Many people across the United States pick up organic fish and shellfish during their usual trip to the grocery store. However, what these shoppers may not realize is that this seafood isn’t American: due to current restrictions, these products are instead shipped from Canada, the European Union and other countries.
Now, the U.S. Agriculture Department has stated that it plans to propose standards for farmed organic aquaculture, a development that could move the country towards the sale of American-raised organic seafood. But critics have raised numerous questions about the plan, which range from the products’ ability to appeal to customers to the feasibility of creating an organic supply chain. With few answers in sight, it seems clear that shoppers will continue to wait for local organic fish for the foreseeable future.
Organic products are a popular choice for consumers and retailers because of their perceived health benefits and higher prices. For this reason, the northeastern grocery chain Wegmans already sells organic seafood imported from Norway and other countries, citing its ability to draw educated, higher income shoppers as a primary consideration. However, American-raised organic fish and shellfish has faced continual delays for the past 10 years, causing other retailers, like Whole Foods, to hesitate. By finally legalizing organic salmon, tilapia, catfish, shrimp, mussels, oysters and clams, the Department of Agriculture could not only expand the nation’s seafood trade but also help the farmed fish industry compete against cheaper imports.
However, many critics say they are unsure if U.S. standards could be successful. For example, some experts in the farmed fish industry have commented that the requirements for fish feed may be too expensive for many operations, a fact that will raise prices for consumers as well.
Similarly, consumer and environmental groups have expressed concern over the impact the standards could have on fish, the ocean and more. Like the industry members, many are concerned about what these organic fish would eat: breeding organic fish and growing organic grains like soybeans and canola would be extremely costly, but seafood would need to be fed with these products in order to earn the organic label. Using sustainable wild-caught fish has been vetoed for this reason. Environmental groups are also worried that raising fish in ocean pens, called net pens, could allow fish to escape and contaminate wild species, or could even harm the organic fish themselves.
In response, several safeguards have been suggested: ocean-farmed fish would need to be strains of native species, net pens could not be placed on migratory routes, and producers would need to closely monitor water quality and the local ecosystem. However, this doesn’t solve the problem of food: as one Hawaiian fish farmer noted, organic supply chains don’t appear out of thin air.
For this reason, the process of bringing American-raised organic seafood to grocery stores is expected to take more than two years. Currently, the National Organic Standards Board is reviewing vaccines, vitamins and other substances a successful aquaculture will need. Supporters say that this lengthy process will help consumers feel more confident in choosing U.S. products in the long run. However, this may not be necessary: seafood reports from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and other organizations show that nearly all groundfish caught in California, Oregon and Washington are now ranked either yellow, representing a good alternative, or green, meaning the best choice, by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program. These wild fish would not be eligible for organic labeling, as this would be too difficult to monitor, but producers and consumers at least know they are healthy and affordable.