Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program still protecting sea life 10 years on

Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program still protecting sea life 10 years on

A lot can change over the course of a decade. Just look at the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program. What started as a local grassroots movement has now become Canada’s most recognized sustainable seafood program.

The program was launched in 2005, in response to requests from concerned citizens who wanted the Vancouver Aquarium’s assurance that the seafood they were consuming was sustainable.

Initially, Ocean Wise affiliated itself with the Seafood Watch Program, which was being run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. The American aquarium had created consumer wallet guides that listed fish in three categories: green (the best choice), yellow (a good alternative) and red (avoid).

Ocean Wise spokesperson Teddie Geach says that in the early days, they thought the Seafood Watch was a great initiative.

“It was something easy that consumers could use when they were going out to dine and it got them to start thinking more about their seafood,” said Geach. “So we became the Canadian distribution point for these consumer wallet guides, and the great thing about these was that people were actually using them.”

Geach says that consumers would take the wallet guides with them into restaurants and ask the servers about how and where the fish on the menu was caught. However, the Ocean Wise team eventually found a problem with this process.

“At the time, the servers had no idea where their fish was coming from,” said Geach. “So it really left the consumer with this dilemma of what to order.”

Eventually, Ocean Wise moved away from the consumer wallet guides in favour of a new system to categorize seafood.

“We wanted to make it easier. To have a binary system of either its Ocean Wise or it’s not.”

In order to be considered Ocean Wise, seafood or seafood products needs to meet specific criteria. For example, a sustainable species of fish should be abundant and resilient, with a relatively short lifespan and a lot of offspring. Also, all Ocean Wise seafood must be caught in a well-managed fishery that has quotas or a total allowable catch in place.

Geach says the organization does all the research in figuring out which fisheries to recommend through their program. Then they work with companies, chefs and seafood suppliers to help them source sustainable seafood. Once the restaurant menu item or product has been certified as Ocean Wise, they earn the privilege of carrying the Ocean Wise symbol.

The new program meant that customers could easily make an informed purchasing decision, without having to carry around a reference card and ask questions. Geach claims that the Ocean Wise symbol has helped people become more conscious of the seafood they consume.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in awareness in sustainable seafood,” said Geach. “We now see people looking for that symbol on menus. Obviously people want to know more and more about where their food is coming from.”

In the past five years, Ocean Wise has joined with more than 600 partners across the country including chefs, restaurateurs, markets, suppliers and fishers.

One chef who has been particularly passionate about the Ocean Wise initiative is Chef Ned Bell of Vancouver’s YEW seafood + bar restaurant. Last year, Chef Bell rode his bicycle across Canada to raise awareness for the program because he is concerned with the current state of our oceans.

“Seafood is the last wild protein on the planet,” said Chef Bell. “Overfishing is the largest threat that faces our world’s oceans, and 90 per cent of the large ocean predators are already at risk, or some of them are extinct. So if we continue to abuse the oceans we are in trouble as a species, not just as a food system.”

Chef Bell added that he sees Ocean Wise as a great educational resource for both chefs and consumers, because it highlights the importance of food systems, food security and where our food comes from.

It seems that more and more people are becoming aware of the importance of sustainable seafood. Even companies that don’t offer whole seafood products are jumping on the Ocean Wise bandwagon.

Earlier this year, Canadian company Walter joined as a partner because its Caesar mix contains clam juice, which is sustainably sourced from the North Atlantic.

Aaron Harowitz, co-founder of Walter all-natural craft Caesar mix, says that partnering with the Ocean Wise program was an easy decision.

“We use real clam juice in Walter, therefore it was a pretty obvious choice for us to partner with Ocean Wise to ensure that the product is fished in a sustainable manner,” said Harowitz.

While current bottles of Walter Caesar mix do not carry the Ocean Wise logo, Harowitz says that eventually new packaging will include the symbol.

Look for the Ocean Wise symbol on products in your local grocery store, and next to items on restaurant menus to get the Vancouver Aquarium’s assurance of an ocean-friendly seafood choice.