What’s the Catch? Key Issues Affecting Seafood Sustainability

Four primary issues affect the sustainability of seafood, and Hy-Vee is paying close attention as part of the company’s efforts to responsibly source its fresh and private label frozen seafood products by the end of 2015.

One is no more important than another. If one of the issues gets out of balance, it can affect another.

1. Impacts on target stock – is the species being overfished? One example of a species that is being overfished is Bluefin tuna, which is called “toro” in fancy sushi restaurants. Hy-Vee doesn’t carry Bluefin tuna because of the many environmental issues associated with this fishery.

These days, the United States does a good job managing its fisheries and products from domestic fisheries usually meet Hy-Vee’s definition of responsible sourcing. But there have been problems in the past – with Atlantic cod, for example – and when fisheries are depleted, recovery takes a very long time because the fish are long-lived and don’t reproduce quickly. That means a long period where certain species are unavailable from the time the overfishing stops and the population rebounds.

One issue we’re seeing now is that as domestic stocks are recovering, international fisheries are being depleted.

2. Impacts on other species (bycatch) – how much bycatch is occurring and what non-target species are being caught accidentally? Some gear types like huge longlines indiscriminately catch endangered species like sea birds, sharks, and sea turtles, while some gear types are more selective and only catch one fish at a time.

In the conservation world, the incidental catch of large marine mammals like dolphins helped inspire people and catalyze a movement toward more awareness of the serious issues with fishing. That problem is less severe now, but bycatch is still a problem and we’re seeing issues with other species.

3. Habitat and ecosystem impacts – is the fishing gear affecting the surrounding habitat? Is the fishery removing all the top predators from the ecosystem and changing the dynamics of the marine community? Some gear types like trawl nets that drag along the seafloor can have a significant impact on ancient coral communities – some of them 1,000 years old or more – while some gear types like pole-and-line never come into contact with the bottom.

We have to be mindful that when we take away too many predators, the ecosystem can get out of balance and that can affect the habitat sea life needs to survive.

An example of this is found in kelp forests, where sea otters were hunted for their furs. With the predators gone, that allowed the sea urchins to invade and eat the kelp. The effects were felt throughout the ecosystem, as the kelp is important habitat not only for marine mammals like sea otters, sea lions, seals and grey whales, but also for many types of rockfish.

4. Management – are the rules regulating the fishery working? Most fisheries in the US are very well managed but some international fisheries have lax regulations, or no regulations at all. Illegal fishing can be a major problem in fisheries with poor management. Illegal fishing harms honest fishermen, weakens coastal communities, is associated with crime such as narcotraffic and human rights abuses, and undermines companies like Hy-Vee that are trying to do the right thing.

Assessing these four criteria gives FishWise an understanding of the wild fisheries supplying Hy-Vee’s seafood products, and whether those products qualify for one of Hy-Vee’s Responsible Choice labels. When Hy-Vee’s customers see the Responsible Choice label, they can be confident that the seafood they’re buying is not contributing to unhealthy oceans.

Key Takeaway from Seafood Expo in Boston: Sustainability is Expected, No Longer a Hot, In-Your-Face Topic

One of the greatest opportunities at the Seafood Expo North America (formerly the Boston Seafood Show) was found in the chance to talk face-to-face with the approximately 19,000 suppliers, processors and other professionals from around the world who attend this event.

Establishing that rapport makes the follow-up conversations much easier and more congenial.

For me, the key takeaway from the event in Boston is that sustainability isn’t the in-your-face, hot topic that it used to be. Everyone may not quite meet the same high standards that Hy-Vee and PDI have set with the Responsible Choice initiative, but everyone takes for granted that companies care about sustainability and are doing something about it. This is driven some by consumer demand, but primarily it’s due to competition for business between companies.

It was great to meet those domestic suppliers, the folks with boats on the water and processing plants, who are working directly with PDI and Hy-Vee to provide Alaskan King crab, wild salmon, because promotions around those species have been successful at bringing customers’ attention to Responsible Choice seafood.

At FishWise, we work with some of the better-acting companies and they are doing a great deal to advance conservation. These seafood suppliers from Alaska, who are leading the world in setting the standards for sustainability, appreciate that Hy-Vee is very direct about what its environmental standards are what companies need to provide for them.

They love that Hy-Vee does so much to draw attention to the way they do things. They know Hy-Vee appreciates quality. It’s kind of a mutual admiration society, which is rare.

At the expo, I also met with leaders of the Global Aquaculture Alliance, a certifying organization like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), to connect them with Hy-Vee and other distributors and help them better understand where the other is coming from. It’s a tough topic, because so many people are under the impression that farmed fish is not sustainable in any way, and we need to work to overcome that stereotype. The folks at GAA are very open to dialogue, and that will help to move it along.

Another prominent event during the Seafood Show was a panel discussion focused on improvement projects that companies like Hy-Vee and its vendors are supporting, like wild gulf shrimp. The shrimping industry can be dirty and have a lot of issues, yet customers want shrimp. Hy-Vee is doing the right thing by supporting practices that reduce turtle bycatch. The vendor Hy-Vee works with is making sure there’s a smaller amount of turtle bycatch in its fisheries.

Responsible Choice Seafood: What’s the Difference?

Allow me to preface this post by stating that all of Hy-Vee’s seafood – labeled with a Responsible Choice logo or not – is safe to eat and of the highest quality.

Think back to the last time you were standing in front of the seafood counter in your local Hy-Vee store. You may have noticed that, while many of Hy-Vee’s seafood products have the new ‘Responsible Choice’ label, there are some that do not. What is the difference between products with a Responsible Choice label and those without a label?

The Responsible Choice label identifies seafood products that come from well-managed sources that minimize the environmental impacts of harvesting or farming. Specifically, these products are rated either Green (Best Choice) or Yellow (Good Alternative) by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, or are certified to an equivalent environmental standard (for example, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification).

Products that do not have a Responsible Choice label are either Unrated or Red rated by the Seafood Watch Program or are not yet certified to an environmental standard equivalent to Green or Yellow ratings. Some seafood is not yet produced at an environmental standard that meets Hy-Vee’s conditions for a label. Hy-Vee is actively working to improve these seafood items by engaging with fisheries and farms to enhance their environmental performance, or switching products to more sustainable alternatives if improvements cannot be made. As Hy-Vee progresses towards the 2015 goal, you will see more and more products with the Responsible Choice label.

Hy-Vee’s staff is going through extensive training as a part of the new seafood program, so you can feel comfortable asking any questions about the source, quality, and type of seafood at your local Hy-Vee store. Support the health of your family and healthy oceans by purchasing items with the Responsible Choice label.

Steps to Success: FishWise Partnership with Hy-Vee

Hy-Vee’s overall goal for their seafood includes protecting the health of their customers and the environment while providing the best quality and selection of seafood. To help realize the environmental component of this goal, Hy-Vee partnered with FishWise in 2011. FishWise is a non-profit seafood consultancy that works with retailers and other members of the seafood industry to promote the health and recovery of ocean ecosystems through environmentally responsible business practices. We have over a decade of experience developing and implementing sustainable seafood programs and our partners are recognized as industry leaders.

FishWise first began in 2002 out of concern for the serious issues facing the ocean and with the intention of enabling seafood businesses to support sustainability via responsible sourcing and customer education. Resource depletion, overfishing, pollution, habitat loss, and government mismanagement are only a few of the numerous threats facing ocean ecosystems today, and purchasing responsibly produced seafood can be a challenge. Fortunately, responsible options do exist and FishWise wants to help businesses like Hy-Vee source from these environmentally conscious suppliers, who are working to preserve seafood for future generations.

FishWise started working with Hy-Vee by helping the company develop their Seafood Procurement Policy, which acts as the foundation of their Responsible Seafood Program. After the Policy was implemented, FishWise began the ongoing process of researching products and communicating with Hy-Vee’s seafood buyers to make sourcing improvements. FishWise then consulted with Hy-Vee to develop the Responsible Choice point-of-sale materials and staff training program that will help Hy-Vee educate its customers about its responsibly sourced seafood.

Now we are entering an exciting phase in the Hy-Vee – FishWise partnership where the Responsible Seafood Program is being unveiled to customers. Next time you visit a Hy-Vee store, stop by the seafood department to take a look at the new Responsible Choice labels on products that meet the company’s Procurement Policy and have a conversation with Hy-Vee’s knowledgeable and friendly seafood staff.

Hy-Vee’s journey toward sustainability is not over, but as a result of the company’s willingness to make big changes and partner with FishWise, Hy-Vee has established itself as a leader in the industry and a destination for sustainable seafood.