Why your ‘sustainable’ seafood could be a con

Twisted: Unserious food tastes seriously good.

The fishing industry is at a crossroads. Environmental pressures, coupled with a ravenous public have pushed our oceans to the brink, to the point where certain species find themselves on the verge of extinction. Attempting to respect and care for the sea, whilst simultaneously satisfying a multi-billion dollar market, is one of the toughest challenges facing the food industry today. It’s a mystery that we’re still trying to solve.

frozen seafood Credit: Pixabay

As we’ve become more aware of the impacts of overfishing, governments and legislators have looked at a number of ways to tackle the problem. In the 1990s, a pioneering and radical new approach was proposed. The sustainable seafood movement, born out of the revelation that most marine habitats were being exploited and destroyed, emphasised focusing on the long-term vitality and health of the sea, rather than immediate gains. Quotas were introduced on some species, devastatingly indiscriminate techniques were sidelined and fish farming came into fashion.

The idea of sustainable seafood made everyone feel a whole lot better about the state of the sea. Nice-looking labels featuring smiling little fishies not only convinced shoppers that all was well, but also allowed some producers to command a premium. Now that we understood how fragile the oceans could be, many wanted to be on the right side of history.

Seafood in a bucket Credit: Pixabay

Unfortunately, as in any market where one product is seen as superior, unscrupulous sellers were eager to muddy the sustainable waters. As ethical seafood became the dominant currency, everyone tried to pass off their stock as sustainably sourced. In many cases, customers who believed they were buying locally caught and environmentally responsible seafood were actually being sold fish caught on the other side of the world and whose origins were almost impossible to determine. The concept of sustainability was being undermined at every turn.

That’s where organisations like Sea To Table stepped in. The American distributor, founded by the Dimin family and based in New York, made a name for themselves by providing directly traceable, ethical seafood. Vowing to fight against many of the industry’s murkier practices and to only deliver wild caught and domestic produce, the company partnered with a range of restaurants and fishmongers across the United States, guaranteeing that any fish marked with the Sea To Table seal of approval could be tracked to the fishermen who caught it. In theory, this would ensure that every buyer would know that their purchase was both legitimate and guilt-free.

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To many, the Sea To Table model seemed like a sound one. Before long, the organisation attracted praise from some of the biggest names in environmental protection and advocacy, including Slow Food and Seafood Watch. Shoutouts in the New York Times and National Geographic provided further proof that the new company were a reliable source of seafood. The likes of Rick Bayless and HelloFresh began to queue up to work with what, on the surface at least, seemed like the answer to America’s sustainability problem.

However, to the dismay of many in the industry, evidence has emerged to suggest that the Sea To Table model is not all it’s cracked up to be. An investigation by the Associated Press unearthed the uncomfortable truth that the company was engaged in several of the practices it had sworn to fight. Fish that was being sold as “locally caught” had in fact been landed on the other side of the world by boats known to engage in worker abuse, illegal shark fishing and even whale poaching.

As part of their research, AP reporters staked out Montauk harbour in New York, monitoring the vessels over a week-long period. At the same time, they worked with a local chef to order tuna advertised as coming directly from the port, despite the fact that not a single tuna vessel had landed since they arrived. Several of the boats listed on the chef’s receipts hadn’t docked at Montauk at all for over two years. Needless to say, something fishy was going on.

A closer look reveals a litany of dodgy dealings. Not only has Sea To Table’s supply chain been traced to Asian fishermen who earn as little $1.50 for every 22-hour shift, but the company has been caught selling supposedly seasonal produce at completely the wrong time of year. “Fresh” Maryland blue crabs were being offered in January, despite the fact that the season closes in November. The more you look, the less Sea To Table makes sense.

Owner Sean Dimin was quick to claim that his business is always open and transparent when it comes to communicating with their customers. Several chefs who have spent years working with the business, however, disagree, claiming that they had no knowledge that such practices were going on. Despite selling itself as an honest way to make sense of the fish market, it seems that Sea To Table are just another murky cog in the machine.

Given the situation in our oceans, seeking sustainability should be a must for every chef. But, in an industry worth $17 billion in the US alone, it’s obvious that there is plenty of potential for abuse. As a consumer, it pays to be as aware as possible when buying your fish. You never know when you could be being conned.