The Challenges of Buying Sustainable Seafood in San Diego County

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May 29, 2018

If you’ve ever scrutinized a seafood counter in a local grocery store, you may have noticed that most of the fish on display are not from anywhere near here.

Why is it so hard to find local seafood in San Diego—a coastal city?

The US imports over 90% of the seafood we consume.

In 2015 this amounted to approximately 1.25 billion pounds of edible seafood from China, much of it farmed; 252 million pounds of shrimp from Indonesia; and 713 million pounds of salmon.

In the same year, US fishermen produced 9.7 million pounds of seafood, and exported about 1.4 million of that.

Considering that Americans consumed almost 5 billion pounds of seafood in 2015, the imbalance in how much we produce versus how much we eat is one reason so much of our seafood comes from somewhere else.

Why does the US import and export vast quantities of seafood?

An earlier article on San Diego’s Seafood Challenge explained that rigorous domestic fishing regulations, lack of working fishermen, and a lucrative export industry all contribute to the quandary.

Catalina Offshore Products
Whole Foods Market
Catalina Offshore Products
Whole Foods Market

Considering how businesses select seafood to buy and sell is another story and the sourcing practices of a few local brick-and-mortar seafood markets that aim to provide responsibly sourced seafood exemplify the issues.

Catalina Offshore Products, a seafood processor that’s been in San Diego for 40 years and is known for its high-quality sustainable selection, procures most of its seafood from “the pristine waters of Southern California and Baja California.”

“We primarily source our seafood directly from fishermen,” Dave Rudie, owner and founder of Catalina Offshore Products, tells me. “Around 45% of our products come from the US, including about 35% from San Diego fishermen.”

Catalina purchases over 1 million pounds of seafood a year from San Diego fishermen, and rely on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s seafood guide to make sourcing decisions for much of their seafood, particularly seafood not caught by US fishermen.

“If we need a species that is not found locally, we look for a reliable supplier from a well-managed fishery or farm.”

Whole Foods Market, an icon of healthful food, has different standards.

John Kirkpatrick, associate seafood coordinator for the Whole Foods Market Southern Pacific Region told me in 2016 that “to promote responsible fishing, the wild-caught seafood we offer is certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or rated either ‘green’ or ‘yellow’ by Monterey Bay Aquarium and The Safina Center.”

As a result, about 50% of the seafood in Whole Foods’ San Diego markets comes from US fisheries and 5–10% comes from San Diego waters, depending on the season.

This might make you wonder if seafood caught by local fishermen is sustainable if it’s not meeting Whole Foods’ standards.

Kirkpatrick noted that there can be logistical issues with sourcing from local waters.

In addition—and this is where it gets interesting—“many smaller fisheries do not want to go through the auditing process that has some costs associated with it.”

Like farmers, fishermen’s profit margins are tight and the pay-to-play audits can cost more than they can afford on top of permits, gear, vessels, gas, berthing, and other fishing costs.

In some cases, fishermen just aren’t willing to pay the fee required to get the ratings Whole Foods requires in order to buy their catch.

Sustainable seafood standards are not “one-size-fits-all. Standards for sustainable seafood are as varied as the people creating and using them.

For example, some guides may put swordfish on the “eat with caution” list, while others call it a “responsible choice.”

I may care if a fish is overfished or not, you may be concerned about mercury levels or the fishery’s impact on an endangered sea turtle, for example.

There’s no one set of standards that every consumer or rating system agrees with.

However, US fisheries are some of the most regulated in the world.

If the fish population is depleted or if fishing unduly harms a protected population, like endangered sea turtles, fishermen are required to change their practices or stop fishing until the fish or turtle population is has rebounded.

US fisheries management meets the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s standards for sustainability, making “US-caught” synonymous with “sustainable”—meaning that, if a San Diego fisherman caught the seafood you’re eyeing at the fish counter, no other standard is needed.

Buy, eat, enjoy.

Three Ways to Fill Your Plate Sustainably

1. When eating out or grocery shopping, ask for seafood caught by San Diego or US fishermen—since US fisheries are responsibly managed.

2. Diversify what you eat and try new things. San Diego fishermen catch boatloads of underused species, such as opah, top snails, and rock crab.

3. Support local businesses that support local fishermen whenever you can.

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