Sustainable Seafood Initiative

URI's Cathy Roheim attempts "consensus" seafood guide, provides resources to buyers - by Peter Lord, Providence Journal, Feb. 23, 2009

At least nine organizations ranging from Greenpeace to the Monterey Bay Aquarium have produced guides to advise consumers about what seafood can be eaten without damaging the environment or fish populations and which seafood to avoid. But the problem is, they don't all agree.

Tuna, for instance, comes from so many populations and is fished in so many ways, the various organizations give ratings ranging from green for best choice to red for avoid. "You have an abundance of recommendations about what is sustainable seafood, but it can be confusing," says Cathy Roheim, a professor of environmental and natural resource economics at the University of Rhode Island (URI) and director of a new program called the URI Sustainable Seafood Initiative.

Roheim and Michelle Armsby, a graduate research assistant, have prepared a Consensus Seafood Guide that lets people look at and compare all the ratings provided by the various organizations so they can make their own decisions. They also have gathered and indexed scientific papers on various fish topics.

Seafood sustainability is not a simple subject and Roheim's work is not presented for people to reach quick conclusions before shopping. But it is available to the public at URI Sustainable Seafood Initiative. Roheim, in a presentation on campus last week, said her primary goal is to provide independent, scientific information to those in the seafood industry so they can make good decisions on using seafood that is sustainable.

Roheim's work is financed by Rhode Island Sea Grant, the College of Environment and Life Sciences Land Grant program, the Packard Foundation and King's Seafood, a California seafood supplier. Making seafood choices even more difficult, said Roheim, is that there is no single definition of sustainability. For example, nearly all the groups give Alaskan pollack a green label, but Greenpeace rates it red because of certain fishing practices that are used. Roheim said one of her advantages is that she doesn't represent any special interest in the fishing industry so her work should have more credibility and be considered a clearinghouse of information.

"It can't be understated that there is a lot of confusion out there," she said. But companies want to buy sustainable seafood. And the smaller businesses need help cutting through the confusion. "We're a third party, independent source," said Roheim. "I don't have a dog in this race. I can bring to bear independent academic resources."

The Web site contains hundreds of reports from universities, governments and advocacy groups on such topics as ecolabeling, consumer preferences, fisheries certification and standards, government policies and markets for sustainable seafood. Roheim said she plans to continually update the site as funding permits.