Tuesday, October 8, 2013

GSI testifies before Senate subcommittee on role of certification in sustainable fishing

A strong voice for the Gulf seafood communities in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida has presented written testimony to the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard on the topic of third-party sustainability certification of U.S. seafood, as well as its impact on the seafood community, consumers and the marketplace.

The Gulf Seafood Institute (GSI) has testified the U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) should be held responsible for maintaining the strongest, clearest voices and maintaining final authority in determining the sustainability of fisheries, as well as the responsibility in communicating that message to consumers.
With a mission to protect the Gulf’s unique culture and environment, GSI is working to elevate the Gulf seafood brand with consumers, customers and policy leaders through advocacy, education and science.

The Institute represents every Gulf state, as well as every aspect of the industry – both commercial and recreational – and has become one of the leading voices on key issues including sustainability, seafood safety, disaster mitigation and recovery, and data collection.
One of its main missions is to bolster fisheries science and research helping to preserve the Gulf seafood resource and contribute to the longevity of the industry. Formed in July 2013, it is currently organizing under the laws of the state of Louisiana, and seeking approval of the Internal Revenue Service for 501(c)(6) status.

“When it comes to ensuring the sustainability of our nation’s fisheries, GSI supports the process outlined under the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act because it is working,” said Harlon Pearce, who was instrumental in bringing together seafood leaders to form GSI, and owner of Harlon’s LA Fish in New Orleans. “The Department of Commerce, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the eight Regional Fishery Management Councils work together to monitor, manage and enforce a program that has led the United States to its position as a global leader in responsibly managed fisheries and sustainable seafood.”
Standards of Sustainability
Currently the federal agencies overseeing fisheries are guided by Ten National standards of sustainability. Together these agencies monitor, manage and legally enforce all marine fisheries in the United States under the most restrictive regulations in the world.

“Since 2000, 32 fish stocks in the U.S. have been rebuilt,” said Johnny Greene, an Alabama charter captain and a member of the board of directors of the newly-formed Gulf Seafood Institute. “U.S. fish populations are rebuilding and overall fish abundance is improving. Routine stock assessments conducted by fishery scientists indicate that the abundance of the stock is above the maximum sustainable yield, however there is a need for more and quicker assessments.”
“Protecting our fisheries and ocean ecosystems is imperative, but getting U.S. seafood on the plates of consumers is equally important for both public health and for the economy of the U.S. seafood community,” said board member Chris Nelson, vice president of Alabama Bon Secour Fisheries. In order to be comfortable choosing seafood when making mealtime decisions, consumers must be confident in the sustainability of our fisheries.”

In the testimony GSI applauded NOAA’s FishWatch program as the primary tool to educate the public about seafood sustainability. The prograram was designed to provide easy-to-understand, science-based facts to help consumers make smart, and sustainable seafood choices.
According to NOAA, FishWatch does not discriminate against one fishery or advocate for another, nor is it an Eco label or certification. Rather, FishWatch is designed to help consumers understand the science, laws and management processes working to protect our seafood supply.

Despite NOAA’s efforts on sustainability messaging, the organization feels not enough is being done for federal agencies. The abundance of third-party seafood certification programs competing for the public’s trust and attention has clouded the waters.
Market Demands for More Traceability
“Market demands for more traceability have led to the emergence of several Gulf-based programs including Gulf Seafood Trace and the state of Louisiana’s own seafood certification program,” explained David Krebs, president and owner of Ariel Seafoods in Destin, FL and GSI board member. “These programs are supported by many in the commercial seafood community and are seen as a positive compliment to federal data on sustainability by telling consumers a bigger story about where their seafood comes from.”

He feels other programs that pit certain species against one another based on various and somewhat arbitrary criteria, go beyond simple traceability and lead to confusion rather than clarity in the marketplace.
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the Monterey Bay Aquarium have sustainability certification programs that are increasingly being relied upon by consumers, retailers and restaurants, oftentimes more than the U.S. government’s own FishWatch program.

The MSC, a London-based 501(c)(3) charity setting standards for sustainability and seafood traceability, has partnered with some of the world’s leading retailers to help promote certain seafood products that meet their criteria. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program makes recommendations regarding which seafood items are “Best Choices,” “Good Alternatives,” and which ones to “Avoid.”
Unlike NOAA’s process that encourages public participation at every level, much of the third-party seafood certification is less transparent, as well as costly to seafood businesses participating in the program.

Over-Abundance of Third-Party Labeling
“The over-abundance of third-party seafood labeling programs, oftentimes leaves the American public confused as to which products meet sustainability criteria,” explained Jim Gossen, chairman of Sysco Louisiana Seafoods, and a GSI board member. “Compounding this confusion is the fact that third-party recommendations often run counter to recommendations provided by NOAA’s FishWatch.”

One example of confusion lies in Tuna. A third-party seafood certification programs lists most canned tuna as something to “Avoid”, while FishWatch provides consumers more detailed information on the species. Tuna harvested in the United States it is inherently sustainable as a result of a rigorous U.S. management process ensuring fisheries are continuously monitored and improved.
As one of the least expensive seafood’s, Tuna is a readily available source of healthy seafood for families on a tight budget. Following third-party programs would make it difficult for a vast majority of Americans to meet their recommended three seafood meals per week per USDA’s dietary guidelines.
Stan Harris, CEO of the LRA and GSI Board Member,
meets with the staff of Mississippi Representative Steven
Palazzo during one of his frequent trips to the Hill.

In its testimony, GSI feels NOAA has a responsibility to alleviate confusion and encourage Americans to make more trips to the seafood counter by launching a stronger communication and outreach program on seafood sustainability. Consumers actively seek input on sustainability and want information to come from the government, not from privately funded third parties.
“Government organizations needs to establish a closer working relationship with third-party seafood certification programs,” said Stan Harris, CEO of the Louisiana Restaurant Association. “In a survey of nearly 2,000 consumers conducted in 2011 by the Gulf Seafood Marketing Coalition, respondents stated they were most comfortable with seafood data provided by the federal government, over and above data from private industry and environmental organizations.”

With the USDA pushing their updated seafood consumption guidelines and clarifying guidance for pregnant women, GSI states in testimony “now is an ideal time for the Administration to marry the concepts of healthy and sustainable seafood in their messaging materials.”

Better Communications Needed
No one understands the importance of robust communications better than the Gulf seafood community. In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico, overcoming public perception that fisheries were “tainted” became the biggest challenge to the Gulf fishing community’s economic recovery.
Consumers avoided Gulf seafood on a massive scale for months. Following a multi-million dollar marketing campaigns undertaken by the Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana Seafood Boards, as well as the Gulf Seafood Marketing Coalition and others, consumers are finally returning to Gulf seafood three years after the oil spill.

Testimony cites the numerous letters from U.S. Senators to federal agencies calling for support in actively promoting the safety of Gulf seafood and asking for strong refutation of unscientific claims. While the issue of sustainability remains separate from safety, there is clearly a need for strong communications from NOAA and its partners on both sides of the seafood coin.
“The General Service Administration recently rescinded their guidance that the National Park Service look to third-party seafood certification programs form seafood certifications,’ said GSI board member Corky Perret. “However, the fact that the policy was issued in the first place is a cause for alarm, compound by the fact NOAA was never even consulted prior to the agency issuing this guidance. ”

Perret believes NOAA’s outreach team has their work cut out for them.  He feels if the Administration’s own personnel are not looking to NOAA for the facts on sustainability, the American public certainly can’t be expected to.
“While many in the seafood community appreciate and support third-party seafood certification programs, it’s not the federal government’s place to dictate whether and how these privately-funded programs are utilized in the marketplace,” explained Margaret Henderson, President of Henderson Strategies and political advisor to the board.  “With Congress looking to GSI as a leading voice for the Gulf seafood community, it is important for us to get on record with formal testimony outlining this position.”

“The Gulf Seafood Institute stands ready to assist Congress, the Committee and the Administration in any way possible to get out the positive story on Gulf seafood sustainability,” said Pearce. “We are pleased to see a majority of the Senate Commerce Committee agrees with our position on third party certification, and we look forwarding to working with them on this and other issues moving forward.”

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