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Defining the Elusive “Green” Fish

news_fishRecently passed Sustainable Seafood Bill seeks to inform consumers and reward environmentally friendly fishers

While the declining state of fisheries in California threatens to put us all in Homer Simpson's shoes during a Treehouse of Horror moment ("Oh, I wish I wish I hadn't killed that fish!"), Assemblyman Bill Monning's recently passed Sustainable Seafood Bill is a good start in the other direction.

The Sustainable Seafood Bill (SSB), Assembly Bill (AB) 1217, was signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Monday, Oct. 12. The bill, authored by Monning, sets out to define the term "sustainable" for California fisheries using internationally accepted guidelines, much in the way agriculture has official guidelines regarding what can be called Certified Organic. "We aren't going to reinvent the wheel," says Monning. "We are going to look at good practices and take what works for California."

After setting official criteria for sustainable fisheries, the second step of the bill in action is to provide a Sustainable Seafood Label for the products of fisheries that meet these criteria. The bill will also provide grant and loan money to fishermen and women who want to bring themselves, or their businesses, up to speed.  The label aims not only to increase the marketability of these products locally, but also to increase sales of California's seafood on an international level, as it will be in accordance with international guidelines of sustainability.  "You can do what's right for the environment and enhance our economy at the same time,” says Monning. “It's a classic win-win.”

The Monterey Bay Aquarium was a primary sponsor of the bill. "We want to see California fisheries thrive, we want them to be successful, we want them to generate revenue, but we know in order to make that happen they need some support at this point,” says Aimee David, ocean conservation policy manager at the aquarium. "At the global scale we're looking at devastating trends across the board."

She continued that, according to a recent study by Boris Worm, Ph.D. and an international team of ecologists and economists, 29 percent of edible fish and seafood species in the ocean have declined by 90 percent, and we will no longer have a commercial fishing industry by 2048 if practices remain unchanged.  Another report on the State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, done in 2008 by the Food and Agriculture Organization, found 80 percent of world fisheries were either fully fished or overfished, and that several of California's fisheries were at risk or had already collapsed.

Both Monning and David stress that the SSB does not create any new regulations for the fishing industry, but instead provides a reward for individuals who meet the bill's criteria for sustainability.

"It doesn't mandate," says Monning. "It creates opportunity without imposing requirements of costs." Fisheries that already meet the requirements of the bill will be awarded the Sustainable Seafood Label without having to modify their techniques. For fishermen who do not yet meet the criteria, the bill distributes grants and loans to these individuals or companies to make their practices sustainable through the California Protection Trust Fund.

"It's just a matter of as many fisheries as possible receiving as many funds as possible and as a result changing their practices so they can become more sustainable," says David.

In the long term, the bill hopes to help promote fishing methods that will not only not curb overfishing but also replenish fisheries. This is, according to proponents, in the best interest of environmentalists and the fishing community alike. "We are definitely looking out for the long-term health and sustainability not only of the fisheries but of the fishermen," says David.

The SSB, to be implemented on Jan. 1, 2010, may not have immediately apparent effects. In the short term, however, the bill's supporters hope that consumers will begin looking for the Sustainable Seafood Label on their purchases, an integral piece of making the bill’s goals a reality.

What, you may ask, is so important about implementing sustainable fishing practices? Assemblyman Monning sums it up nicely: "Sustaining our fisheries, in essence, is really about sustaining life on Earth."

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