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The ingredient lists for a new line of ready-to-eat entrees showcasing Pacific Northwest seafood reveal the producer's commitment to local, sustainable seafood --and the difficulties

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Determining Whether a Fish is Sufficiently Sustainable for an Entree Pouch

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The ingredient lists for a new line of ready-to-eat entrees showcasing Pacific Northwest seafood reveal the producer's commitment to local, sustainable seafood --and the difficulties faced by anyone trying to untangle which dietary habits are best for the oceans.

Portland's Fishpeople packages four different dishes in its single-serve poaching pouches: salmon in chardonnay-dill cream sauce; smoked salmon and smoked oyster chowder; coconut yellow curry tuna and Thai coconut lemongrass tuna are now on the shelves at Whole Foods and PCC Natural Markets. Each package is labeled with a code which can be entered online to retrieve information about the farmers and fishermen responsible for each component ingredient.

The chowder, for example, is made with Pacific oysters from T&S Oyster Farms, fall chinook from the Fishing Vessel Punkin', thyme from a Troutdale farm and California bell peppers. ("Yikes! We were unable to find red and yellow bell peppers grown in the PNW," the write-up apologizes. "We are working very hard to resolve this for our next batch.")

"We found that there was really no defining seafood brand in the Northwest that was creating value added, ready to eat meals, so our mission became keeping the fish, the money, and the jobs in the local economy," founder and CEO Duncan Berry is quoted as saying in a release.

Fishpeople developed its own "brand practices" to determine which fish stocks were the best fit for its mission. All of the preparations' starring seafoods are highly-rated by the various organizations which issue recommendations based on global sustainability forecasts and are "caught locally using responsible methods to protect the ecosystem."

But seafood sustainability remains a tricky business, as evidenced by the inclusion of fish sauce in three of Fishpeople's four entrees.

Fishpeople uses the critically-acclaimed Red Boat fish sauce for its curry, chowder and lemongrass tuna. The artisanal fish sauce is made with only wild-caught Vietnamese anchovies and sea salt: Red Boat illustrates its purity online with a photograph of a traditional wooden boat floating in clear blue water. Yet beyond the repeated references to "wild-caught," there's no indication on Red Boat's website as to how the company obtains its fish. An e-mail requesting more information was not returned.

Although Asian fisheries are the source of many environmental horror stories, anchovies are generally considered a very good seafood choice. "Generally, species like anchovy tend to be schooling and catch methods generally cleaner," says Oceana's Geoff Shester. "Eating fish sauce is also a way that small forage fish can directly feed people, rather than pigs, chickens, and farmed seafood, so my guess is that it is a safe bet sustainability-wise."

Unfortunately, the best Shester can do is guess, since advocacy organizations such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which administers the popular "Seafood Watch" program, haven't formally assessed the Vietnamese anchovy fishery.

"Our assessments are based on what is being consumed (by people) in the US market," explains Monterey Bay's Allison Barratt. "Anchovy just doesn't rise to the top of the list."

What is known about anchovies is they're fast to reproduce, so "technically ought to be plentiful," Barratt says. "The downside is that they are much prized for use in feed, and so often sought after."

"We learned that anchovies are a pelagic species, which is significant because they can be caught by net without major environmental damage also, they swim in large schools so the bi-catch is quite low," Fishpeople's Jodie Emmett de Maciel adds. "Also, anchovies are basically at the bottom of the food chain, so you have populations that are significantly larger then you do with predator fish."

So, de Maciel concludes, the company opted to do what so many consumers are forced to do when they're making fish choices: It did the best it could.

"Now clearly, the fish sauce isn't local and is rather imported from Vietnam, but many experts agree that this is the most culturally authentic, niche, family operated fish sauce you can buy," she says.

Fishpeople entrees retail for $5.99.

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