Helping the ocean, one bite at a time

FishWise helps seafood consumers make environmentally responsible choices.

Red, yellow, and green have long been known to drivers as the primary colors of stop, slow and go. But with the growth of an innovative program created by a UC Santa Cruz alumna and a Ph.D. candidate, the colors have also now become a way for food shoppers to help combat what scientists say is one of the world's most pressing issues: the decline of the oceans' health.

FishWise, developed by Teresa Ish and Shelly Benoit, is a color-coded system aimed at helping consumers easily identify sustainable seafood choices while they're making selections at the fish counter. No need to dig out a Seafood Watch card from the Monterey Bay Aquarium to double check whether mahi mahi is OK or search foggy memory banks for the status of arctic char. The colors--green for healthy populations and environmentally responsible practices, yellow to indicate some concern, and red for overfished or unsustainable--are right there on the fish, on small signs stuck into the display.

The program, used locally in New Leaf Community Markets, is poised to explode, according to the UC Santa Cruz professor who advised Ish while she and Benoit developed the program and founded the Santa Cruz nonprofit that runs it, Sustainable Fishery Advocates.

"I think the organization is going to go through a fantastic growth spurt," said Marc Mangel, professor and chair of applied mathematics and statistics. "The time is absolutely right for their product."

FishWise, begun in 2002, started out at New Leaf Community Markets in Santa Cruz County; it's now used in 34 stores in California, and in August found roots outside the state, at Greenlife Grocery stores in Tennessee and North Carolina.

That expansion has been a positive development, though the nonprofit would like to see more progress, said Tobias Aguirre, executive director of Sustainable Fishery Advocates, which counts six employees.

"It's a little slower than we would have liked, but we're ambitious and want to see conservation as soon as possible," said Aguirre.

Outside of global warming, unsustainable fishing is "one of the main threats facing the ocean," said Ish in a phone interview from her office in New York City, where she now works for Environmental Defense. Though she gave up her day-to-day role with the nonprofit when she moved to New York, she still serves on its board.

"The way we think about seafood is different than how we think about land food, and it's one of the areas where the most education has to occur," said Ish, 29, explaining her and Benoit's passion for sustainable fishing practices and seafood choices. Ish earned a master's degree in marine science in 2003. Benoit earned an undergraduate degree from UC Davis and is a Ph.D. candidate at UCSC in ocean sciences.

Benoit, 34, is now on a yearlong global mountain trek with husband Rod Georgiu. She also serves on the board for Sustainable Fishery Advocates, calling in via Internet phone for meetings.

Ish moved east over the summer after having lived in Santa Cruz for seven years. Her husband, Eric Logue, is in a postdoctoral program at New York University after earning a Ph.D. at UC Berkeley. Both Ish and Logue also completed undergraduate degrees at UCSC; Ish majored in environmental studies and biology, while Logue majored in molecular cellular biology.

Mangel, the UC Santa Cruz professor, sat on the Sustainable Fishery Advocates board for four years, stepping down in July with the idea of allowing for some rotation of board members.

The public needs education about sustainable fishing because seafood consumption is increasing and putting pressure on world fisheries to supply the demand, said Executive Director Aguirre.

"That's resulted in significant environmental challenges, whether overfishing or habitat destruction," said Aguirre. "Our program gives consumers an opportunity to make a difference with their dollars."

Markets pay $150 per month per store to get set up and trained in the FishWise program. The vast majority of the organization's funding--85 percent--comes from foundations and grants, according to its 2005 annual report, the latest available; 10 percent comes from retailer fees, and 5 percent is from individual donations.

The retailer investment in the program pays off, said Aguirre: On average, participant retailers have seen an 11 percent total increase in their seafood sales.

And, he said, "the conservation side of that is they're clearly buying more of the environmentally responsible options and less of the non-environmentally responsible options."

Aguirre estimates that FishWise has reduced bycatch by 170,000 pounds, a number Sustainable Fishery Advocates calculates by gathering the number of pounds of each species sold by its retailers over time and using bycatch data specific to each fishery, then comparing the resulting figures with data for subsequent years.

Bycatch is the unintended catch of non-target species that can happen with less-selective fishing methods such as longlines or bottom trawlers, said Aguirre. It can include juveniles, seabirds, sea turtles, and sharks.

Ish and Benoit took a novel approach to applying their research in developing a nonprofit and seeing grocery stores as partners, said Mangel.

"It's sort of a perfect example of what we might like to see happen in terms of innovation and application of our academic work by our students," Mangel said. "They saw a need, they created a niche, they filled that niche. Teresa used all her academic skills and training she got in quantitative population biology to make FishWise a happening thing."

But also, he said, Ish's and Benoit's success comes in part from "not wanting to be environmental activists as much as environmental educators," said Mangel. "In addition to having the scientific background, they had the right personal skills to be able to convince somebody to give it a try."

Sustainability, at least with seafood, is something mainstream markets are talking about, said Ish. FishWise representatives are preparing to approach major grocery chains and food service companies next year, according to Aguirre.

The program's success and its future possibilities are exciting, said Ish.

"I'm fortunate in having the skills that can actually do something positive for a part of our world that people feel so connected to," she said.

For information, visit the FishWise Web site.