New Fish-Labeling Law Proves Controversial

Seafood consumers wondering where their fish comes from will probably welcome a new federal law that takes effect in April 2005.

Nov. 8—Seafood consumers wondering where their fish comes from will probably welcome a new federal law that takes effect in April 2005.

The country-of-origin labeling law mandates that retail stores indicate where seafood was caught and processed.

But the law is proving controversial and its implementation already has been delayed once.

Environmentalists say it will enable consumers to buy seafood that has been caught in an environmentally responsible way. Some local fishermen also support the law because it may boost sales of local fish. But fish processors, who buy seafood from fishermen to sell to retailers, are opposed because they don't want to be made responsible for incorrect labeling.

The law applies to grocery stores but not to restaurants. It does not include processed seafood such as breaded fish sticks, said George Leonard, a biologist with the Seafood Watch Program of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The Seafood Watch Program provides consumers with information about sustainable seafood choices. It issues consumer cards that list certain seafood choices as green for "best choice," yellow for "caution," or red for "avoid."

Leonard said the law will enable consumers to follow many of the Seafood Watch Program's recommendations.

"One of the most important things is to be able to identify where seafood is coming from," he said. "In the marketplace right now you can't do that without asking and hoping that people have that information."

One example of how the country-of-origin labeling can help the environment is shrimp, said Jennifer Dianto, Seafood Watch Program manager.

The seafood watch card puts U.S. shrimp in the yellow category — caution — but imported shrimp is listed as red, to be avoided. Shrimp from countries like Thailand or Vietnam, Dianto said, are problematic because they are grown in inland ponds. To build the ponds, the shrimp farmers have to cut down mangroves, valuable wetland habitats for birds and other animals. The mangroves also serve as storm buffers and water filters.

Dianto said country-of-origin labeling will also require stores to indicate whether seafood comes from the wild or was grown on farms. This will help consumers avoid buying farmed salmon, for example, which is more environmentally harmful than salmon caught in the wild. The seafood watch card lists farmed salmon as red.

Much of the farmed salmon sold in California comes from farms along the British Columbia coast, Dianto said. The salmon farms harm the environment by generating feces and excess food. Disease and parasites can spread from the farms to wild fish.

Some local fishermen are in favor of country-of-origin labeling.

"I think it's a good thing," said Kathy Fosmark, vice president of the Fisherman's Association of Moss Landing. "I think the more information the public can receive on the product, the better it is."

Tom Canale, a salmon fisherman from Santa Cruz, said he hopes the law will increase demand for wild salmon caught locally. He said he believes people in the Monterey Bay area prefer wild-caught salmon to farmed salmon.

"I think it's a great idea," he said of the law. "People would be able to distinguish if they buy farm-raised fish, which people especially in this area would not like to do."

But the food processors say they don't want to be held responsible for mistakes in the labeling.

Rod Moore, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association, said retail stores are responsible for correct labeling. However, he said, the stores won't buy fish from the processors unless they sign an agreement that if the store is sued for incorrect labeling, the processor is responsible.

"If you have a young seafood clerk who mixes up my piece of fish with a piece of fish from somebody else," Moore said, "they are going to come back to me and say 'Hey, I am going to hold you legally responsible for it.'"

But some retail stores don't expect much of a change once the law takes effect. Phil DiGirolamo, owner of Phil's Fish Market in Moss Landing, said he already tells his customers where the fish were caught.

"I like my customers to know where I am getting my fish," he said.

SEAFOOD WATCH: The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program divides fish into three categories depending on their sustainability. The following is a partial list. More information can be obtained by visiting the aquarium's Web site,

—Best choices: Catfish (U.S. farmed), Clams (farmed), Dungeness or snow crab (Canada), Halibut (Pacific), Oysters (farmed), Salmon (wild, California or Alaska, or canned), Shrimp/prawns (trap-caught), Striped bass (farmed), Rainbow trout (farmed), Albacore, bigeye, or yellowfin tuna (troll/pole-caught)
—Caution: Clams (wild), Pacific cod Imitation/surimi crab, American lobster, Mahi-mahi Oysters (wild), Pollock Bay or sea scallops, U.S. shrimp (farmed or wild-caught), Sole (Pacific), Squid (California market), Albacore, bigeye, or yellowfin tuna (longline-caught)
—Avoid: Caviar (wild-caught), Chilean sea bass, Atlantic/Icelandic cod, King crab (imported), Monkfish, Orange roughy, Rockfish/Rock Cod (Pacific), Salmon (farmed/Atlantic), Sharks (except thresher), Shrimp (imported), Sturgeon (wild-caught), Swordfish (Atlantic), Bluefin tuna
Source: Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation

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