Rating Alaska's seafood

December 07, 2012 Print Friendly and PDF

Alaska: Seas & Coasts

Marine Issues for Alaska's People
Volume 5 May 2008

Torie Baker
Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program

Authors/Editors: Paula Cullenberg and Torie Baker
Designer/ Editor: Deborah Mercy

Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program
School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences
University of Alaska Fairbanks

Are Alaska’s fish resources sustainable? How can we as a harvesting and processing industry reduce our “carbon footprint”? Are the “food miles” for Alaska seafood too great to satisfy responsibly minded consumers?

Spurred by seafood consumer and public advocacy groups as well as climate change and ocean acidification data, many issues and terms around carbon footprint accounting are being bundled together. The following concepts in the seafood marketing conversation will affect Alaskans and will bear watching and understanding.

“Sustainability” has become a major focus in seafood marketing. Retailers and buyers (not to mention harvesters) have always sought a steady supply of seafood; long-term availability of raw materials is at the core of any healthy business model. But sustainability used to be a biologists’ word, referring to managing fishing effort for the biological long-term health of the fish stocks. With growing public awareness, sustainability increasingly includes the social and environmental impacts of production, processing, labeling, packaging, and transportation.

Large seafood retailers in particular are pushing the supply chain for verification that a seafood product is sourced from a well-managed and hence “sustainable” fishery. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and other third-party certification schemes are internationally recognized sustainability measures, but many believe that in the not-to-distant future carbon footprint and emission data will be added to seafood’s production accounting ledger.

Food Miles
Generally understood to refer to the miles food travels to the market, “food miles” uses minimized transportation distances as a tool to promote the purchase of locally grown foods and thus the support of local producers. But, as with sustainability, this phrase has expanded to include fossil-fuel costs and associated emissions. Transportation to market in some regions can be as much as 25 percent of a food’s energy expenditure. Air cargo is the most significant carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions generator—five times more than truck, train, and ship. Product forms (i.e., dried vs. fresh fruit, canned salmon instead of head-on frozen) also impact the mode of transport used.

As a single indicator of sustainability, food miles alone is probably inadequate. While lamb raised in New Zealand and shipped to markets in Great Britain, or tulips raised in Kenya and sold on an Amsterdam street corner may seem like transport overkill, amazingly, when farming practices are examined in these countries (less use of fertilizers, feed, no greenhouses, etc.), the greenhouse gas emissions can be less than that of European producers even when including the 10,000 mile transport emissions (see LCA below).

Carbon Footprint Labeling
Food choices based on how much carbon was emitted by the time the item reaches its point of sale, like country of origin labeling, is gaining traction, but has its challenges. International measuring standards, particularly for seafood production, are lacking.

According to a recent New Yorker magazine article, Tesco, a major supermarket chain in Great Britain, last year committed to being a leader in helping create a carbon-neutral economy. With a portfolio of over 70,000 products, the company is attempting to devise ways to custom label products so customers can quickly “compare (a product’s) carbon footprint as easily as they can currently compare their price or their nutritional profile.” Tesco is finding that deciphering the carbon footprint on products is a challenge, but nonetheless remains dedicated to the task. A Tesco manager said, “We’re not just about food. We’re trying to help people make better choices about their lifestyle.”

So, to arrive at a simple and accurate carbon footprint icon on a package of blackcod at Costco is very involved and, without established standards and data sources, risks misleading consumers and damaging producers. Complexities in defining, tracking, and ranking environmental impacts are almost overwhelming, but the payback for companies can be improved overall business efficiencies as well as an improved environmental report card.

Life-Cycle Assessment Modeling
A promising accounting method for production environmental impacts is life-cycle assessment (LCA) modeling. LCA is a research method to analyze environmental impacts of production cycles from cradle-to-grave. LCA methodologies are now incorporated in international manufacturing standards, and are widely used in the chemical, automobile, and energy sectors. LCAs optimize the environmental performance of a product or a company by arriving at a better understanding of production cycles and associated environmental costs. Impact categories such as toxicity, waste, air pollution, etc., are identified and attempts are made to quantify the impacts, thus informing business and environmental decisions.

Use of LCA analysis in seafood production systems is relatively rare, and methods of comparison of production activities within aquaculture operations and wild-capture/processing sectors are still evolving. Seafood LCA work was pioneered in Scandinavia and Iceland in the late 1990's in support of their seafood industries to understand environmental impacts, highlight areas in need of improvement, and help producers communicate environmental performance to customers and consumers.

Summary: Consumer awareness of biological sustainability considerations in food choices have risen considerably in the last five years; how carbon accounting will be used in the seafood marketplace is as yet a concept on a slippery deck in big seas. To calculate carbon emissions undoubtedly leads to the temptation to pit harvest gear types against each other, or tally up wild capture as compared with aquaculture, or seafood vs. other protein sources. Beware: even if tools and data aren’t yet in place to make many blanket statements, acting on the larger questions of sustainability throughout the food chain continues as everyone’s responsibility.

To Download the full pdf, click here: Changing Climate, Changing Alaska's Fisheries?

Connect with us

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • YouTube
  • Pinterest
  • Google+


eXtension is an interactive learning environment delivering research-based information emerging from America's land-grant university system.