By Lauren Foliart
City on a Hill Press Reporter

How well do you know your fish?

FishWise started with hopes of providing consumers and retailers with an answer to this question. Creating an extensive seafood grading system, the organization informs fish lovers about how sustainable each item is, where it came from, and how it was caught. Launched in 2002, the program hooked their first retail partner a year later with Santa Cruz’s New Leaf Market.

Fostering sustainable fishing, the organization helps customers be proactive and environmentally conscious of the food they choose to buy.

“Programs like FishWise help the marine environment because they educate customers in what they are buying,” said Mark Carr, a UC Santa Cruz professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “People have a better understanding of how their purchases affect the environment and this promotes making sustainability more available.”

Teresa Armstrong, meat department manager for the New Leaf on Pacific Avenue, has worked at the store since the program was implemented in 2003.

“Customers are definitely positive about the system,” Armstrong said. “It can be confusing out there, trying to find fish without any problems, and the [FishWise] program informs them and makes choices easier.”

The grading system FishWise uses highlights the sustainability of the seafood coupled with the method in which the species was obtained.

Green, yellow, and red line the cards next to the items. Green represents the most sustainable and red the least. Images symbolizing different methods of fishing, from basic trapping devices to contained aquaculture, are located in the corner of each card.

“The methods most sustainable are the ones with the least bycatch or least intrusive on the marine environment,” Armstrong said.

Hook-line and contained aquaculture are some of the best catching methods, Armstrong explained. However, many fishermen rely on methods that are harmful to the ocean ecosystem.

“One of the worst methods is trawling,” Carr said. “Trawling involves scrapping the seafloor, disturbing and harming other species than the ones being fished for. In some regions, for example, this destroys coral and sponges and these species take up to a thousand years to grow back.”

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 25 percent of animals caught in fishing instruments die as a result and are thrown away in the ocean. Harmed species include everything from dolphins to coral reefs.

Scientific research continues to determine the most sustainable ways to fish the ocean and looks at how the environment is being the most harmed.

According to Casson Trenor, FishWise’s business development manager, FishWise closely follows this research, keeping the grading system up-to-date on all the latest discoveries.

“Usually when the rankings are changing it’s because of the continual development of science,” Trenor said. “Instead of being unsure about a certain fishing methodology, science can determine how sustainable or non-sustainable it is.”

For example, a species of freshwater fish called tilapia recently boosted from a red grade to a yellow grade because they began to be farm-raised and now are well on their way to receiving a green grade, Armstrong explained.

With growing positive interest in restoring the environment and sustainable living, FishWise continues to grow as an organization, finding support nationwide.

Trenor credited the strong Web base and outreach for the success of the program. In addition, FishWise collaborates with multiple environmental organizations such as World Wildlife Fund, The Ocean Conservatory, Environmental Defense Fund, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

“We’re a founding member of a group called the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions, which is 15 different environmental NGOs that work on ocean issues and putting together a common mission for sustainable seafood,” Trenor said.

The six-year-old organization has received positive attention from retailers and customers, constantly expanding awareness and giving hope to the productiveness of its future.

“The project is in constant expansion, every year we’ve been much larger than the year before,” Trenor said. “Recently in 2007 we were exclusively in California; now it’s 2009 and we’re spread all across the country. By the end of 2009 I expect huge jumps in retail partnerships, and by 2010, who knows.”