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Ocean Wise: sustainable seafood?

Ocean Wise, a subsidiary organization of the Vancouver Aquarium that partners with suppliers, restaurants, and grocery stores to inform consumers about sustainable seafood sources, could have its recommendations to and approval of food served at universities and other institutions dictated by external sources.

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By Karen Aney (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: May 9, 2012

Ocean Wise is a subsidiary organization of the Vancouver Aquarium and their purpose is to partner with suppliers, restaurants, and grocery stores to inform consumers about sustainable seafood sources. Ocean Wise also partners with many universities; not only do they approve food served at the institutions, they partner with them for research and development purposes. Despite its beneficial work, however, the recommendations that Ocean Wise makes could be dictated by external sources.

According to the Ocean Wise website, the organization owes its existence to a start-up grant by the David and Lucille Packard foundation. The name Packard is synonymous with Hewlett – the late David Packard was one of the founding fathers of the technological corporation better known as HP. Packard and his wife have long been involved in many different charitable organizations. Their daughters currently act as board members for the Packard foundation. The grant to the Vancouver Aquarium from the Packard foundation was for $100,000 in 2004. The purpose stated on the grant was “For Seafood Savvy: Superb Seafood for a Sustainable City.”

The Packard foundation is based in California. As such, it may come as a shock that it benefits a Canadian organization so heavily. However, as researcher Vivian Krause points out, the Packard foundation grants about $300 million per year to a variety of organizations. More importantly, her research has found that 56 organizations funded by the Packard foundation contribute towards “demarketing” farmed BC salmon, instead  “swaying market share” towards the competition – namely, Alaskan salmon. In fact, Partner Relations Manager Mike McDermid states “the Ocean Wise program does not recommend open net farmed salmon.”

Fish farms are constantly drawing media attention, for a variety of reasons. However, even Krause—a former employee of the salmon farming industry—admitted there are legitimate risks involved in fish farming, though she elaborated by explaining these risks are present across the entire food production system. One such concern is sea lice: ectoparasites that feed off their host fish, living off small amounts of blood to skin and excrement. “I’ve been told there’s actually a photograph of a salmon in Norway with 900 sea lice on it,” Krause said. “It was probably dying anyway, so that’s how the lice are able to grab onto it. It’s an extreme example. It’s a potential risk, but that’s why farmers are on top of it: they’re monitoring it every week at critical times of the year and every month the rest of the year.” Further, she explained that it’s in the farmer’s best interests to do so; losing fish to sea lice means losing income.

While Krause’s research may seem to target American funding of Canadian environmental organizations, it was inspired by concern over environmental groups omitting facts from the information they presented to the general public. She explained that there are many negative aspects of Alaskan salmon that are never really talked about. Because Alaska is too cold to farm salmon, the fish are born in hatcheries and fed pellets until they are released into the ocean for fishing – better known as ocean-ranching. The problem, Krause said, is “95 per cent of them die, so all the food pellets are wasted.”

Ocean Wise’s current stance, says McDermid, “recommends wild-caught salmon (both hatchery-origin and wild-origin) as ‘Best Choice’”. This recommendation is based off assessments from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. McDermid elaborates that “assessment criteria for fisheries and aquaculture and the Alaskan salmon fishery are currently being reassessed”, and that any changes will be reflected in their recommendations. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute was started by David Packard. His daughter Julie Packard, is the current Executive Director and Vice Chairman of the aquarium’s Board of Trustees.

Krause’s research found that the Packard foundation donated $7 million to the World Wildlife Fund to help encourage Wal-Mart to sell more MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) fish. However, this does not acknowledge the fact that MSC-approved fish is overwhelmingly Alaskan, and doesn’t acknowledge the issue of ocean-ranching at all. The slogan in Wal-Mart’s policy states “Wild caught, American bought,” appealing to the American patriot. Ultimately, while the end result of Krause’s research uncovered hundreds of millions of foreign funding dollars from foundations like the Packards, at its heart this information is about marketing. “What they’re doing is marketing, and I see that as business, not charity,” Kraus said. “If everything they’re saying is true and charitable, it doesn’t matter where the money is coming from.”

One aspect of Ocean Wise’s practices that may eliminate unease is that the organization has very low staffing levels. Mike McDermid, partner relations manager of Ocean Wise, explained that they employ just four dedicated staff members. “As a conservation program of the Vancouver Aquarium itself, support is also provided through various function areas, as needed,” he said. “We are certainly busy, but really, we wouldn’t have it any other way!”

Though Ocean Wise was initially created and based in Vancouver, it has expanded across the continent. This is one aspect that may cause concern for those interested in eating locally: Ocean Wise approved suppliers span as far away as Miami. McDermid explained, however, that when finding sustainable alternatives, the search begins locally. “If there is not a sustainable option locally, then we will look further out,” he added. “There is no question that carbon footprint is an important consideration in everything that we do, but we also need to find solutions for one of the biggest challenges facing the world’s oceans today – overfishing.”

Ocean Wise produces a report each year which outlines their policies regarding wild salmon. This report is compiled using data from both British Columbian and Alaskan industries. According to the Ocean Wise website, “the recommendations aim to identify the best choice for that given season by narrowing down to species, strength of run, stock status, management area and catch method as applicable.” However, 2012’s report is not yet available: McDermid explained that “data still needs to be collected later this season. Once that information is available, we will publicly post that information.” However, no previous report is readily available online.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. danvan

    May 15, 2012 at 11:31 am

    Interesting and well-researched article! I came here to find info on the SUS and ended up getting caught-up in this fascinating piece of journalism!

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