Monday, September 23, 2019
News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students

Scientists urge consumers to make smart choices about seafood

Leading marine biologists are telling consumers to go beyond labels like local or imported when they are trying to make…

The afternoon is quiet as local fishermen wait for a new season of fishing.
The afternoon is quiet as local fishermen wait for a new season of fishing.
Leading marine biologists are telling consumers to go beyond labels like local or imported when they are trying to make the best choice for sustainably caught seafood.

“Canada can do a lot more with labelling and a lot more to push the agenda for seafood choice. Some imported fish is fine, and some local fish isn’t so great,” said Dr. Amanda Vincent of the University of British Columbia.

For Vincent, knowing where fish is from is the first step towards supporting more sustainable fishing.

Instead of assuming that local fish is better, people can look to national food-advisory schemes that aims to inform users on the origins of seafood.

Amanda Vincent: Pressure on marine resources (0’39”)

Seachoice is one such advisory scheme that assigns special categories for fish in markets. Fish labelled in green or yellow are from fisheries that follow sustainable methods. A red label marks fish that should not be bought until the industry corrects its methods or until the species has been given enough time to recover from overfishing.

Oceanwise is another advisory scheme that endorses restaurants that use sustainable fish in their menus. Vincent endorsed both Seachoice and Oceanwise as effective information tools.

“People actually put a lot of effort in to try to the get the rankings correct,” said Vincent.

Local fishing  

Clams and mussels, as well as cod and swordfish, are some examples of Canadian-caught fish that Seachoice labels as red, meaning they are endangered or their habitat is damaged.

Kyle Erikson and his father, Wes Erikson, advocate for sustainable fishing in their work.
Kyle Erikson is a supporter of sustainable fishing.

However, most Canadian fisheries are ahead of their international counterparts in terms of regulation. Catch quotas and coral quotas keep local fishermen in check.

“You have to be conscious, it’s in the best interest of your career,” said Kyle Erikson, a fifth-generation commercial fisherman.

In Steveston harbour, Graeme Malcolm, a third-generation Canadian fisherman, estimated that he has spent over $16,000 to install the equipment on his boat – a surveillance camera system with a hard drive he isn’t allowed to touch.

He then had to pay someone to go over the results from his equipment data, at a cost of $500 for each of his allowed fishing days for tuna, salmon, rockfish, and halibut.

As a Canadian fisherman, Malcolm is expected to be fully aware of the different quotas for different species of fish or else be prepared to pay a steep fine.

“We’re as regulated as any fishery in the world. None of us have any interest in wiping out fish because it’s what we do for a living,” said Malcolm.

Malcolm shared how being a BC fisherman isn't as affordable as it used to be with new regulations and reporting duties.
For Graeme Malcolm, being a B.C. fisherman isn’t as profitable as it used to be.

Illegal, unregulated, and unreported

Researchers such as Vincent are conscious of how much work local fisheries are doing to comply with regulations and reporting duties.

“Undoubtedly there’s still work to improve with adherence regulations or with the tracking of by catch, but the British Columbian small-scale fisheries is certainly better monitored,” said Vincent.

She is leading UBC’s Project Seahorse, in collaboration with Jean M. Harris of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife in South Africa.

In October, UBC’s Project Seahorse called for action against the world’s illegal, unregulated, and unreported fisheries, as 90 per cent of the world’s fish come from these small-scale fisheries. But the method of regulating and monitoring these fisheries may vary between countries.

Collectively, these small-scale fisheries are just as worrying for marine biologists as large-scale commercial fisheries.

“Our fishers are very aware of being under scrutiny. In large parts of the world, that’s simply not the case,” said Vincent.

The High seas

John Harder and his family spend most of their time out in sea, living on land for only 3 months in a year.
John Harder and his family spend most of their time out in sea.

North American fishermen who choose to catch migratory fish in the high seas share the ocean with illegal, unregulated, and unreported fisheries.

John Harder is one such fisherman. With 41 years of experience under his belt, he has fished all over the world.

His fish of choice is albacore Tuna, found in open waters all over the Pacific Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.

This year, he noticed major scratches on the fish he caught. These scratches, he believes, are the footprints of illegal drift netters.

Despite the 1992 United Nations moratorium on high seas drift nets, illegal drift nets are still used today.

“They take dolphins and sharks and birds, anything that touches that net is caught,” said Harder.

“If fishing from these countries were as regulated as they are here, then there wouldn’t be a problem.”