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Staying Afloat: The Sustainability Movement in Canadian Seafood


Between April and November 2017, 12 of the world’s 450 right whales died in Canadian waters. A further five were found entangled in fishing gear, still alive. In response to these events, and following third-party audits of fishing areas across the east coast, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) announced in March 2018 that snow crab fisheries in the southern Gulf of the St. Lawrence (designated as area 12 by the Fisheries and Oceans Canada) would have their sustainability label suspended until practices are updated and no longer pose a danger to the whales.

Snow crab is one of the most valuable Canadian seafood exports, valued at between $400 million and $600 million annually, exported mostly to the United States and Japan. Area 12 accounts for about a quarter of crab yields. In terms of having the sustainability label returned, Canada’s MSC program director Jay Lugar says that’s in the hands of the fisheries now.

Carb Legs“The timelines are up to them,” says Lugar. “We need to see that they are not hindering the recovery of the right whale population. Once those new measures are in place, the independent certifier will be able to consider if the performance of that fishery is good enough again to meet the industry standard.”

Sustainability is more than a buzz word in the fishing business—it describes an industry-wide shift in perspective that seems to be taking root. The MSC works as an intermediary body between fisheries, governments and scientists to develop the standards by which the industry is measured. Lugar explains the MSC’s role in driving sustainability and the complex process involved in certification:

“Our global standard has three main components and 28 subcomponents,” he says. “One of those components deals with the impact of the fishery on the ecosystem in which it operates, and one of the subcomponents of that standard deals with its interaction with endangered, threatened and protected species. That’s where the right whale analysis would fall.”

Having the MSC’s sustainability seal, or eco-label, is often in the best interest of the fishery, as Lugar explains. “Fisheries enter the MSC program and seek the sustainability label for a variety of reasons,” he says. “One of them is that they want to make sure their practices on the water are meeting a high international standard. They may also want to present their products to the supply chain and consumers as being sustainable. It’s important for not only the consuming public to know their seafood is sustainable, but also for people whose livelihood is dedicated to that fishing industry. The MSC program is a way of demonstrating that they are doing the right things.”

Sustainability, however, goes beyond the fishery. The responsibility falls on retailers, restaurants and individual consumers. For this reason, the MSC undertakes a process of traceability.

“Traceability is a key element of ensuring that sustainable seafood that is being sold by the operator is actually the sustainable product they are offering,” says Lugar. “In the certified sustainable program, that product has been through a chain of custody system. It adds that level of assurance. When the restaurateurs and chefs say, ‘Trust me, I purchase good, sustainable products,’ customers can have that level of trust.”

The MSC is not the only body interested in monitoring sustainability. Other groups that offer eco-labels include Ocean Wise, SeaChoice and the WWF. The criteria for certification varies, and many take the MSC’s recommendation into account, but all are interested in the same goal.

Ned Bell, executive chef at the Vancouver Aquarium and longtime partner of Ocean Wise, echoes Lugar’s sentiments about the importance of putting sustainable seafood on the plate. Bell is a passionate advocate of sustainability, working with Ocean Wise to bring the best seafood available to consumers. Ocean Wise began in 2005 through the Vancouver Aquarium with just 16 partners. It has since grown to include almost 1,000 across Canada.

“As a chef, I don’t know that there’s a more important topic of conversation than healthy oceans,” says Bell. “I hope I can gather as many of my peers to be on this journey with me as possible.”

Bell stresses diversification as one way to reduce the stress on overfished species. North Americans consume shrimp, whitefish, tuna and salmon almost exclusively, placing an enormous demand on these stocks, to the detriment of their ecosystems. While fish farming is one solution—indeed, Bell feels that aquaculture is key in the sustainability conversation—diversifying the menu is another. His book, Lure, Sustainable Seafood Recipes from the West Coast, provides a sample of the possibilities that eating diverse and local food can offer.

“In my book, I challenge people to eat seafood once a week for the next year,” says Bell, “and I challenge people once a month to eat something from the ocean they’ve never had before. Dive a little deeper into this conversation. Try new things.”

Bell encourages his food industry peers to join him in asking questions about where their seafood is coming from. “The full team has to be committed to sustainability,” he says. “If the full team above and below the chef isn’t committed, then it just ends up being hot air. We need to be asking questions: Is it traceable? Is it labelled properly? Is it sustainable? Is it responsibly farmed?”


The Whalesbone Group out of Ottawa, Ontario, is one company that has been asking these questions since first opening in 2005. Whalesbone began as a small oyster bar and has since grown to include three more restaurants and a fishmonger. For Whalesbone, there has never been any doubt that sustainability must be a focal point for the business.

Our oceans are over-fished and abused,” says wholesale and retail manager Jay Booth. “We are in the seafood business—so let’s ensure that we stay in business. Sustainable, ethically-sourced seafood helps maintain the industry for years to come while giving the peace of mind that we are doing our part in conservation.”

Whalesbone works with Ocean Wise recommendations to build a completely sustainable menu, and Booth says customers respond to this.

“We have a client base that comes to us exclusively, knowing of our commitment to sustainable seafood,” says Booth. “That client base continues to grow both with public consumers and wholesale clients.”

Curating an all-sustainable menu is not without its challenges, admits Booth. Sourcing only those products recommended by Ocean Wise means some species are not available.

“If you ask for Chilean sea bass, for example, we can’t get it for you,” says Booth. “Sustainable seafood products also typically come at a higher price point, as the methods for fishing or farming usually result in smaller yields. But the upside of this is that sustainable seafood tends to be a better quality product.”

To balance the issue of price while still delivering a stellar dish, Ned Bell suggests a departure from the protein-centric dishes to ones that use smaller portions of high-quality seafood as a garnish.

For Whalesbone, there has never been a question of whether this is the right way of doing business.

“The more we chose sustainable, the longer and healthier our business will be,” says Booth.

Exactly, says Ned Bell. “My life’s work will be to raise awareness,” he says. “To challenge my peers to make the best choices we can. We have to look 100, 200, 500 years ahead.”

For the right whale, even a few years is a long time if the events of 2017 indicate a trend. Only three newborn right whales were documented last year. For these and other threatened populations and ecosystems, sustainability needs to be a conversation in the food industry right now. The responsibility for change goes beyond one snow crab fishing area in eastern Canada. It goes as far as the entire food industry in this country.

“As a chef, I don’t know that there’s a more important topic of conversation than healthy oceans,” says Bell. “I hope I can gather as many of my peers to be on this journey with me as possible.”