EcoWatch’s List of Seafood to Avoid Falls Short

Screen Shot 2015-05-12 at 10.30.05 AMEcoWatch, the Ohio-based environmental website, posted its list of “16 Popular Seafood Choices You Should Avoid Eating” today. Unfortunately, these types of posts are generally little more than regurgitated information that gloss over the details in an effort to generate online content intended to be readily shared on social media. The EcoWatch list at best contributes no new information to the discussion about seafood sustainability, and, in a couple of areas, it probably does much worse by confusing readers or even pointing them in the wrong direction.

EcoWatch’s List certainly falls short of the organization’s tagline “Transforming Green.”

Seafood Watch's advice is organized around a stoplight approach, where green = best choices, yellow = good alternatives, and red = avoid.

Seafood Watch’s advice is organized around a stoplight approach, where green = best choices, yellow = good alternatives, and red = avoid.

The issues surrounding seafood and sustainability are complex issues not easily reduced to a stoplight approach. Having said that, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program (on which EcoWatch says its “avoid list” is based) has advanced and brought real value to an important discussion surrounding seafood sustainability. This is despite the fact that, in the final equation, it reduces the issue to just three color-coded options:

  • Best Choices
  • Good Alternatives
  • Avoid

Seafood Watch, as well as other seafood advisory lists (the National Geographic Seafood Decision Guide is one of my favorites), has helped raise consumer consciousness and shape consumer buying habits in ways that, overall, have benefitted fisheries. Nonetheless, it’s important to acknowledge that some of the proverbial baby will always get dumped with the bathwater in any approach that strives to oversimplify a complex issue.

The Problem – Oversimplification of an Oversimplified Approach

The EcoWatch list is unfortunately a profound oversimplification of what already is an oversimplified approach to seafood consumption advice. While I’m willing to cut Seafood Watch slack, I’m far less willing to do so for EcoWatch. Why? Because, even though Seafood Watch ultimately reduces their consumer end product to an overly simplistic decision-making matrix, they acknowledge the complexities of the subject matter in a manner EcoWatch does not.

For example, Seafood Watch explicitly says it doesn’t address all the important issues related to seafood consumption in its stoplight approach. Issues like health risks associated with some seafood choices and well-publicized cases of human rights abuses in fisheries are important issues, but those issues do not inform Seafood Watch’s advice. In the case of the latter, a page on the Seafood Watch website titled Human Rights Resources explains:

While Seafood Watch does not incorporate social issues into our assessments, we acknowledge that addressing human rights abuses globally is critical to ensuring the long-term viability of the industry. The following nonprofit organizations are working on these issues and we encourage you to reach out to them to learn more about their work and available resources.

In short, Seafood Watch is narrowly defining the scope of what its advice means and then pointing consumers to others who can provide expertise when it comes to areas outside Seafood Watch’s narrowly defined scope. While most consumers probably don’t go the extra mile and track down those leads, at least the information is there.

Unfortunately EcoWatch simply takes the lowest common denominator from what Seafood Watch offers–the avoid list–and then attempts to further simplify it, while omitting crucial information.

A Cod is Not a Cod is Not a Cod

While issues of health and social justice are complex ones that are often difficult to factor into a decision-making matrix designed to yield a “buy, hold or fold” approach to seafood, there are additional complexities that exist wholly within the limited scope of environmental and fishery sustainability. For example, when we look at Seafood Watch’s advice, we see that the same seafood choice (or even species) can be listed simultaneously in all three advice categories (i.e., Best Choice, Good Alternative and Avoid).

The current Seafood Watch Northeast Consumer Guide shows some of the complexities of making a sustainable choice. For example, a single species like cod or tuna is listed simultaneously as a Best Choice, a Good Alternative and a species to Avoid.

The current Seafood Watch Northeast Consumer Guide shows some of the complexities of making a sustainable choice. For example, a single species like cod or tuna is listed simultaneously as a Best Choice, a Good Alternative and a species to Avoid.

In the Northeast, a seafood consumer using the Seafood Watch Consumer Guide will note that cod, shrimp, swordfish and tuna are all listed as a “Best Choice,” a “Good Alternative” and a seafood choice to “Avoid.” The reason is that fishery sustainability may be directly tied to a particular fishery and the fishing methods employed.

“Most Atlantic cod is imported to the U.S. from well-managed fisheries with healthy fish populations,” explains Seafood Watch, which is why imported Atlantic cod caught with hook and line gets a “Best Choice” rating, while Atlantic cod from Canada and the U.S. gets an “Avoid” rating. To confuse issues further, the Atlantic cod handline fishery on Georges Bank gets a “Best Alternative” rating because it is a more selective fishery. While the average consumer was likely lost and headed for the meat counter several sentences ago, the reality of being a conscientious seafood consumer in the United States today is that one must embrace complexity.

Seafood Watch helps the conscientious consumer do that. EcoWatch does not.

Avoid, but…Well, Except…Oh, and We Forgot to Mention…

EcoWatch’s advice to avoid 16 popular seafood choices is, according to the post, grounded in a 2006 scientific paper published in Science and titled “Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services.” Upon publication, the paper attracted a lot of popular media attention, especially around the supposition that, as EcoWatch puts it, “there will be little or no seafood available for a sustainable harvest by 2048.”

Given the rebuttals to the 2006 paper, as well as the lead author’s own comments based on a 2008 follow-up study (“This paper shows that our oceans are not a lost cause.”), continuing to use the 2048 date to motivate change in seafood consumption is an alarmist approach not consistent with the best available science. There are, of course, plenty of reasons why we need to make smarter choices about the seafood we consume, but fear-mongering and focusing only on what-not-to-eat only pushes people further away from seafood.

So what 16 popular seafood choices appeared in people’s Facebook and Twitter feeds with EcoWatches advice to avoid eating? 

  • Caviar
  • Cod
  • Eel
  • Halibut
  • Lobster
  • Mahi Mahi
  • Marlin
  • Octopus
  • Orange Roughy
  • Salmon
  • Shark
  • Shrimp
  • Snapper
  • Squid
  • Swordfish
  • Tuna

As we’ve already seen from the cod example above, the EcoWatch list of “seafood choices you should avoid eating” is not a clear-cut list of seafood choices to actually avoid…at least not according to Seafood Watch. To be fair to EcoWatch, this is why the author offers a bevy of caveats and exceptions associated with almost every entry.

Unlike Seafood Watch’s robust website and mobile app, which, through a series of links, data and supporting information, addresses the complexity of sustainable seafood, EcoWatch’s caveats and exceptions to their “avoid list” only add layers of confusion and omit critical information. When it comes to cod, for example, the EcoWatch advice ostensibly tells consumers to avoid cod but then goes on to say the exception is “the ‘good alternative’ handline fishery on Georges Bank.” Fair enough, as the Georges Bank handline fishery is indeed more selective with less bycatch. But what about the fact that, as Seafood Watch states, “most Atlantic cod is imported to the U.S. from well-managed fisheries with healthy fish populations”? There is no mention in the EcoWatch list that the majority of Atlantic cod that I see in the seafood case at my local fish mongers and grocery is a “Best Choice” according to Seafood Watch.

A compelling argument has been made by some that we should in fact stop eating cod altogether. I’m not going to jump into that debate here, but I will point to the dramatic cutbacks in cod quota in New England. At present, very little New England cod is being landed. If local fishers can fetch a price premium for local cod legally landed–and if that price premium can be translated back into supporting working waterfronts and keeping fishers fishing–isn’t that a good thing so long as data-based quotas are not exceeded?

Chef Max Miller of The Landings Restaurant in Rockland, Maine filleting a locally-landed Atlantic halibut.

Chef Max Miller of The Landings Restaurant in Rockland, Maine filleting a locally-landed Atlantic halibut.

And what about some of the other species on the list that are commonly in the seafood case at the local grocery and the fish monger? Halibut season in Maine state waters opened last Friday, and while it’s true that Atlantic halibut has been overfished over the past century, the state fishery has show significant signs of improvement. Should I forgo wild-caught halibut like the one I ate last night in favor of a species not on the EcoWatch list? Put another way, is consuming an Atlantic halibut from a local fisher in Maine’s well-managed halibut fishery in state waters really a less sustainable choice than a farm-raised tilapia sourced from China (a “Good Alternative” according to Seafood Watch)?

Dive into the Issues – Moving beyond the List

I live in Maine, and anytime someone even suggests eating Maine lobster is anything less than the pinnacle of seafood consumption, there are sure to be fireworks. The EcoWatch “avoid list” lists “lobster” as one of the 16 species to avoid eating with the following caveat:

American (Maine) lobster from the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank is a “good alternative,” but “avoid” lobster from southern New England.

The Maine lobster trap fishery was “certified as sustainable” by the Marine Stewardship Council in March of 2013, and, as EcoWatch acknowledges, Canada and Maine lobster is a “Good Alternative.” While there are certainly issues with the Maine lobster fishery primarily stemming from entanglement issues with trap lines and baitfish sustainability, to put lobster on a list of just 16 popular seafood choice to avoid seems misguided at best.

The lobster fishery in Maine plays a major role in supporting working waterfronts and keeping fishers fishing. When fishers and fishing communities are able to remain connected to the resource, there is the opportunity to create real economic incentive to fish sustainably and conserve. The issues surrounding sustainability that need to be addressed are real, but they are complex issues that require a more nuanced response than “Don’t eat these 16 popular seafood choices.”

“Don’t be scared to dive into the issues,” says Dr. Michael Tlusty, director ocean sustainability science at the New England Aquarium. According to Dr. Tlusty, lobster is actually a really good example of that complexity. “American lobster is good in that it helps keep independent fishermen on the water and small ports thriving in Coastal Maine and Atlantic Canada,” says Dr. Tlusty. “Yet this is an energy intensive fishery, and there are issues with all of the vertical line in the water–including the entanglement of North Atlantic right whales. So even this good alternative item can be made much better.” A binary, flip-the-switch approach doesn’t address the real issues.

Complex Issues Require a Complex Response

fishing-boat-ret talbotAddressing seafood sustainability in all its forms is a complex challenge requiring a multi-faceted approach. Perhaps most important of all is to communicate the fact that we all should be consuming a lot more sustainable wild-harvest and aquacultured seafood for both its health benefits and for the potential role seafood can play in global food security. A list of 16 seafood choices (either popular or unpopular) to eat would have been a much better approach and more helpful approach than the list EcoWatch published.

About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
This entry was posted in Human Health, Maine Fisheries, Marine Stewardship Council, Northeast Fisheries, Overfishing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to EcoWatch’s List of Seafood to Avoid Falls Short

  1. This blog is great and it is forcing me as a Chef to rethink the way I look at seafood.

    • Ret Talbot says:

      Thank you so much for the comment, @Guerrilla. I think we’re all better off when we’re having the discussion, and I’m thankful to all the chefs who push me to rethink the way I think about seafood.

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