the longtime executive director of Seafood Watch, about how the organization measures its impact.

It’s not easy to do, she acknowledged.

How to measure success

“I want to move us beyond storytelling to demonstrating real change,” she said. “If we don’t start proving that this is working, I don’t know if businesses will stick around.”

There’s reason to believe that Seafood Watch is making a difference. Had Seafood Watch not raised consumer awareness, it’s hard to imagine that big US retailers like Walmart, Kroger’s and Safeway would have adopted seafood sustainability policies, as they have. The aquarium works with some of America’s most celebrated chefs to promote ocean-friendly seafood choices. Collectively, Seafood Watch and other NGOs have taught Americans to, at the very least, think about the seafood they eat.

Twenty-three percent of Americans say that “when shopping in a grocery store or market, a member of my household regularly uses a program or guide to help choose healthy seafood,” according to a 2014 study done for the aquarium by Impacts Research that was shared with me by Seafood Watch. If those shoppers do as they say–a big if–that bloc should be enough to influence big retailers and, ultimately, their suppliers.

“We’ve got to keep the issue salient and top of mind with consumers to motivate businesses,” says Kemmerly.

At the suggestion of Seafood Watch, I emailed several fish suppliers to see if they thought consumer preferences for sustainably caught seafood could help protect ocean life.

Matt Owens, director of environmental policy at Trimarine, one of the world’s largest tuna companies, which supports Seafood Watch and the Marine Stewardship Council, replied:

We have seen that support rewarded in the market. While the long-term health of the ocean is critical to the long-term viability of the seafood industry, consumer demand provides economic incentives that can speed up the adoption of more sustainable fishing practices and better enforcement of current management measures.

Bill Cole, president of Blue Circle Foods, which says it is dedicated to “responsible seafood” and sources salmon farmed in Norway and tuna from the Maldives, told me:

I’ve worked with wholesale seafood for the last 10 years, and I would say Seafood Watch, and really all of the science based ratings systems, have elevated customer knowledge which in turn leads producers towards a more sustainable path.

I also reached out to Paul Greenberg, the author of Four Fish and American Catch, two excellent books about seafood. In Four Fish, Paul cited a 2004 study indicating that Seafood Watch had limited effect on fishing practices and went on to say:

In defense of Seafood Watch, I don’t believe that the program’s innovators thought seafood-advisory cards would actually change fish-consumption patterns. First and foremost, the ratings cards were conceived of as tools for public education. Prior to their introduction, relatively few people knew about the overfishing of bluefin tuna, the negative effects of farming Atlantic salmon, or even the existence of good fishing practices and bad ones.

By email, Paul added:

I’d venture that without Seafood Watch a lot of businesses, restaurants and government agencies would just go about their business as they choose without any moral compass at all. It’s good to have Watch watching in the end.

Fair enough. So what are my reservations? First, I’m skeptical about the power of the so-called green consumer. People tell pollsters that they want to shop responsibly, but few do. As Joel Makower of GreenBiz put it in a sobering 2013 column:

With the exception of some energy-saving devices, no green product has captured more than a tiny slice of the marketplace, at least in the U.S.
Think about it: No environmentally preferable car, carpet, cleaner, cosmetic, clothing, coffee, credit card or cell phone has captured more than 2 percent of its respective market.

This raises questions about Seafood Watch’s consumer-facing work.

A global problem

Second, even if masses of US consumers follow Seafood Watch’s recommendations and avoid, say, bluefin tuna and shrimp farmed in Asia, sellers can find buyers elsewhere, particularly in Asia. By 2030, roughly 70 percent of fish will be consumed in Asia, according to a World Bank report. Like fighting climate change, protecting the oceans requires a coordinated global effort.

The Seafood Watch people have, not surprisingly, thought about all this. Increasingly, they work with companies that take a long term view of their self-interest and want to assure a sustainable supply of seafood. North American retailers with seafood commitments to Seafood Watch or to other standard-setting NGOs now account for 86 percent of the US market, the group says. “We have powerful businesses engaged,” Kemmerly said. Hence, Seafood Watch is less dependent on fickle consumers.

Seafood Watch is also going global. The organization recently got what it calls a “transformational” $10-million, five-year grant from the family foundation of Eric and Wendy Schmidt to expand the international scope of its work. Seafood Watch is already working with governments in southeast Asia to improve aquaculture practices.

My takeaways: I’m an admirer of the aquarium and Seafood Watch. I’m pretty sure they are making a difference. I’d like to see more evidence. Maybe there are better ways–policy advocacy? buying up catch shares? campaigns focusing on small-scale fishers?–to protect ocean life. It’s hard to know. And that’s a shame.

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Originally published at nonprofitchronicles.com on May 31, 2015.

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