Shauna MacKinnon: Labelling farmed and wild seafood would make consumers' choices clearer

By Shauna MacKinnon

Vancouver is an ecoconscious city. Farmers markets are bustling, and fair trade, organic coffee dominates café culture. But when it comes to the seafood we eat, we’re not always getting the information we need to make the best choices. And that’s frustrating for conscientious consumers.

Both farmed and wild producers can offer ocean-friendly seafood, but knowing whether a particular item is farmed or wild is often an essential first step in determining its environmental sustainability.

Salmon is the classic example. Science shows farmed salmon raised in ocean net pens (and that’s nearly all of it) is contributing to the decline of local wild salmon populations. The best environmental choice is to avoid farmed salmon until the industry adopts more sustainable production methods.

Farmed shellfish offer the opposite example. B.C. mussel, oyster, and scallop farms raise delicious bivalves with less environmental impact than commercial fisheries of the same type.

Knowing the country or region of origin of seafood is another key piece of information that consumers often need to effectively use sustainable seafood wallet cards, like the one produced by the Canadian SeaChoice program. Based on scientific assessments, colour-coded sustainability rankings can help consumers and businesses make ocean-friendly choices.

Seafood labeling that includes the method of production and country or region of origin is already mandatory in the United States and the European Union. That means every filet of fish sold in the supermarket states whether it is farmed or wild, and where it came from. These regulations have been put in place to improve the traceability of fisheries products from sea to market and allow consumers to choose their seafood according to specific criteria that might be of concern to them, such as local and sustainable. Adding the type of fishing gear used or the farming method would make the choices even clearer.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency needs to update its seafood labeling system to U.S. and E.U. standards, at the very least. Canada’s lagging seafood laws only require the common name of the fish or seafood to be given. That’s not much to go on when you’re facing a seafood counter with products from all around the world, some of which are from stocks already dangerously over-fished.

It also makes it harder for environmentally responsible producers to be recognized and rewarded for their practices. Without clear labeling, seafood produced on the cheap with environmentally devastating impacts—farmed salmon and tropical shrimp are two of the most notorious examples—compete side by side with more sustainable options with nothing but price to differentiate them. Stewardship and quality sometimes cost more, but this is a price many consumers are willing to pay if they know what they are getting.

Some businesses aren’t waiting around for the government to legislate better labeling. Members of the Wild Salmon Supporters program have committed to eliminating farmed salmon from their menus and seafood counters entirely. And many retailers are looking at ways to improve the labeling in their seafood cases. Enquiring customers want to know—and businesses are responding.

Everyone should have a chance to know what they’re eating. If the information you want isn’t readily visible where you shop, ask why not. Encourage your grocer, fishmonger, and favourite restaurant to provide more information and to take a pass on the most unsustainable seafood products.

Fish and shellfish are one of the most direct connections to our oceans, rivers, and lakes that many of us have. Labels that make it possible to reward best practices are essential if we want to have healthy oceans, and plenty of seafood, to enjoy for generations to come.

Shauna MacKinnon is the markets campaign coordinator for the Living Oceans Society.