When the professional namers come in, you know you're in trouble. That's the angle a recent Washington Post story took to cover a research article in the July 31 issue of Science on efforts to rebuild global fisheries.
It's a phenomenon suffered by numerous species—including the slimehead, a.k.a. orange roughy (left), and the toothfish, a.k.a. Chilean sea bass (which isn't even a sea bass at all)—that have been given new, hipper names by seafood marketers forced to champion erstwhile "trash fish" because what used to be mainstays of restaurant menus are being fished to death. Then, of course, the pattern is repeated.
The Science article isn't all gloom and doom. Apparently the average exploitation rate has declined in some ecosystems, and, as the abstract notes, "increasing efforts to restore marine ecosystems and rebuild fisheries are under way."
The topic of sustainable seafood is endlessly fascinating—and complicated by the fact that oftentimes we don't know what we're buying, thanks to the naming issue. One of the people I find most articulate in this area is Casson Trenor, who has written a book on sustainable sushi and who is currently in Vietnam taking part in a standards-setting process on catfish, a.k.a. delacata. (Read his interesting blog post about it here.)
The catfish dialogue is part of the creation of a new aquaculture certification body set to be up and running in 2011, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, whose aim is to serve as a credible environmental and social standards maker for seafood. According to the FAQ on the ASC (which lives on the website of the World Wildlife Federation, one of its funders), most existing certification programs in this area "are not effective at making the aquaculture industry more sustainable." ASC says its standards will "be measurable, based on sound science, created by a broad and diverse group of stakeholders, and developed through a transparent process."
I'll be interested to learn more about the process—and about what's wrong with the current certifications—as it develops. Hopefully the ASC will help consumers see through the murky waters of confusion as to what constitutes sustainable seafood.