Sustainable Seafood and the Tsunami


Seafood has become a hot topic on many cooperatives’ agendas as stores struggle to determine what kind of fish is “green” or caught “sustainably” enough to sell. Some, like the Weaver Street Market in North Carolina, have adopted criteria for procuring their seafood (see below).

But how does the tsunami in Asia affect your food co-op’s seafood choices? Regardless of your taste for seafood, anyone concerned about conserving and protecting the world’s oceans and fisheries should care how fishing communities are rebuilt in the aftermath of the December 26 Indian Ocean tsunami. The prized possessions of the countries severely compromised by the tsunami are the small-scale fishing communities of the region. These traditional and often very well-organized fishing communities embody many of the principles that drive cooperatives as we know them.

The World Forum of Fisher People, for example, which has member organizations in almost all the tsunami-affected countries, has:
• stated values
• open and voluntary membership
• democratic member control
• member economic participation
• independent and autonomous members
• training, education, and information
• cooperation amongst its members spread in 34 countries
• concern for the communities it represents

In addition, small-scale fishing communities’ traditional fishing methods are employed at scales and rates with less negative impact on the marine ecosystem and higher positive contributions to their local fishing economies.

By contrast, the industrial scale factory fishing and aquaculture operations, with sights fixed on the current vacuum created by the tsunami-stricken state of the southeast Asian fishing communities, follow the agri-business model that has already left its destructive mark on the safety of global food supply, land use, and small-scale farmers. Fishing communities from Maine to India are fighting against such industrial fishing forces as industrial aquaculture—particularly shrimp and salmon—and factory-style, industrial fishing operations.

Many of the Asian fishing communities affected by the tsunami have historically presented a nearly impenetrable fortress that has repeatedly fended off efforts to expand shrimp farms through issuance of joint-venture permits to distant water industrial fishing fleets. These industrial farms and fleets have been implicated elsewhere in large-scale over-fishing and marine ecosystem damage as well as displacing fishing communities. Already, reports of interest by the industrial fleet in the tsunami-affected regions are being heard from different corners of the world.

Faced with fishery troubles and excess capacity for years, the European Union (E.U.) is offering to send its excess fishing capacity—made up primarily of industrial trawlers—to the affected countries. Similar proposals have been floating in several E.U. member states, including the U.K. and France.

Sebastian Matthew, an advisor the India-based International Collective in Support of Fish Workers, cautions against such transfers, calling them “misplaced logic.” The Coalition for Fair Fisheries Agreements (CFFA), a Brussels-based nongovernmental organization, warns that the EU offer might lead to negative economic and environmental consequences for countries on the receiving end of the boat transfers. The ripple effects of such consequences could affect seafood lovers around the world.

CFFA cites a 2000 EU study showing vessel transfer agreements subsidized by the EU would include a guaranteed supply to the EU market and maintain EU employment in the processing sector. Such provisions could undermine local markets for fishermen’s products and take away much-needed processing jobs, often occupied by women, and where much of the value is added to the fish, increasing its price in the seafood market.

“What I’m afraid of,” says Menakhem Ben-Yami, an independent fisheries advisor based in Israel, “is that a large EU trawler brought over to an area with many fisher-folk casualties will end in the hands of [corporate] bigwigs, manned by a skipper and engineer from out of the country affected and crewed by cheap labor imported from outside the affected communities. Such trawlers would compete over the fish stocks against the local fisher-folk struggling to revive their fishery and their communities.”

The tsunami-stricken region’s fishing communities have the skills, smarts, and vision to rebuild their fishing communities in ecologically responsible and economically sustainable manners. “We should be very careful when giving that we’re not just giving to organizations that create dependency and replicate unequal and unfair power relationships,” says Karla Zombro, a community activists working with AGENDA, a grassroots economic and social justice organization in South-Central Los Angeles.

Zombro, who has a Sri Lankan heritage, had plans to visit her mother’s birthplace before the tsunami struck and visited the country a week after the disaster. While there, she met with a Sri Lanka-based affiliate of the World Forum of Fisher People, the National Fisheries Solidarity (NAFSO). “Organizations like NAFSO have a long-term commitment to the people there and represent their interests—this is who we should be supporting,” says Zombro. “NAFSO is not about cooking for refugees, it’s about letting them have the dignity to cook and fish for themselves. My people are not victims, they are survivors, and they have their own ideas about what needs to be done.”

For more on the tsunami and ways to support small-scale fishing communities, visit

Sustainable Fish: Walking the Walk

We measure our accomplishments with not one but three bottom lines: environmental, social, and economic. Our commitment to this triple bottom line is affirmed in our Mission Statement, which sets out our desired impact: “A vibrant, sustainable commercial center for the community of owners and potential owners.” This mission extends beyond our own business to our impact on the larger community.

To begin with, we are a business that doesn’t spoil the environment but protects it. This year we adopted a sustainable seafood program. Unlike our purveyors, our goal is not to maximize seafood sales, but to offer only seafood that is produced in harmony with the environment.

This commitment means that we sell no factory-farmed fish. The environmental and health costs of factory-farmed fish are just too high to justify their lower price. Take the example of salmon, 80% of which comes from fish farms. Increasingly, salmon farms are corporate owned, industrialized operations that jam tens of thousands of salmon together in ocean pens, much as the infamous hog farms do on land. Jammed together, the salmon suffer abrasions and diseases that have to be dealt with by feeding them antibiotics. Many of these artificially fattened fish escape from their pens into the surrounding ocean, where they decimate the stocks of wild salmon. Like hog farms, salmon farms produce an enormous amount of waste—a single pen produces more waste than a small city.

Factory-farmed salmon are not as good for us as wild salmon. They have twice the saturated fat of wild salmon and less of the fatty acids that make salmon good for us. They also bring more toxic contaminants to our tables, and—get this—they have to be artificially colored! While wild salmon turn naturally pink from their diet of shrimp and krill, the factories feed their salmon a fishmeal that produces fast weight gain, but leaves them gray or khaki in color. So chemicals must be added to produce a made-to-order range of light pink to red coloring.

Factory-farmed salmon is just one example of the negative environmental impact of eating certain seafood. Our sustainable seafood program ensures that the seafood we sell measures up to the co-op’s environmental bottom line.

From Weaver Street Market (Carrboro, North Carolina) 2004 annual report

*** Niaz Dorry is a freelance writer and founder of Clean Catch, a U.S. based project working with small-scale fishing communities globally ([email protected]).

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