An Ecolabel Fable: Why Sustainable Seafood Labels Can’t Guarantee Ocean-Friendly Choices

When did lunch become so complicated? The server at the sushi restaurant hands me the menu, and I’m hit with a wave of anxiety as I count four pages, printed front and back.

I was hoping the menu would be as minimalist as the modern decor. I have only 45 minutes, and I’d like to enjoy a conversation with my husband, something we don’t get to do over meals at home with the kids. But as I scan the specials, I spot a familiar fish face. It’s the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise logo, a sign of a sustainable seafood choice. Decision-making made easy! But it seems almost too easy.

“Are these all Ocean Wise?” I ask our server, pointing to the 11 nigiri items with the stamp next to them. She assures me they are, and I ask for more time to peruse the menu. When she turns away, I pull out my phone and select the Ocean Wise app, which allows users to find restaurants across Canada that are part of the program and check on the sustainability status of seafood. I search the partner directory for the Next Modern Japanese Cuisine in Victoria, British Columbia, but it doesn’t appear, suggesting the restaurant is not an Ocean Wise member. Before I have a chance to check some of the seafood, the server returns.

What was supposed to be a stress-free lunch becomes an interrogation. Are the scallops Japanese? Yes. Farmed or wild? Wild. How were they caught? “I checked with Ocean Wise,” she says. “It’s Ocean Wise accordant.”

Photo: Mohamed kamal/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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