Labels. They remind us to sort 100% cotton shirts from polyester blends, and warn about excessive calories in our snacks.
So what sort of information can labels provide consumers who want to navigate the world of sustainable seafood?
“The devil is in the details,” said Jim Gossen, founder of Louisiana Seafoods, a respected seafood buyer in the Gulf of Mexico, and a board member of the Gulf Seafood Institute. “In the Gulf of Mexico or anywhere, the bottom line is: Know where your seafood comes from.”
Since 2008, the Gulf Seafood community has been faced with a multitude of hardships caused by oil spills, hurricanes and drought. As a result, millions of dollars in Federal, State, private and nonprofit support has been directed to the Gulf to ensure its reinvigoration. Many programs were designed as temporary initiatives to address immediate, short-term issues, while some attempted to serve the long-term needs of consumers, producers and processors.
Over the last decade, three key concepts have gained the most attention and wielded the most influence when it comes to the Gulf seafood community: sustainable seafood, traceability and certification. Businesses, government and nonprofit organizations have spent massive energy tackling all three with varying levels of success.
Over the next several weeks, the Gulf Seafood Newsroom will take an in-depth look at these key concepts and the organizations that are helping to improve our fisheries and to make consumers increasingly more confident in seafood harvested from the Gulf of Mexico.
Today, the highest level of confidence offered to seafood consumers is to provide a “certified” product, which calls for integrity at every point in the supply line from fishing and harvesting, to processing and packaging, and all the way to the point of sale.
The ideals of certification are rooted in proving the accuracy of what’s claimed about your seafood. According to the environmental non-profit Oceana, one in five samples of a 25,000 sample global seafood test was found to be mislabeled in some way. Their Deceptive Dishes: Seafood Swaps Found Worldwide explains that such misdoings threaten consumer health and safety, cheat consumers who pay higher prices for mislabeled lower-value fish, and can even “hide at-sea crimes like illegal fishing and human rights abuses.”
“It’s good to know exactly where your seafood was swimming in the morning and where it’s coming off the water at the end of the day,” said Richard Williams, of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries. “People want to know.”
Oceana’s latest findings show more than half (58 percent) of the samples found substituted fraudulently for other seafood in the United States posed a species-specific health risk due to allergens or toxins. Specifically, farmed Asian catfish was sold as 18 different types of higher-value fish, the organization said, and that’s just the beginning. According to Oceana, seafood mislabeling occurred at every sector of the seafood supply chain: retail, wholesale, distribution, import/export, packaging/processing and landing.
To combat these kinds of uncertainties, the non-profit Audubon Nature Institute based in New Orleans, LA, created the Audubon G.U.L.F. Responsible Fisheries Management (RFM) Certification based on internationally-adopted principles set by the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). The G.U.L.F. RFM Certification borrowed from similar responsible management certification models established in Alaska and Iceland and was tailored to meet the specific needs of Gulf of Mexico fisheries.
“I think what sets us apart as a program is we’re very much regional, and we focus heavily on that,” said John Fallon, Assistant Director of the Audubon Nature Institute’s Gulf United for Lasting Fisheries (G.U.L.F.) program, under which the certification initiative falls.
“In the course of our program, we have traveled from Brownsville (TX) to Key West (FL),” Fallon said. “That familiarity really helps us achieve our goals and our work.”
The Audubon G.U.L.F. RFM model was adopted at the request of Gulf seafood stakeholders to provide a choice in seafood certifications that demonstrate the responsible practices of Gulf fisheries. Some form of Audubon G.U.L.F.’s programming is in force in each of the five Gulf states.
“I think, as a program, we look at sustainability in a very holistic way,” Fallon explained. “Obviously, we take into account the health of a fishery and ecosystem, but, being local, we also understand the economic and cultural importance of fisheries here in the Gulf, which I think gets lost sometimes in the sustainability conversation.”
“So when we discuss our program’s focus, we say we are sustaining our wildlife and our (Gulf) way of life,” Fallon said.
With various seafood promotion programs out there, it can be exhausting to keep up with which one works, or which ones are for marketing, said Gary Bauer, processor at Pontchartrain Blue Crab.
“Someone like the Audubon can assess much better than someone from out of the country, or someone on the other side of the country,” Bauer said. “That’s why I think it’s a valuable program they’ve developed for our fisheries.”
The Audubon RFM certification program “is more industry holding industry accountable,” not a consumer facing label, said Damon Morris, program manager, Sustainable Fisheries and Seafood at Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Morris’ department offers a separate but complimentary certification program that focuses primarily on place of origin. The Louisiana Wild Seafood Certification Program guarantees that seafood in this program is caught in Louisiana coastal or inland waters, by a licensed Louisiana fisherman, landed at a Louisiana dock, and processed and packaged by a Louisiana-based company.
The Certified Authentic Louisiana Wild program provides additional education for docks and processors on best practices for safe seafood handling and seafood sanitation guidelines, and provides strict requirements for chain of custody tracking to ensure seafood with the Certified logo is a product of Louisiana.
Both programs provide the kind of assurances that builds confidence with buyers and markets.
“It used to be that if you could prove sustainability in product, you could get into these premium markets and get a premium price for your product,” Morris said. “Now if you don’t have it, you don’t get into these markets at all.”
And once at market, more consumer considerations come into play. That’s why Audubon G.U.L.F. is working next toward developing an eco-label that can help consumers identify certifiably excellent product.
And that’s something seafood buyers like Jim Gossen can get behind.
“The research will tell you that most of the seafood people eat when they get away from the coast, very little of it is Gulf Seafood,” Gossen said. “You’ve got to trust your supermarket you shop with and trust your restaurants you eat with.”