Community Fisheries Network raising the bar on accountability

As the seafood industry faces a wave of new questions about the legitimacy of fish labels, the Ecotrust-backed Community Fisheries Network is buckling down and working to build back public trust by establishing rigorous accountability on sustainability standards for its 13 membership organizations nationwide.

At a recent annual meeting in Portland, Maine, a new work group set to drafting metrics to more clearly measure member performance in meeting the network’s detailed sustainability standards. The standards support three broad goals: improving or sustaining ecosystem and species health; ensuring that communities have equitable access to fishery resources and provide intergenerational opportunities; and improving the economic performance of local fisheries businesses and associated community infrastructure. The standards include an emphasis on traceability for the high-value seafood delivered by network members.

“Our members have understood the problems with labels and traceability for years,” says Stephanie Webb, the business manager for the Community Fisheries Network, who is based at Ecotrust. “False labeling breaks down the trust and relationship between consumers and fishermen. Our work group is concerned with establishing clear metrics that the public can understand, and working on a framework to establish a clear chain of custody from boat to plate.”

Several member organizations sell their fish under their own labels to distinguish themselves in the marketplace and provide traceability back to fishermen. Port Clyde (Maine) Fresh Catch established the first community-supported seafood subscription service in the country and now processes and wholesales its own fish and shellfish. The Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association sells longlined and troll-caught salmon to community-supported fish subscribers in Juneau and Sitka under the “Alaskans Own” label. In Maine, Calendar Island Lobster Company was established by lobstermen in Maine’s Casco Bay to add story and value to their product. Meanwhile, members in Port Orford, Oregon will deliver fish to subscribers under the Port Orford Sustainable Seafood label beginning this spring.

The focus on transparent labeling becomes even more important as several studies and investigations have found widespread fraud with fish labels. In the most widely publicized study, Oceana found that one-third of more than 1,200 seafood samples collected across the country were sold under false labels. Fish sold under common labels like “tuna” and “red snapper” were in fact other species from poorly managed or unhealthy fisheries. Salmon sold as “wild” were in fact farmed; Asian catfish was often sold under the label of “cod” or “grouper.”

“The Community Fisheries Network believes that its new metrics will improve traceability, provide a real foundation upon which to ‘walk the talk’ on sustainable fisheries, and help consumers understand they are supporting fishing communities that care about the ocean,” says Ed Backus, Ecotrust’s vice president for fisheries.