Taking Comfort in Seafood Ecolabels
It’s not as easy as it looks
“Which seafood label is the best?” I get that question a lot.
I involuntarily shake my head before launching into a diatribe about the challenges of ecolabeling schemes. Ecolabels are grades—green-light images, stars or check marks—that third-party organizations like Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, and Friend of the Sea hand out to whole fisheries or individual producers to identify products that meet some set of ecological criteria. The nature of those criteria and how they are applied can create a lot of confusion in the marketplace.
I see both optimism and pessimism couched in consumer questions about ecolabeled seafood. I take heart knowing many want to make conscientious buying decisions. I take issue with consumers willing to completely surrender those decisions to a third party.
According to the Food Marketing Institute, less than 30% of Americans consider themselves well-informed seafood buyers. A majority of the rest are willing to learn more. Turning to ecolabels seems like an easy way to access seafood buying information.
A goal of ecolabeling organizations is to provide some clarity and transparency to the global seafood network. Seafood eaten in the U.S. travels an average of 5,000 miles from boat to plate, which makes sense considering 90% of the seafood we eat here is imported. Market analysts claim a third of the seafood imported to the US was domestically harvested, sent abroad for processing, and shipped back for us to buy.
Some lobster, for example, goes to Canada for processing and is shipped back across the border. Some cod caught in the Gulf of Maine is shipped to China for processing and comes back to your local supermarket as frozen fish sticks. Tracing that journey and conveying the corroborating information simply via a consumer label is difficult.
Questionable ethics in less regulated fishing operations around the world raise other concerns. News stories report slave conditions aboard some fishing vessels from Southeast Asia and elsewhere. Is product procured under those conditions ever certified by a seafood ecolabel? Those charged with certifying a fishery may not have that information at hand when they are making the call.
Some labeling schemes have been called out for how they certify the fisheries they approve, particularly when data about the fishery doesn’t jibe with a positive rating. The World Wildlife Fund, has repeatedly objected to MSC’s certification of a tuna fishery in the Indian Ocean because some tuna stocks were demonstrably in trouble and the fishery’s bycatch of non-targeted species was high.
Another oft-cited issue is how the money in the certification process works. Several years ago, I spoke with Brendan May, former CEO at MSC. He said the ideal of providing transparency from boat to plate is a great goal, but it becomes muddied by the money part of the equation. These tracking systems aren’t cheap. More often than not, it’s the fishermen, processors, or distributors who bear the cost of any labeling scheme. The funding structure means that those who can’t afford to seek out an ecolabel suffer a market disadvantage.
Environmental groups have pointed to aconflict of interest here, claiming MSC profits from the royalties on the logo fees while certifying the fisheries. Third-party consultants have the incentive to certify fisheries because they want to continue winning contracts for certification and consultation.
Further trust issues arise in the face of reports of mislabeling. Marine watchdog groups like Oceana say as many as one in five seafood samples tested around the U.S. are mislabeled. And when previously trusted sources of sustainable seafood, like Brooklyn-based seafood delivery company Sea to Table, get called out for lying about their products’ origins, it’s not surprising consumers are standing at the fish counter looking for answers.
Some ecolabeling schemes, like Seafood Watch, give consumers a stoplight metaphor for sustainable seafood consumption. Red means stop eating a particular species. Yellow means proceed eating with caution. Green means go for that species as often as you like. It’s simple enough, but the problem lies in those models standing still, rarely taking into account changing dynamics of local fisheries.
For example, the Seafood Watch suggests farmed Atlantic or Chinook salmon as “best choice,” ignoring well-documented environmental and socioeconomic issues with industrial-scale aquaculture. In fact, it prioritizes farmed Chinook from New Zealand over responsibly harvested wild sockeye from Alaska, which has one of the best-managed fisheries in the world.
Patty Lovera, a consultant with Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment,, calls what we’re witnessing at local seafood counters “label fatigue.”
“It’s pretty hard to navigate this system by yourself,” she said during a 2019 Slow Fish webinar. “The ecolabels have added to that confusion because there are a lot of them, and they all do different things.”
Her advice echoes mine: Take ownership of your seafood decisions.
Think of buying seafood like you buy eggs, meat, or produce at a farmer’s market. You forge relationships with farmers as you ask questions about their methods. Do the same with the folks who harvest your seafood and sell direct to consumers. When you can’t get to know your fisherman, pressure the person selling the fish for information you need to make smart decisions. Where was it caught? How was it caught? Was it farm raised? Under what conditions?
The more questions customers ask collectively, the more readily fishmongers and restaurateurs will know the answers to those questions. Get to a point where you can trust the information you receive. Then own the choice and take the time to savor it on your plate!
Colles Stowell is president of One Fish Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit that brings the sustainable seafood message into classrooms (from elementary through college) and communities.