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Color Me Confused: Bluewashing and Unsustainable Seafood

Color Me Confused: Bluewashing and Unsustainable Seafood

Last year I was in attendance at a panel discussion concerning sustainable fishing (this is just the kind of thing I do to pass the time) and the overriding question of the day was, “what fish can we eat without feeling guilty about depleting endangered populations or feeling sick with fear that we are slowly poisoning ourselves?” I think everyone in attendance halfway expected to receive an answer to this nagging compound question by the days end. Sadly that didn’t happen. What this panel of expert chefs, aquaculture experts and junior level scientists essentially conveyed was something far more dubious and unsatisfying. Essentially, the message (and I paraphrase) was that eating seafood in a healthy and sustainable way requires unyielding vigilance, as that goal is an illusive moving target.

The widespread campaigns to bring consumer awareness to the concept of sustainable seafood has gained significant traction and serves as a major influence in how retailers and restaurants market and ultimately sell their seafood wares. Stop by any well-stocked fish counter and you will see organically fed this, or sustainably harvested that. However, according to an article by Nic Fleming in The New Scientist, the advice given to consumers over sustainable seafood is inconsistent at best, and at worst, misleading. There is little consensus on what constitutes a “sustainable” fishery, and this presents an open window for an orgy of mislabeling, misleading information, as well as inconsistencies from producers and marketers alike. The concern is that all of this confusion surrounding sustainable fish (this doesn’t even address concerns over mercury and other contaminants) could be cynically exploited to sell products that do not meet rigorous standards, and fall far short of being what they say they are. The result, like the bandied about term “Greenwashing” gives rise to the oceanic equivalent, “Bluewashing.”

Right about now I could hear the sound of everyone collectively throwing up his or her hands while reaching for a nice 8-ounce seared bluefin tuna steak. Not so fast, while it is hardly a transparent market for seafood enthusiasts out there, there are obvious changes and modifications (not to mention sacrifices) to be made to ensure the longevity of fish populations as well as our own population. There are the fairly obvious and well reported tips like, don’t eat Chilean seabass, orange roughy, and the previously mentioned bluefin tuna, and stay away from imported fish of dubious origins and questionable farming practices. The Monterey Bay Aquarium operates Seafood Watch, with frequently updated reports on the sustainability of available seafood, and the Seafood Choices Alliance provides much needed info and advice for food professionals and restaurants alike.

But considering our options, we are still somewhat vulnerable to misinformation and consumer confusion. Is this a fight we should hand over to our government(s), pushing them to take the lead in preserving depleted sea animal populations and implementing truly sustainable standards and practices? Can we get enough done through consumer awareness and activism, or should we just stop eating fish and seafood for a decade or so? Have you made a personal choice on the matter?

Read more: Diet & Nutrition, Eating for Health, Following Food, Food, Nature, Nature & Wildlife, Smart Shopping, , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

101 comments

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8:29AM PST on Mar 2, 2011

At first I thought eating Farmed Fish would be the way to go, but then discovered that that’s not really ecologically friendly either and the fish are more diseased and also not as good for you, then the mercury issue so I just gave up eating fish (I take organic flax seed oil and raw flax seeds to help compensate). I just found out that perilla oil, derived from the seeds of the mint plant found in Asian specialty stores is probably the best plant omega source, that and sea microalgae. Also having a lovely goldfish "ICKY" and 2 little curious catfish (George & Mildred) who were incredibly nosey I was put off eating fish. (Always have a big tank for Goldfish; those little bowls will kill them within months if not weeks). I basically haven't been able to stomach the idea of any meat, not since I saw PETA's meet you meat video.

7:23AM PST on Mar 2, 2011

We need to get the whole world on the same page here. I think this is an issue for the UN.

3:33PM PST on Mar 1, 2011

lets put the sea's first

8:32AM PDT on Jul 12, 2010

GO VEGAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!

8:28AM PDT on Jul 12, 2010

GO VEGAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

5:48PM PDT on May 15, 2010

Thanks for the post with suggestions on finding good sea food.

6:00AM PDT on May 15, 2010

Thanks for the post.

12:27PM PDT on May 14, 2010

Oh, and I echo the one commenter who was correct about the wrong word being used here - it is ELUSIVE, not ILLUSIVE.

Elusive means "hard to pin down," while illusive means "like an illusion."

12:23PM PDT on May 14, 2010

I love seafood...so I am all about more (and true!) information for the consumer. Unfortunately, big business in any category is prone to putting out self-serving misinformation as well as pressuring governments not to put even necessary controls in place. Plus, some governments (as we know) are not interested in working with the rest of the world on solutions but will continue to do whatever they want.

In a nutshell...selfish before shellfish, I guess.

3:05PM PDT on Mar 29, 2010

nice article. thanks.

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