By Chris Adams

The news is filled with stories about seafood harvested by slaves and commercial fishing operators employing practices that harm other species in pursuit of an increased catch.

But behind the plastic wrapping at the grocery, every fish looks the same. How can consumers help decrease harmful practices – and increase sustainability?

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Brian Perkins of the Marine Stewardship Council explained the seafood certification process. Perkins is regional director for the global nonprofit dedicated to protecting the last major food resource that is truly wild: seafood.

The council works with fisheries, grocery stores, restaurants and others to modify fishing practices and make it simpler for consumers to know what to buy. The council seeks to prevent food fraud, combat overfishing and promote transparency in supply chains. A commercial fish operator that meets the council’s standards is allowed to display a recognizable blue fish certification label – a positive signal to consumers.

Perkins explained the certification process, which can take up to 18 months. To be certified, the fishery must meet 28 detailed criteria across three principles.

He talked about the difference between certification and ratings, which are used by organizations such as Seafood Watch.

“We’re both trying to achieve the same thing – that is, move fisheries to sustainability,” he said,

What’s an example of such a transformation? Perkins pointed to Patagonian toothfish, known to U.S. consumers as Chilean sea bass.

According to the council, the slow-growing fish generally lives for up to 24 years, hitting two meters in length. It was threatened by illegal fishing and other unsustainable practices. But after dozen years and mitigation strategies, it was brought back to health, and more than half of the total global catch was certified sustainable by the council.

He also talked about other certification organizations – generally regional ones without the scope of the Marine Stewardship Council.