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Environmental Claims For Farmed Fish Don't Hold Up To Scrutiny

Fish on display at a Whole Foods in Hillsboro, Ore. The retailer is one of the few with its own environmental standard for farmed fish.
Rick Bowmer
Fish on display at a Whole Foods in Hillsboro, Ore. The retailer is one of the few with its own environmental standard for farmed fish.

Are shoppers getting their money's worth when they choose a salmon filet wearing an eco-sticker?

A study released this week by the University of Victoria's Seafood Ecology Research Group found that most eco-labels on farmed seafood don't reflect better fish farming practices than other products on the market.

With farmed fish, as with other foods, "there's a tendency to assume that if something has an eco-label, it must be a better choice," John Volpe, the study's lead author, tells The Salt. His results show that's not necessarily true, and that there's a lot of room for improvement across the board.

Now that half of the seafood consumed around the world comes from aquaculture, a number of environmental concerns — from overuse of antibiotics, to pollution, to sources of fish feed — are emerging at these farms.

Some in the seafood industry, meanwhile, have scrambled to create standards to help consumers distinguish between fish farmed in a way that protects the environment from that which isn't.

For Volpe's study, he chose 20 different sets of standards, or labels, for 11 farmed marine fish — Atlantic cod, Atlantic salmon and grouper among them — and graded them using the Global Aquaculture Performance Index. The standards he evaluated included Whole Foods, the Global Aquaculture Alliance, and Friend of the Sea.

Rather than establishing a new definition of "environmentally friendly" for the purpose of the study, SERG translated two well-established seafood guides into the GAPI system: the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch guide and the Blue Ocean Institute's seafood guide. Both code green for best choices, yellow for good alternatives, and red for seafood to be avoided.

The majority of labels scored less than 10 percent higher than their conventional counterparts. Four scored exactly the same as the conventional average, and two labels, Global G.A.P and Marks & Spencer, got negative scores. This means their sustainability standards set the bar so low that companies doing more than the average amount of environmental damage could still obtain an eco-friendly label.

SERG concluded that most of the fish wearing the labels they rated would be in the yellow category, while a few fall into the red.

Of the eco-labels, only one would earn a green designation: the proposed U.S. National Organic Standard for farmed salmon that's not yet in effect. "It stood out across the board," Volpe says, because of its strong requirements on antibiotic use, disease prevention, and fish feed.

But there's a catch, Volpe says. "Ironically, it's debatable whether that standard can be adopted by the industry." Sustainable practices translate to higher production costs, which will be passed along to consumers. Right now, it's still unclear whether the market will support organic salmon; organic products are still out of reach for a lot of people, as our friends over at Shots have reported.

Only two sets of retail standards were reviewed in the study: Whole Foods Market and the British chain Marks & Spencer. These in-house labels are abundant, but often function mostly as advertising. "We were shocked by how few actually publish or make available any information regarding their criteria," Volpe says.

The bottom-line? Go for organic farmed fish if it's available and affordable. And the Pew Environment Group, which funded the study, says seafood buyers also need to demand evidence of sustainability claims to keep fish farmers honest.

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Jordan Calmes