Seafood Matters and Whales Do, Too

For three days each March, Boston becomes the center of the seafood universe when it hosts Seafood Expo North America (SENA). The event, now in its 34th year, brings together some 20,000 participants from dozens of countries, and is one of the largest gatherings of seafood companies, buyers and sellers in the world.

According to statistics from the Department of Commerce, the United States is a leading importer of seafood; in 2015 more than 2.7 million metric tons of fish and shellfish were shipped to the country, a 2.5 percent increase over the previous year. Consumers in the U.S. spend a whopping $85 billion a year or more on a variety of fishery products, and decisions made at SENA are at the heart of many of those transactions.

During its first decade, there was little talk of either sustainability or social responsibility at SENA; price and quality dominated the discussions. During the 1990s, however, in large part due to highly publicized campaigns such as efforts to ensure Dolphin Safe tuna and the push at the United Nations to ban driftnets, the discourse at SENA began to include seminars on sustainability. The public became increasingly concerned about the impacts of overfishing, as well as the entanglement of non-target species such as whales, dolphins, sea turtles and seabirds in certain types of fishing gear.

A growing number of seafood labeling programs are identifying sustainably sourced fish in an effort to help consumers make informed choices to protect the environment. However, the explosive growth in the number of ecolabel certifications in the seafood industry has led to consumer confusion, especially as a number of these labels tend to focus on the management of a single fish stock or species, while failing to factor other environmentally and socially damaging corporate behaviors into the certifications process.

Many non-governmental organizations have begun to call on eco-labeling programs to consider a far wider array of issues, such as the carbon footprint of a fishery, the thoughtless discarding of plastic waste into the oceans by the seafood industry, human rights abuses of crews on fishing vessels and animal welfare concerns.

Seafood certification programs should also consider corporate ties to the whaling industry. The whaling and fishing industries have been linked for centuries, often sharing common ports, vessels and processing infrastructure. And despite public perceptions that whales have been “saved”, commercial whaling continues to cause the death of thousands of whales each year in defiance of the International Whaling Commission’s global ban.

Many seafood buyers are unknowingly helping to keep a cruel industry alive

The trade in seafood has become highly globalized, with products passing through several companies and countries in a complex supply chain, from fishing vessel to consumer. Many retailers, buying from their suppliers in good faith, will not know they are putting money into the pockets of the whaling industry, and an eco-label is not necessarily a guarantee that a company is “whaling-free”.

 For example, both the Iceland Responsible Fisheries and Marine Stewardship Council programs have certified the Icelandic seafood corporation HB Grandi, one of the many hundreds of companies exhibiting at SENA 2016.

According to Slayed in Iceland, a report from the Animal Welfare Institute, Environmental Investigation Agency and Whale and Dolphin Conservation, HB Grandi’s chairman, Kristjan Loftsson, is the managing director of, and a key shareholder in, the Hvalur hf whaling company, responsible for the death of more than 700 endangered fin whales since 2006. In addition, HB Grandi’s fish processing facilities were used to cut and pack whale meat for several years.

Recent public opinion polls in the U.S., UK and Germany show that 64 percent or more of respondents would be willing to stop buying seafood from companies that are linked to whaling, and both the seafood industry and the seafood labeling industry should consider that as they identify fish suppliers.

Seafood consumers should ask their local supermarket, big-box store, wholesale club or restaurant to verify not just that their seafood products are sustainable, but that they do not come from a source linked to Icelandic whaling. Refer them to the website if they have questions. If they cannot guarantee that the Icelandic seafood products are “whaling free”, consider not buying from them until they can.

Kate O’Connell is a consultant with the Animal Welfare Institute. Connect at

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