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April 29, 2013

Port-based council calls for 'certified' seafood

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.”

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