A blog dealing with Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Is Mote Unable to Resist Calling Their Caviar Sustainable??

On December 22nd, 2012 Mote spokeswoman, Hayley Rutger, was quoted in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune as follows: “ It’s good to know our caviar is not only sustainable, but up to par with the foodies out there. There’s an interest in out culture to be sustainable and what we’re doing really fits into that.”

Photo of  Sarasota Herald Tribune  Dec 22 2012
247 days earlier, on April 19th, the Sarasota Herald Tribune was kind enough to publish a guest column of mine that argued Mote Marine’s sturgeon/caviar operation was not, contrary to their persistent claims, a sustainable enterprise.

In my column I used three distinct arguments when I asserted their practices were not sustainable. (I’m attaching a draft of my guest column below.) I argued 1) that the energetics weren’t sustainable, 2) that attempting to feed people a high-trophic level gourmet item was not sustainable (i.e. That we might feed the planet on algae, but not caviar), and 3) that there was no evidence their product was reducing pressure on endangered wild stocks.

I sort of expected someone from the lab to call me to either clarify, argue, or concede. Or perhaps, I thought, they would submit a letter to the editor defending their practices as sustainable. But I don’t think they did.

Instead they appear to just keep asserting their caviar/sturgeon operation is sustainable. That might be expected of some unscrupulous operators, but when a scientific outfit can’t or won’t produce information or data to substantiate their claims, one has to wonder what is happening. This isn’t the behavior one expects of a renowned biological laboratory.

The way I see it, Mote has five options:

1) They could make their case – offering convincing data-supported arguments that their sturgeon food is truly a waste product, that there is some way producing caviar (instead of some other protein) helps address world hunger, and that they have implemented a program that is somehow benefiting wild sturgeon (something they imply they are doing in the recent article- see the last sentence fragment in the image above).

2) They could provide a definition of sustainability that was vague enough to encompass their activities. But they would need to make that definition available for public scrutiny.

3) They could switch to claiming their sturgeon farming is “more sustainable”. And it probably is more sustainable than some of their competitors, or driving wild sturgeon to extinction.

4) They could agree that it isn’t really sustainable and cease promoting it as such.

5) Instead, as far as I can tell, Mote has persisted for more than two years in neither amending nor defending their claims of sustainability.

My Draft from April of 2011:

In Monday’s Business Weekly section the Director of Mote’s sturgeon aquaculture program was quoted as saying their sturgeon/caviar was a model of sustainability. I’m not buying it.

I’m literally not buying it because their caviar sells for $55 an ounce and I don’t have that kind of money to spend on salted fish eggs. But I am figuratively not buying it because I don’t think Mote’s sturgeon operation can be considered sustainable. 

Perhaps everyone is entitled to their own definition of sustainability. Some consider the impacts of an action seven generations from now, while others ask if our actions today may limit the potential of future generations. As for my approach, I consider several things: the energetics (inputs and outputs) of the system, whether it would make sense for everyone to behave similarly, and what are the implications for the other forms of life on the planet.

I’ve been told Mote sturgeon are fed fish-meal. That involves driving a diesel-powered boat around in the ocean netting fish and then grinding them up into sturgeon chow. If the sturgeon lived on algae that grew readily in the tanks, that, in my opinion, would help the sustainability argument. But having to use fossil fuels to deplete wild fish stocks and then process and transport them (more fossil fuel) raises significant energy and resource implications. How can that approach be considered sustainable?

Then there is the question of caviar and the by-product sturgeon fillets. We are never going to address the planet’s nutritional shortfalls with either caviar or sturgeon. These are top-of-the-food-chain luxury foods whose status value far exceeds any nutritional benefit. Caviar may become a valued profit center for Mote, but it is not a path to producing the most sustaining food with the fewest inputs.

Part of the rationale for commercial caviar protection is ostensibly to reduce pressure on threatened wild populations – the article states that environmental problems and overfishing were responsible for “opening the door for caviar aquaculture”.  So if the facility were on the shores of the Caspian Sea and former sturgeon poachers were being trained to raise sturgeon commercially and some fish were being released into the wild to rebuild stocks, then I could see how commercial production might directly reduce wild harvest. But I don’t think it is clear or inevitable that increasing commercial production of Siberian sturgeon caviar in Florida will necessarily reduce pressures on wild populations of sturgeon. I suspect sturgeon fisherman will continue to hunt sturgeon whether the price for wild-caught sturgeon or caviar drops or not.

As I suggested earlier, it is possible that when Mote claims their sturgeon operation is sustainable that they mean more sustainable than driving wild populations to extinction or more sustainable than competing sturgeon aquaculture systems (there are quite a few). And, clearly, using the nutrient-rich tail water of the system to grow plants is preferable to a once-through approach. But just as mostly-pure is not pure and almost-dead is not dead, being more sustainable is not the same as being sustainable.

21 months ago I wrote to Mote to share my concerns regarding their use of the term “sustainable” as it pertains to their sturgeon operation. I suggested: “If Mote wants to market sturgeon as sustainable, Mote should probably adopt a definition of sustainable that would sustain some external scrutiny so buyers knew what was meant by the term. Perhaps NGOs, NOAA, or others have adopted definitions or standards describing what a sustainable fishery or aquaculture project would consist of.

Without an adopted definition or standards, I'm afraid "sustainable" becomes just another marketing term. And I'm suggesting Mote would be wise to avoid being lumped in with suppliers that will say almost anything to market seafood.”

After all, consumers are weary of exaggerated claims, distortions, euphemized names (Slimehead>Orange Roughy; Patagonian Toothfish>Chilean Sea Bass), and
outright substitutions (such as bogus grouper) from some seafood suppliers.

Mote is a fantastic local resource, and if they are on the verge of creating a lucrative aquaculture profit center that could support their marine and estuarine research, that is exciting news, clearly worthy of being featured in Business Monday. But sustainable caviar? I’m not buying it. 

Photo of  Sarasota Herald Tribune  Dec 22 2012
Note the claim that a goal was to prevent overfishing.