Voluntary Sustainable Seafood Labels Now Law in California

Published on October 14th, 2009 | by

Consumers are often confused in choosing seafood has been caught sustainably, especially  in light of trusted grocers, such as Trader Joe’s, selling red listed seafood. California’s AB 1217 Ocean Protection Council: Sustainable Seafood will eliminate some of the confusion by requiring the Ocean Protection Council “to develop and implement a specified voluntary sustainable seafood promotion program”.  The bill was sponsored by Assemblyman Bill Monning (D-Carmel) and signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger on October 11, 2009.

Photo by barbaranotarileVoluntary sustainable seafood labels now law in California
Voluntary sustainable seafood labels now law in California

AB1217 is consistent with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program, which was consulted and endorsed the bill.  The aquarium explains, “Fishing practices worldwide are damaging our oceans—depleting fish populations, destroying habitats and polluting the water. Informed consumers can help turn the tide.”  The major ocean issues “troubling our waters” are:  1) bycatch, 2) habitat damage, 3) aquaculture, and 4) overfishing.

California is the first state in the nation to enact a sustainable seafood bill. Assemblyman Monning explains in the Contra Costa Times:

You have a number of species that are absolutely in danger because they’ve been over-fished.  When you give consumers a choice, whether it’s in the supermarket or a restaurant, people want to do the right thing. What this labeling will do is assist people in making the right decision…We think it would give California exporters an advantage in the competitive market.

Specifically, AB 1217, according to Around the Capitol, will:

…consist of a protocol to guide entities on how to be independently certified to internationally accepted standards for sustainable seafood, as defined, and a marketing assistance program, and a competitive grant and loan program. It would prohibit seafood produced through aquaculture or fish farming from being certified as sustainable under these provisions until nationally or internationally accepted sustainability standards have been developed and implemented. The bill also would provide that moneys in the trust fund may be expended for grants or loans to a private entity for projects or activities that further public purposes consistent with the voluntary sustainable seafood promotion program.

I’m not sure what power a voluntary program will have on the seafood industry, but at least it is a step in the right direction.  In fact, it seems like a contradiction to include a voluntary program in a “law”, which implies statutory compliance.  AB 1217 could have sent a much stronger message to the seafood industry if the bill had required mandatory labeling for all seafood sold in California.  At least AB 1217 will give consumers a better choice at identifying sustainable seafood in restaurants and grocery stores.


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1 comment

  • it’s a good question – why a “law” for a “voluntary” action. The legal aspect of AB 1217 is directed at the OPC – they MUST establish guidelines, marketing and assistance for sustainable seafood. Currently, there is little or no incentive for fishermen or the seafood industry to be certified sustainable, partly because of the cost prohibitive nature of the certification. With the OPC acting on this law, it does 2 things for seafood. 1. it makes it easier for fishermen/seafood industry to pursue certification, leading to product differentiation, and thus an incentive to offer more sustainable and less non-sustainable fish. 2. The law suggests that the political environment is moving toward sustainable seafood and politicians are taking the environment seriously. This could instigate fishers to get onboard with sustainable practices.
    Hope that helps!

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