Someday, perhaps as early as March, Maryland's striped bass may join the main ingredients of Europe's Filet-O-Fish sandwich on the list of fish known worldwide as abundant, well-managed and caught in environmentally friendly ways.
The state has spent more than $131,000 and countless hours of study in a bid for the Marine Stewardship Council's seal of approval, a symbol of sustainability held by about 10 percent of the world's fish species and fish products — including the cod, haddock, hoki and pollock sold by 7,000 McDonald's restaurants in Europe. Maryland striped bass is the only fish on the East Coast being independently measured against the council's standards.
Watermen who live on the margin of profitability are banking on the eco-label to boost their share of the striped bass market in the Mid-Atlantic states and beyond. Politicians think the seal will burnish Maryland's reputation as a green state. And scientists charged with protecting the state's natural resources hope the bipartisan effort will act as a spark for reform of fisheries policies and a buffer against lawmakers who might derail research programs or divert funding in tough economic times.
"It's not a silver bullet for all of our issues," said Tom O'Connell, fisheries director for the Department of Natural Resources. "But [certification] will say that Maryland striped bass is managed in a manner that ensures it will be here for a long time and that it is one of the best-managed fish on the East Coast."
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said being able to put the eco-label on Maryland striped bass to get a premium price will help his members gain more control over their livelihood and ensure higher quality fish are delivered directly to upscale markets. Prices could increase their dockside take from about $2 per pound to as much as $4 for the fish, known locally as rockfish.
"Fishermen will take better care of their fish because they're worth more," Simns said.
However, not everyone is convinced that the sustainability seal is worth the effort — or the annual fees and royalties paid to the Marine Stewardship Council by individuals and businesses.
Greenpeace officials will not endorse the council's process, saying no credible certification system exists. During the assessment process, the organization's scientists have challenged a number of certification proposals, including one for Alaska pollock.
"I think it is possible for certifications to be useful, but I haven't seen that MSC is that," said John Hocevar, Greenpeace's oceans campaign manager. "The standards are too weak, and even the standards they have are not rigorously held. There have been a lot of questionable certifications. A lot."
Marine biologist Chris Pincetich of the Turtle Island Restoration Network in California called the certification "an industry-driven process … and a profit-driven marketing campaign rather than a science-based review."
Kerry Coughlin, the council's regional director, has heard the criticisms before. But, she said, the demand for sustainable seafood is driven by the industry, which wants to preserve fish populations long-term, and by consumers who want to do the right thing. Worldwide, the council's seal appears on 10,000 seafood products.
"It's not a panacea for all ills and problems," she acknowledged. "The MSC process gives people a way to be part of the solution. If people are asking for and buying it, they are rewarding those entities that have made a commitment to fish sustainably."
Consumers are increasingly drawn to products labeled sustainable and organic. The Organic Consumers Association says the eco-friendly movement fuels a $30 billion dollar industry in the United States, and grows 10 percent to 20 percent annually.
Sustaining Maryland's striped bass population hasn't been easy. The state imposed a five-year moratorium in 1985 to halt overfishing after catch numbers dropped from 14.3 million pounds in 1973 to 1.7 million pounds a decade later. Since the stock rebounded, Maryland's catch has been closely monitored by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
In 2010, watermen caught 2.15 million pounds of wild striped bass with a fair market value of about $8.6 million. (Aquaculture produces about 11 million pounds of striped bass annually that fetch a slightly higher price.)
While the federal government has set standards for what can be called organic, no definition has been established for sustainability. The Marine Stewardship Council, a nonprofit organization based in London, attempts to fill that void.
Created in 1995 by the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever, the second-largest consumer-goods company in the world, the council has commitments from more than 1,800 companies, including Walmart, Target, Costco and theme parks run by Busch Entertainment, to buy sustainable seafood.
The council charges an annual fee — ranging from $250 to $2,000 — plus royalties to fishermen, wholesalers, markets and restaurants for the right to use its trademarked logo. McDonald's, for example, will pay 0.5 percent of the cost of 100 million frozen fillets to the council in return for being able to place the blue logo on its fish sandwich wrappers in Europe. Logo licensing provides more than 40 percent of the council's revenue.
However, the council doesn't actually conduct sustainability audits. It relies on third-party assessments, in Maryland's case Nova Scotia-based Intertek Moody Marine Ltd., which was paid $131,801 by the state. Moody is reviewing the striped bass management plan and commercial fishing practices against council standards to decide whether the state is worthy of the blue seal of approval.
The Ehrlich administration initiated the certification process eight years ago, a move hailed by the Maryland Watermen's Association and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation as a new way to market striped bass. After a pre-assessment determined the striped bass would most likely be approved, progress stalled until the O'Malley administration decided last winter to jump-start the process.
Recreational groups, such as Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, are wary of the outcome. The group's leaders say it will be hard to justify the sustainable label, given all the problems on the Chesapeake Bay and with striped bass. Agricultural and storm runoff, rampant poaching, dead zones and diseases that have killed and weakened striped bass would seem to indicate that all is not well.
"In an ideal world, we would love to have the striped bass certified and have confidence that it's a sustainable fish. It would be good for the watermen, good for recreational anglers and good for the image of the state of Maryland," said the association's Trent Zivkovich. "But based on our experience, it's a false promise and will result in people feeling all is well when it is not."
And Greenpeace's Hocevar warns that the eco-label could backfire on state officials hoping to reform fisheries practices.
"MSC certification can be used as an excuse for not making changes to protect resources or habitat," he said. "Those who oppose change can say, 'Hey, this is already certified. We don't have to listen to you guys anymore.' They use MSC as a shield."
The uniqueness of the council logo is being undermined, too, as everyone from states to retailers jump on the sustainability bandwagon. For example, the Virginia Marine Products Board is marketing as sustainable the homely cownose ray with a new name, Chesapeake ray, and a glamorous identity, Veal of the Sea. The board's website says ray has "all the benefits of fish without the fishy taste."
Yet that sustainability claim isn't backed by an independent scientific assessment.
"The seafood industry or a state can argue, 'It's sustainable because we say it is.' Then sustainable becomes just another buzzword," Hocevar said.
Coughlin said the antidote to that is the Marine Stewardship Council, "a known commodity worldwide. If you see the MSC logo, you can have confidence in that product. If you don't see it, how do you know what you're getting?"
But that's exactly one of the unanswered questions, Zivkovich argues. He said it is still unclear how Maryland would protect the integrity of its brand and guarantee that a high-priced striped bass fillet displayed on ice in a market showcase or served in a restaurant came from a certified source.
"The bottom line is we want what's best for the fish," said Zivkovich. "Our concern is that any benefit from this isn't for the fish, it's for the benefit of MSC."