NOAA Tries to Consolidate Fish Information For Consumers

August 15, 2007

Consumers looking for information on which fish may be better to eat, considering factors such as sustainability, health, or source identification, have a range of potential sources. NOAA is attempting to pull much of this information together in a pilot program called FishWatch, announced Aug. 3, 2007 (release).

In the first phase of the program, the agency is providing information on 26 saltwater species, and is soliciting public feedback for 60 days. Comments emailed can address any aspect, such as Web site usability, content accuracy, or topics covered or missing.

The agency, which is charged with addressing both economic and environmental issues, hopes to eventually provide consolidated information on more than 200 saltwater species.

The advocacy group Got Mercury is telling NOAA it is concerned about the pilot program's lack of information on mercury, saying that some fish that FDA acknowledges are a concern sometimes aren't well identified. Got Mercury: Caryn Mandelbaum, 415-488-0370 x104.

Beyond FDA's official list, many other species are worrisome to some people, as discussed in the Feb. 1, 2006, TipSheet.

Other contaminants, such as PCBs, pesticides, dioxins, flame retardants, or chemicals in food fed to farm-raised ocean species such as salmon, receive little or no attention from FDA or NOAA. For information on some of those (as well as sustainability issues covered by FishWatch), see Environmental Defense's site for selected species; Tim Fitzgerald, 212-616-1230, or Becky Goldburg, 212-616-1236.

The National Academies' Institute of Medicine recently concluded that the information on the health tradeoffs of eating seafood is preliminary or insufficient, in a report released October 17, 2006: "Seafood Choices: Balancing Benefits and Risks."

Environmental Defense's Fitzgerald says that, along with a serious dearth of contaminants data, FishWatch tends to be slanted toward promoting US fisheries (which provide only a small percentage of all fish consumed in the US). He also notes that NOAA's definition of a sustainable fishery is any that has a federal fisheries management plan, even if the fish are acknowledged as seriously overfished. That's very different from the definition used by most independent oversight groups, who tend to include the current extent of overfishing.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch focuses on sustainability issues for certain fish, and provides a range of resources for journalists and consumers, including pocket guides. Scores of other sustainability and health resources are listed here.

For more on overfishing, see the TipSheet of July 4, 2007.

NOAA has no jurisdiction over freshwater species, and spokeswoman Susan Buchanan (301-713-2370) says she knows of no nationwide freshwater effort equivalent to FishWatch.

However, state information on fish consumption advisories can provide limited information, primarily for fish caught locally. Links to several related TipSheets are included at the end of the Feb. 1, 2006, TipSheet mentioned above.