I’ve been writing some about mercury in seafood recently, which, a few of my readers have suggested, seems a little out of my wheelhouse. After all, the founding idea behind The Good Catch Blog is to focus on how species, habitat and coastal communities can be sustained through fisheries and science. The blog is about sustainability in all its dimensions, but mercury in seafood is a human health issue, not a sustainability issue, right? So why the heck am I writing about it?
This is a great question, and while I could simply respond saying “It’s my blog, and I can do what I like!” I think it might be more interesting to share my thinking on this subject with you.
“A Good Fish to Eat?”
First a little background: While working on a fisheries related story that will soon publish in a national media outlet, I got to talking with some folks at the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). I reached out to MSC because sources interviewed for the story, when asked, “Do you have concerns about aggressively advocating for a species known to have such high concentrations of mercury?,” kept saying things like “But MSC says it’s a good fish to eat.”
I know MSC is really clear on this point. They are interested in the sustainability of a fishery. Full stop. Is fishing effort exceeding what the stock can handle? Will fishing today jeopardize fishing tomorrow? As a MSC spokesperson confirmed for me in a background interview, “The MSC program looks at sustainability while other programs and government agencies focus on other issues such as health and social impacts.” And yet still my sources promoting a species with mercury concentrations triggering just about any state or federal agency’s action levels for human health kept saying, “But MSC says it’s a good fish to eat,” as if that somehow answered my question about human health.
If even someone so deeply invested in the issue appeared confused, I began to wonder about the average consumer at the point of sale. How does he or she use an ecolabel such as MSC’s? Do average consumers take ecolabels at face value and understand what is being certified or assured or advised, or do consumers make broad assumptions that could actually lead to seafood consumption habits that might jeopardize their health?
The Real Value of Ecolabels
I’ve written quite a bit about ecolabels in the past, and, while advocacy is not my job as a journalist, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hope that some of my readers would take an ecolabel into account at the point of sale after reading something I wrote. Sure, there are plenty of problems with ecolables from greenwashing to all-out fraud, but given the profound issues with fisheries in general, an ecolabel–especially one as established as MSC’s–has real value.
But what is that value, and what does it mean? And could it lead to unintended consequences? Let’s talk specifics.
I like swordfish. A lot. I like it even though I know swordfish is one of four fishes the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as most state agencies (which, more often than not, follow the federal advice), tell women of reproductive age and children to avoid because of mercury. Everyone else, including me, is advised to limit their consumption. When I drill down into the calculus of reference doses and risks, I realize I probably should limit my consumption more than than the general public. Why? Because I live in a coastal state and I eat a lot of seafood, and mercury is cumulative…it doesn’t flush out of my system quickly like some other contaminants.
Despite the fact swordfish is a fish that is best for me to only eat occasionally, the U.S. North Atlantic swordfish fishery, the North West Atlantic Canada longline swordfish fishery and the North West Atlantic Canada harpoon swordfish fishery are all MSC certified. When I see the little blue MSC ecolabel on a swordfish steak at the fish monger’s, that influences my purchasing decision because that’s the type of consumer I am. But I’m also a guy that has been researching mercury in seafood recently, and that also influences my purchasing decision. Point is, I’m not your average seafood consumer. The fact that my enthusiasm for sustainably-sourced swordfish is tempered by my knowledge of the human health risks associated with consuming swordfish may not be typical.
I needed more data.
An Outrageously Unscientific and Statistically Irrelevant Study
In an outrageously unscientific and statistically irrelevant study where I interviewed several friends and family members about ecolabels and health risks associated with consuming seafood products bearing ecolables, I wasn’t terribly surprised to learn they hadn’t really thought about it. When pushed, however, most indicated they assumed a certification would take into account human health concerns on some level. “They wouldn’t certify something that was straight-up bad for me, would they?” one survey participant asked. The answer to that question–in the most strict, by-the-numbers approach–is “Depending on who you are, yes they would.”
There are more than a few MSC certified fishes that exceed federal and state action levels for mercury concentrations in seafood. That means when my sister, who just gave birth to a daughter, goes to the seafood counter, there will be ecolabeled products that, according to widely accepted health advisories, she should not eat. Sure the fishery itself has been certified sustainable, but that says nothing about whether it’s a sustainable choice in terms of her own health or the health of my niece. As my source at MSC said,”other programs and government agencies focus on other issues such as health.”
Real Value to Fishermen and Fishing Communities
So to come full circle and return to where I started, is writing about mercury in seafood beyond the scope of this blog? I’d argue absolutely not. MSC certification, as well as other ecolabels, certifications and assurance schemes, are important tools for consumers and fishermen. They can be important tools for keeping fishing fleets fishing, fishermen on the water and fishing communities in business. An MSC certification can differentiate a product at the point of sale and, in turn, be a valuable marketing tool that gives real economic incentive to fish sustainably.
Right here in Maine, a lot of import is being placed on last year’s MSC certification of the Maine lobster fishery. “The Marine Stewardship Council’s certification will provide the Maine lobster industry with a globally-recognized seal of approval,” said Maine Governor Paul LePage at the International Boston Seafood Show (Seafood Expo) a year ago when the certification was issued. “This certification recognizes our longstanding practices of good stewardship and ensures that every lobster caught in Maine waters can be marketed not only as delicious, healthy food, but also as a resource that meets the most stringent international environmental standard for seafood sustainability.”
As one can readily discern, for the consumer it gets pretty confusing pretty fast. LePage wasn’t talking about the MSC certification when he said Maine lobster is a “delicious, healthy food,” was he? But he said it in the same breath as talking about MSC’s “seal of approval.” My own take is that consumer confusion and fatigue are second only to outright fraud when it comes to threats to ecolabels–when it comes to what might make them irrelevant. When a consumer has to interpret and keep track of what various labels mean and don’t mean, studies show they often just give up and ignore the labels altogether.
Avoiding Confusion and Fatigue in the Name of Health and Sustainability
And this brings me directly back to The Good Catch Blog and my interest in how species, habitat and coastal communities can be sustained through fisheries and science. When consumers are confused about a sustainability-based ecolabel or an advisory regarding human health risks, good fisheries can be harmed, good fishermen can lose market share and fishing communities can feel the squeeze. When it comes to mercury in seafood, I think it’s crucial for consumers to know the real risks so that they can, without confusion, do as most health professionals recommend: Eat more fish. Eating fish that is both sustainable and healthy is not only possible, but it’s desirable for both fisheries and human health. The more the debate over mercury in seafood or seafood sustainability gets hijacked by fear-mongering and hyperbole, the greater the chance that species, habitat and coastal communities will suffer.
I’ll close with my tip for the day: If you want to use your purchasing power to support sustainable fisheries and be healthy, check out Monterey Bay Aquarium’s The Super Green List. Like most things regarding fisheries, it’s not perfect, but it’s a great place to start.
See you at the seafood counter.