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.

Author: Kathleen Mullen-Ley

My name is Kathleen Mullen-Ley, and I am a project manager for FishWise. FishWise, a nonprofit sustainable seafood consultancy, has been working with Hy-Vee to research and recommend seafood product sourcing, develop and implement Hy-Vee's Responsible Choice Seafood materials and staff training, and analyze data to measure progress towards Hy-Vee's 2015 Commitment. I hold a master’s degree in marine biodiversity and conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a Bachelor of Arts in environmental studies from the University of California Santa Cruz. My graduate research project was an analysis of the World Trade Organization ruling on the U.S. dolphin-safe tuna label and its implications for future market-based marine conservation efforts. My experience analyzing fishery management issues and communicating marine science to diverse audiences combined with my respect for ocean life has made me well-prepared to take on the challenges of sustainable seafood.

Leave a Reply