As the Federal Government fines the Alaskan Pollock Trawl industry for fraud an intriguing and important question for anyone interested in sustainable seafood is driven to the foreground: how do we know when an industry is truly sustainable?
We have been lead to believe by the plethora of organizations which 'certify' various fisheries as sustainable that a flashy logo or an impressive acronym is secure assurance of an environmentally responsible product. Yet - here's the rub - that selfsame pollock industry at this very moment being fined by Federal authorities is a Marine Stewardship Council certified fishery. In the immortal words of Patrick Henry: I smell a rat.
It turns out that this isn't the first time the MSC has come under scrutiny for its choices. The Guardian newspaper released a story in January of 2011 under the provocative headline "Sustainable Fish Customers 'Duped' by Marine Stewardship Council". Since then the MSC has added a hundred fisheries to its certified-sustainable list. Effectively meaning that you should strongly suspect any MSC-certified fishery as possibly corrupt.
It just so happens that the Southeast Alaskan Salmon fishery is not MSC-certified. I have had many many individuals come to me and suggest that I, or another member of the industry, seek to renew our credentials (I believe we were, at one point, participants in the MSC system but that our certification lapsed several years ago). Thanks to this new intelligence concerning the worth of a rating by the MSC, I must say that I think I prefer we remain distanced from them and their questionable integrity. I wish that there was another rubber stamp that I could apply to my product to ensure that it came from a sustainable source, but frankly I am loathe to trust any of the various agencies like the MSC. Perhaps I will find one in the future that I am proud to be associated with, but as of right now I believe that the word of the fishermen and the caliber of the regional fishery laws and authorities are a superior guarantor to any third party organization - whether the source of its fallibility is blatant corruption or misguided good intentions.
Whole Foods and Safeway were ranked by Greenpeace as two of the most responsible seafood retailers in the country last year. How much of that rating - we must ask - comes from the authority of organizations such as the MSC? How much of it should? The fact is that social-responsibility sells (a wonderful development from 1910, I do say). The problem being that there is now a vested economic interest to appear socially responsible even if you're not. As the star of the popular television series White Collar so eloquently paraphrased Machiavelli - "perception drives reality". Unfortunately, I am an old fashioned realist. At least when it comes to what I eat. I want food that doesn't appear to be something based on the packaging, but actually is what it appears to be.
How about you?