By Richard Gaines
---- — NEWBURYPORT —The New England Fishery Management Council is urging the federal government to create a sustainability certification system for seafood caught by American boats from U.S. ports.
The Newburyport-based council voted 16-0 at the end of its three-day meeting in Mystic, Conn., to ask Congress to include in its rewrite of federal fishing regulations a certification program for seafood — similar to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s stamp of approval for meat.
The agreement will be presented in May at a Coordinating Council Meeting of the eight regional councils that were established under the federal Magnuson-Stevens Act. The New England council is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s grass-roots policy writing and advisory arm, headquartered in an office on Water Street in Newburyport.
The growing impulse of consumers to eat responsibly and buy food that is environmentally responsible and sustainable has spawned a slew of private, nonprofit certifiers, but their priorities and values have created a crazy quilt of “do’s and don’t’s” that have left the industry uncertain and often battered by conflicting certifications and refusals.
Whole Foods Markets decided last spring that it would no longer buy cod, the primary target of the fleet in Gloucester, that was caught by trawling — dragging nets along the bottom. Instead, Whole Foods decided to buy only from hook fishermen, whose landings are also indiscriminate but do not have an impact on the ocean bottoms.
The Whole Foods’ decision highlights the range of influences underpinning the certification decision-making of the private certifiers.
Today, seafood seals of approval are issued by a range of certifiers, each with a unique structure, history and set of values or biases. They range from the Marine Stewardship Council — a global giant that certifies for Walmart and many major brands — to the New York author-environmentalist Carl Safina’s Blue Ocean Institute, which essentially takes position that “if you’re eating seafood, you’re eating mercury.”
There is also the Seafood Watch, established by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif. A leading influence on fisheries policy and recipient of grants from the Packard Foundation, Seafood Watch recommends against the eating of certain fish -- among them Atlantic cod -- caught by trawl gear. Most trawling is done over sandy or pebbly bottoms that are disrupted but not harmed by the force of the trawl gear.
These and the other seafood certifying companies charge fees to conduct the research into the products of the contracting companies, and due to the biases and values of the certifying companies, the consumer is left in uncertainty, the New England councilors said in debate at the meeting in Mystic.
Drew E. Minkiewicz — an attorney at Kelley Drye & Warren in Washington, D.C., who was representing the Fishery Survival Fund, a scallop industry group — told the regional council last week that the system of private, primarily nonprofit certification has become something of a re-enforcing trend. It’s like “the broken windows syndrome,” he said, referring to the theory that a broken window in a neighborhood will encourage the breaking of others.
“You have to pay them to have them sell your product,” Minkiewicz said.
“We have the strictest regulations, with buffer upon buffer” to ensure against overfishing, said Councilor Mary Beth Tooley of Maine, who made the motion for a government certification program. “It would be wonderful if the government stood up and said, ‘We are responsible.’ It would be wonderful. We know the percentage of imports is ridiculous.”
About 90 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported.
The motion also drew the support of NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard.
“I always thought it was wrong that environmental groups encourage boycotting species managed under the Magnuson Act,” Bullard said. “It penalizes fishermen twice.
“I’m proud of our management system,” he said. “It’s tough, but puts a huge burden on fishermen, and involves a lot of sacrifice, and if we are proud of it, we should proclaim that one thing the public can do is be more discerning and inquire where their fish come from.”
Laura Foley Ramsden of Foley Fisheries in New Bedford noted that the U.S. commercial fishing industry has one of then most conservative management programs in the world
“We deserve to get credit for this,” Ramsden said.