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By Zachary Semeniuk, Vancouver Sun April 14, 2012

It’s no secret that when it comes to choosing sustainably harvested seafood in grocery stores, consumers often find themselves in muddy water.

Globally, consumption of seafood has been increasing steadily over the past decade. In Canada, most of us now eat between nine and 10 kilograms of seafood each year – the equivalent of about 70 dinner-sized salmon steaks. And we buy more than half of that fish we eat from grocery stores.

For all those seafood meals, what are we actually purchasing and eating? The fact is that a multitude of fish and seafood products in grocery stores come from unsustainable fisheries and in some cases, damaging aquaculture practices.

Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of global overfishing issues and the habitat degradation associated with damaging fishing practices. People are recognizing the health and environmental benefits of eating locally sourced, sustainable seafood.

While it’s not difficult to find sustainable seafood in most restaurants around town, consumers have been largely left to navigate the grocery store seafood aisles on their own. While it depends on the store, the selection of sustainable seafood products can be limited.

Independent Environmental non-governmental organizations – such as Ocean Wise, Marine Stewardship Council and Seafood Watch – have developed evaluation criteria for deter-mining what is and what is not “sustainable” when it comes to fish, fishing and seafood. These organizations provide us with information to identify potential environmental impacts associated with commonly consumed seafood products – if we go to their websites and take the time to inform and educate ourselves. In general, the criteria focus on the catch method, the regional population status, and industry capacity to prevent overfishing. For example: fishing must be conducted without destroying marine habitat and without excessive bycatch.

Clear as mud, right? The responsibility has largely been left to consumers to seek out sustainable seafood products, but now there are more tools than ever to help us with these decisions. When I choose sea-food either in a restaurant or in a grocery store, I always consider the following: sustainability, where it came from, how it was caught, and of course, I seriously consider the fresh vs. frozen debate.

SUSTAINABILITY

Be sure to look for products that are clearly marked with Ocean Wise, Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), or Seafood Watch logos. Most seafood companies recognize the importance of sustainable product sourcing, and often broadcast it by simply displaying one of these logos. If a sustainable seafood logo is not apparent, it’s likely that your fish or seafood product is not a sustainable choice.

WHERE IT CAME FROM?

For those who prefer to eat B.C. produced foods – as many of us do – be sure to read the labels and packaging on the product. Just because the product touts a sustainable seafood logo does not necessarily mean that the fish is from the Pacific Northwest. If the country of origin is not clearly labelled, ask the retailer or fishmonger. As a general rule of thumb, I don’t buy it if I can’t figure out where it’s from.

HOW IT WAS CAUGHT

In B.C., the majority of salmon and groundfish are harvested via nets. Some of these fisheries are sustain-able while others are not. Groundfish are harvested by trawl nets, which scour the sea floor while scooping up whatever might be in the path. Bottom trawl fisheries are almost unanimously viewed as unsustainable.

Other B.C. fishers catch their salmon and groundfish by hook and line: a sustainable practice that produces top quality seafood due to low catch volumes and meticulous handling methods. In these fisheries, each fish is caught, handled, and cleaned one by one. Although this process may appear unnecessarily arduous, hook and line fisheries offer several benefits, per-haps the most important of which is that incidentally caught non-target (bycatch), can be released unharmed. All our products are hook and line caught. It’s just that much better for the environment and for the consumer.

FRESH VS. FROZEN

When it comes to seafood, many people believe that fresh is better than frozen. However, much of the so-called fresh fish sold is up to a week old before it reaches your refrigerator. The term ‘fresh’ simply means that the product has never been frozen.

With recent technological advances, fishers are able to flash-freeze their fish virtually moments after being brought on board, a process which is known as Frozen-at-Sea, or FAS. This process locks nutrients inside the fish, prevents degradation of the product, and maximizes the flavour profile of the fish once cooked.

FAS products have been renowned by chefs for many years, and are only now becoming increasingly accessible in grocery stores.

Always ask how fresh is fresh? And ask for FAS.

How many more fish are there?

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that over 25 per cent of global fish stocks are either overexploited or depleted, and a further 52 per cent are fully exploited. Although these statistics sound bleak, research shows that this trend is reversible if immediate action is taken by industry, law makers, and consumers in order to alleviate pressure from heavily exploited fish stocks.

The good news is that it is now easier than ever to choose sustainable sea-food whether in a restaurant or at a grocery store.

Making the right choices today will help ensure healthy and sustainable fish stocks for tomorrow.

Zachary Semeniuk is a fisheries biologist and president of Wild Ocean Fish, an Ocean Wise Certified company committed to promoting premium quality, sustainably harvested wild seafood from British Columbia. Zachary presents a seminar on Demystifying Sustainable Seafood at the upcoming CHFA Expo West Conference and Trade Show, April 20-24 in Vancouver.

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