Can we have our sustainable seafood and eat it too?

By Amelia Urry, Grist

You know the feeling: You’re standing in front of the seafood counter, running down the list of evils you might be supporting when you buy one of those gleaming filets. There’s overfishing, but also pollution from fish farming, not to mention bycatch, marine habitat destruction, illegal fishing … and that’s before getting to the problem of seafood fraud, and the fact that 1 in 3 seafood samples in a massive study by Oceana was served under pseudonym.

Programs like Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch and the Safina Center’s Seafood Guide are helpful when it comes to sorting seafood’s angels from its demons, but only if you can be sure the red snapper you’re looking at is actually red snapper (hint: It probably isn’t).

Meanwhile, third-party certification outfits — the ones that slap their seal of approval on seafood that’s harvested responsibly — are not without their flaws. In fact, the current demand for certified “sustainable” seafood is so high that it’s driving, you guessed it, overfishing. Someone get Poseidon in here because that, my friends, is what the Greeks called a “tragic flaw.”

Still, these third-party groups may offer the best hope for ocean-loving fish eaters like myself, so it’s worth paying attention to how they operate. And while these certification programs are very much a work in progress, they’re getting better.

****

The largest of the third-party labeling groups is the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Born of a partnership between the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever, the MSC was designed to bring market-based solutions to the kinds of environmental problems capitalism usually takes the blame for. It motivates fishermen, grocery chains, and restaurants to care about sustainability — because they can charge more for their product if it has MSC’s approval stamped on it.

MSC’s certification standards are based on the health of the fish population in question, the wider environmental impacts of fishing for it (such as habitat destruction and bycatch), and the quality of the fishery’s management. If fishermen want their fishery to be certified, they must pay hefty fees to independent assessors, who gather testimony from scientists and stakeholders, then submit a draft report which is peer-reviewed by other scientists, followed by public comments, more revisions (I assume you’ve tuned out by now), and so on — all adding up to an intimidating tangle of checks and balances. (If you like to geek out on this stuff, you can read all the reports of all the committees at every step of the process yourself.)

Once a fishery is certified, it receives yearly audits for five years, at which point the certification lapses and the whole process starts over again. Somehow, hoops and all, the MSC has managed to certify over 220 fisheries since 1996. According to MSC, its certified fisheries, along with about a hundred currently under review, make up over 10 percent of the global seafood catch, worth around $3 billion. Meanwhile, many companies are getting generous returns on their investment in sustainability: The wholesale value of MSC-labeled products rose 21 percent in 2013 alone.

But as MSC has grown, it has broken bread with larger and larger partners, whose appetites may outstrip the ability of certified fisheries to sate them. Critics claim MSC has slackened some if its rules to keep up with the demand from retail chains such as Walmart. Al Jazeera reported on the company’s struggle to keep buying Alaskan salmon after the fishery’s MSC approval lapsed:

Jennifer Jacquet, an environmental studies professor at New York University … said Walmart’s allegiance to MSC put a lot of pressure on the nonprofit to certify more fish.

“You have two options,” Jacquet said of MSC’s situation. “You can make seafood sustainable or you can redefine the word ‘sustainable’ to match existing resources.”

Likewise, when McDonald’s pledged to sell only MSC-labeled Alaskan pollock in the U.S., it strained the ability of the fishery — with only a mediocre sustainability score from Seafood Watch — to keep all 14,000 restaurants in Filet-o-Fish sandwiches.

Furthermore, NPR’s excellent in-depth series on MSC’s sustainability (or not) focused on a few fisheries the group had certified despite less-than-cheery evidence on the ground, er, sea. These included a swordfishery in Canada, where sharks are snagged more often than actual swordfish, over- and illegally fished Chilean sea bass, and volatile sockeye salmon populations in Alaska:

“Originally I thought [MSC] was a good idea,” says Jim Barnes, director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, a network of dozens of environmental groups around the world. … [But] the controversy over Canadian swordfish illustrates why the booming demand for sustainable seafood actually threatens to hurt the movement more than help it. “The bottom line is that there are not enough truly sustainable fisheries on the earth to sustain the demand.”

One result of that skyrocketing demand is that new, less stringent certification programs are popping up. After allowing its MSC’s certification to lapse, a powerful salmon fishery in Alaska persuaded Walmart to make room for a new certification, Responsible Fisheries Management, which puts less emphasis on sustainability and comes with no logo-licensing fees. Walmart still carries some MSC certified goods, but the company reneged on its all-MSC-all-the-time pledge.

You can imagine how this could quickly become a race to the bottom: If Alaskan pollock stocks continue to decline, the fishery may no longer meet MSC’s standards of sustainability. And if that happens? MSC could drop the pollock fishery and risk losing the McDonald’s account, too. Or it could lower the bar, in hopes of improving fishery practices down the road.

MSC has insisted that it never loosened its standards, and that those standards and the oversight that comes with them are high enough to guarantee sustainability — although it does offer a provisional certification for fisheries that are working toward sustainability, but aren’t quite there yet.

When I talked to MSC’s CEO, Rupert Howes, a few months ago, he told me that MSC has taken the global seafood scene a long way: “When MSC started, it really was innovative. There wasn’t really a sustainable seafood movement,” he said. “When you get leadership within the industry and within the market saying, we want sustainable seafood, we care where it comes from, we want to be part of the solution — it really is a huge, powerful force.

“I hasten to say: MSC is part of the solution,” Howes added. “Overfishing is a huge challenge — you need public policy reform, you need the work of advocacy groups to raise awareness of the issues, and then you need a program like the MSC that’s actually going to empower consumers, you and I, to use our purchasing decisions to make the best environmental choice.”

And like a good overseer, MSC is turning its eye on itself this year, in a thoroughly documented (naturally) self-review of its “chain of custody” program, which assures that MSC’s fish can be traced through the supply chain, from the water all the way to the seafood counter at the grocery store.

****

It’s worth pointing out that none of this controversy is unique to seafood. Other food labels, from USDA’s widely appliedorganic” to “fair-trade” to the virtually useless “all-natural” have at some point come under fire for being less idealistic in practice than they are in theory. The same is true of green building standards. Things get messy as any system gets bigger.

Of course, with billions of people eating from the sea, any movement toward oversight and accountability is almost certainly better than nothing. At the very least, by making sustainability visible, and desirable, to consumers, MSC has raised the stakes for the supply chains that serve them.

But what to do if the MSC’s logo isn’t enough for you? Here are a few tips for getting sustainable seafood, certifications be damned: 1) Eat as local as possible and many other concerns become moot; 2) eat low on the food chain, as in, more oysters and, seriously, no more Bluefin tuna; and 3) stick to restaurants or markets whose mission you trust instead of trying to decode the signage at your city’s everything emporium.

Did I miss anything? Uh, yeah, definitely. This whole labeling thing is a sticky issue, but it only works if producers know what the people want. So, by all means, weigh in.

When Drones Guard the Pipeline: Militarizing Fossil Fuels in the East

Winona LaDuke, Indian Country Today Media Network

Someone needs to explain to me why wanting clean drinking water makes you an activist, and why proposing to destroy water with chemical warfare doesn’t make a corporation a terrorist.

I’m in South Dakota today, sort of a ground zero for the Keystone XL Pipeline, that pipeline, owned by a Canadian Corporation which will export tar sands oil to the rest of the world. This is the heart of the North American continent here. Bwaan Akiing is what we call this land-Land of the Lakota. There are no pipelines across it, and beneath it is the Oglalla Aquifer wherein lies the vast majority of the water for this region. The Lakota understand that water is life, and that there is no new water. It turns out, tar sands carrying pipelines (otherwise called “dilbit”) are 16 times more likely to break than a conventional pipeline, and it seems that some ranchers and Native people, in a new Cowboy and Indian Alliance, are intent upon protecting that water.

This community understands the price of protecting land. And, the use of military force upon a civilian community- carrying an acute memory of the over 133,000 rounds of ammunition fired by the National Guard upon Lakota people forty years ago in the Wounded Knee standoff. That experience is coming home again, this time in Mi’gmaq territory.

Militarization of North American Oil Fields

This past week in New Brunswick, the Canadian military came out to protect oil companies. In this case, seismic testing for potential natural gas reserves by Southwestern Energy Company (SWN), a Texas-based company working in the province. It’s an image of extreme energy, and perhaps the times.

SWN exercised it’s permit to conduct preliminary testing to assess resource potential for shale gas exploitation. Canadian constitutional law requires the consultation with First Nations, and this has not occurred. That’s when Elsipogtog Mi’gmaq warrior chief, John Levi, seized a vehicle containing seismic testing equipment owned by SWN. Their claim is that fracking is illegal without their permission on their traditional territory. About 65 protesters, including women and children, seized the truck at a gas station and surrounded the vehicle so that it couldn’t be removed from the parking lot. Levi says that SWN broke the law when they first started fracking “in our traditional hunting grounds, medicine grounds, contaminating our waters.” according to reporter Jane Mundy in an on-line Lawyers and Settlements publication. This may be just the beginning.

On June 9, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) came out en masse, seemingly to protect SWN seismic exploration crews against peaceful protesters – both native and non-Native, blocking route 126 from seismic thumper trucks. Armed with guns, paddy wagons and twist tie restraints, peaceful protestors were arrested. Four days later the protesting continued, and this time drew the attention of local military personnel. As one Mi’gmag said, “Just who is calling the shots in New Brunswick when the value of the land and water take a backseat to the risks associated with shale gas development?”

The militarization of the energy fields is not new. It’s just more apparent when it’s in a first world country, albeit New Brunswick. New Brunswick is sort of the El Salvador of Canadian provinces, if one looks at the economy, run akin to an oligarchy. New Brunswick’s Irving family empire stretches from oil and gas to media, they are the largest employer in New Brunswick and the primary proponents of the Trans Canada West to East pipeline which will bring tar sands oil to the St. Johns refinery owned by the same family. Irving is the fourth wealthiest family in Canada, the largest employer, land holder and amasses that wealth in the relatively poor province. The Saint John refinery would be a beneficiary of any natural gas fracked in the province. In general, press coverage of Aboriginal issues there is sparse at best.

Fracking proposals have come to their territory with a vengeance, and the perfect political storm has emerged- immense material poverty (seven of the ten poorest postal codes in Canada), a set of starve or sell federal agreements pushed by the Harper administration (onto first nations), and extreme energy drives.

Each fracking well will take up to two-million-gallons of pristine water and transform the water into a toxic soup, full of carcinogens. The subsistence economy has been central to the Wabanaki confederacy since time immemorial, and concerns over SWN’s water contamination have come to the province. A recent Arkansas lawsuit against SWN charges the company with widespread toxic contamination of drinking water from their hydro-fracking.

Canada is the home to 75% of the worlds mining corporations, and they have tended to have relative impunity in the Canadian Courts. Canadian corporations and their international subsidiaries are being protected by military forces elsewhere, and this concerns many. According to a U.K. Guardian story, a Québec court of appeal rejected a suit by citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo against Montreal-based Anvil Mining Limited for allegedly providing logistical support to the DRC army as it carried out a massacre, killing as many as 100 people in the town of Kilwa near the company’s silver and copper mine. The Supreme Court of Canada later confirmed that Canadian courts had no jurisdiction over the company’s actions in the DRC when it rejected the plaintiffs’ request to appeal. Kairos Canada, a faith-based organization, concluded that the Supreme Court’s ruling would “have broader implications for other victims of human rights abuses committed by Canadian companies and their chances of bringing similar cases to our courts”.

In the meantime, back in New Brunswick, a heavily militarized RCMP came out to protect the exploration crews. Opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline has many faces, from ranchers in Nebraska and Texas who reject eminent domain takings of their land for a pipeline right of way, to the Lakota nation which walked out of State Department meetings in May in a show of firm opposition to the pipeline. All of them are facing a pipeline owned by TransCanada, a Canadian Corporation.

On a worldwide scale communities are concerned about their water. In El Salvador, more than 60% of the population relies on a single source of water. In 2009, this came down to choosing between drinking water and mining. In 2009, after immense public pressure, the country chose water. It established a moratorium on metal mining permits. Polls show that a strong majority of Salvadorans would now like a permanent ban. A testament to how things can change even in a politically challenged environment.

Up in Canada’s version of El Salvador, twelve people, both native and non were arrested, some detained and interrogated by investigators of the RCMP forces on June l4, and after a day of the federal military “making their presence” felt, the people of the region have concerns about how far Canada will go to protect fossil fuels.

Here in Bwaan Akiing, I am hoping that people who want to protect the water are treated with respect. And, I also have to hope that those 7,000-plus American-owned drones aren’t coming home, omaa akiing, from elsewhere to our territories in the name of Canadian oil interests.

Winona LaDuke is the Executive Director of Honor the Earth in White Earth Reservation, Minnesota. Visit their website at HonorEarth.org

 

Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/07/02/when-drones-guard-pipeline-militarizing-fossil-fuels-east

U.S. not waging ‘war on coal’: Energy Secretary Moniz

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz gestures during an interview with Reuters in Vienna June 30, 2013.Photo: Reuters/Leonhard Foeger

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz gestures during an interview with Reuters in Vienna June 30, 2013.
Photo: Reuters/Leonhard Foeger

Fredrik Dahl, Reuters

The U.S. government is not waging a “war on coal” but rather expects it to still play a significant role, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said on Sunday, rejecting criticism of President Barack Obama’s climate change plan.

Obama tried last week to revive his stalled climate change agenda, promising new rules to cut carbon emissions from U.S. power plants and other domestic actions including support for renewable energy.

The long-awaited plan drew criticism from the coal industry, which would be hit hard by carbon limits, and Republicans, who accused the Democratic president of advancing policies that harm the economy and kill jobs. Environmentalists largely cheered the proposals, though some said the moves did not go far enough.

Obama “expects fossil fuels, and coal specifically, to remain a significant contributor for some time,” Moniz told Reuters in Vienna, where he was to attend a nuclear security conference.

The way the U.S. administration is “looking at it is: what does it take for us to do to make coal part of a low carbon future,” he said, adding this would include higher efficiency plants and new ways of utilizing coal.

It is “all about having, in fact, coal as part of that future,” Moniz said. “I don’t believe it is a ‘war on coal’.”

Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, the No. 2 U.S. coal mining state after Wyoming, said last week that Obama had “declared a war on coal,” and the industry said the rules threatened its viability.

Moniz acknowledged there could be winners and losers but that economic models belie “the statement that there are huge economic impacts” from controlling greenhouse gases.

“Quite the contrary. We expect that this is going to be positive for the economy,” he said.

Obama said he had directed the Environmental Protection Agency to craft new emissions rules for thousands of power plants, the bulk of which burn coal and which account for roughly one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

With Congress unlikely to pass climate legislation, Obama said his administration would set rules using executive powers.

Moniz said he was optimistic that the United States would meet its goal to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. “We’re pretty close to the track right now. We’re halfway there,” he said.

An $8 billion loan guarantee program for projects to develop new technologies that help cut emissions of fossil fuels would include carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) as “one of a number of options,” he said.

“It will also include some advanced technologies for using coal very different from today’s technologies that will enable much less expensive carbon capture in future,” Moniz said.

CCS is a relatively new, expensive and unproven technology that captures carbon dioxide and buries it.