Written by Jen Finn
Teach your children
One reason might be that a number of players in the seafood industry are trying to distance themselves from the harvest of fish. In other words, from you.
For example, the Wall Street Journal reported in mid-July that some big-time restaurant operators such as McDonald's, Yum Brands, which owns Long John Silver's, and Darden, which owns Red Lobster, "have embraced the growing movement toward more eco-friendly seafood-buying practices."
According to the Journal, these companies are working with scientists and advocacy groups to make sure their products pass muster as sustainable. Truth is, it doesn't matter whether they "embrace" the movement or not as long as they heed the wishes of consumers for whom sustainability has become a priority. For example, the newspaper noted, McDonald's for a time stopped using Eastern Baltic cod because it had questions about the veracity of catch reports. Similarly, Darden took Chilean sea bass off the menu of its Capital Grille chain in 2007.
We respect companies for responsible decisions that go against the bottom line. But companies should also feel a responsibility to educate consumers when appropriate. Indeed, in the long run, education will return a far greater dividend than trying to meet the public's every — sometimes misinformed — expectation.
Restaurant menus are an integral part of the "dining experience," and millions of Americans ate their first lobster after reading how on a place mat. Why not use these items to make clear to diners that cod, for example, can be fished in a manner consistent with their recovery, or to explain why trawls, longlines and big boats aren't evil.
Still, that's the easy part. It's one thing for a hamburger chain to take a stand for Eastern Baltic cod, or for a shrimp and lobster purveyor to get religion about Chilean sea bass; it's quite another for vessel operators with long-term commitments to particular fisheries to up and steam away from their bread and butter.
Truth is, if you're a fisherman, you can be a true steward of the resource and still take heat on sustainability because you can't distance yourself from the issues that concern the public and loom over your ability to make a living. The public misapprehends the meaning of overfishing, believes you are indifferent to bycatch, and finds fishing gear and how and where it is used almost incomprehensible. In short, what Darden and others can accomplish with supply-chain changes and a PR campaign, you cannot.
The U.S. fishing industry needs to undertake a campaign to educate consumers. And I don't mean sound bites. I was on CNET, the consumer electronics review Web site, the other day and found that flat-panel TVs are evaluated, among other criteria, on the basis of energy consumption. Energy consumption, traditionally a pocketbook issue, has emerged as a sustainability issue as well. And in a world in which TVs are under a green microscope, the fishing industry can expect nothing less than utmost scrutiny of its resource use.
The good news is we have a story to tell. The bad news is we haven't told it.
– Jerry Fraser
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