April 12, 2021

The Seaspiracy of the Codfather

Sarah & Becca start off by doing a deep dive into the new Seaspiracy documentary. Sarah then gives us an overview of the fishing industry and the amazing technology behind aquaponics. 

Becca shares her knowledge on the law of the sea, specifically in relation to overfishing and high seas crime. She then discusses the conflict that arose between fishers and scientists in the city of New Bedford, Massachusetts. How did policies that were intended to protect the ecosystem end up privatizing the ocean? How did this open the door to a new type of criminal? She tells the story of Carlos Rafael, aka the Codfather.

Seafood Watch Recommendation

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Barth, B. (2017, Nov 10). The Codfather is Finally In Jail. But Who Is He?. https://modernfarmer.com/2017/11/codfather-finally-jail/ 

Carrington, D. (2018, Jul 9). One in three fish caught never makes it to the plate – UN report. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jul/09/one-in-three-fish-caught-never-makes-it-to-the-plate-un-report 

Dunlop, K. (2020, Feb 20). Twelve of Carlos Rafael’s vessels officially sold to Blue Harvest. https://www.southcoasttoday.com/news/20200220/twelve-of-carlos-rafaels-vessels-officially-sold-to-blue-harvest 
Eckert, C., Baker, T., & Cherry, D. (2018). Chronic Health Risks in Commercial Fishermen: A Cross-Sectional Analysis from a Small Rural Fishing Village in Alaska. Journal of agromedicine, 23(2), 176–185. https://doi.org/10.1080/1059924X.2018.1425172
Farzan, A. N. (2019, Aug 20). The ‘Codfather’ was a seafood kingpin, until fake Russian mobsters took him down. Now he’ll never fish again. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/08/20/codfather-fishing-russian-mobsters-carlos-rafael/ 

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2020). The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020. http://www.fao.org/3/ca9229en/CA9229EN.pdf 
International Labour Organization (1999). Fishing among the most dangerous of all professions, says ILO. https://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_071324/lang--en/index.htm#:~:text=GENEVA%20(ILO%20News)%20%2D%20As,International%20Labour%20Office%20(ILO). 
Lennon, A. E. (2021, Mar 3). 'Codfather' Carlos Rafael officially a free man, according to federal record. https://www.southcoasttoday.com/story/news/crime/2021/03/03/carlos-rafael-released-prison-today-according-record/6904813002/ 

Mettler, D. (Director). (2018). Cod is dead [Docuseries]. Rotten. 

National Ocean Service (n.d.) What is aquaculture? https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/aquaculture.html#:~:text=Aquaculture%20is%20breeding%2C%20raising%2C%20and,of%20threatened%20or%20endangered%20species
North, D. (2016). What is Aquaponics and How Does it Work? Permaculture News. https://www.permaculturenews.org/2016/05/30/what-is-aquaponics-and-how-does-it-work/#:~:text=Aquaponics%20is%20a%20combination%20of,aquatic%20animals'%20discharge%20or%20waste  
Our World in Data (n.d.) Fish and seafood consumption per capita, 1961 to 2017. https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/fish-and-seafood-consumption-per-capita?tab=chart&country=~NOR  

Raffery, J. P. (n.d.). Are There Laws on the High Seas? https://www.britannica.com/story/are-there-laws-on-the-high-seas 

Verma, A. S. (2020, May 2). A Case for the United States’ Ratification of UNCLOS. https://diplomatist.com/2020/05/02/a-case-for-the-united-states-ratification-of-unclos/#:~:text=On%20the%20flip%20side%20of,easier%20access%20to%20foreign%20waters. 

Wikipedia. (n.d). United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Convention_on_the_Law_of_the_Sea 

WWF. (n.d.). Facts & figures: The cold hard facts about overfishing. https://www.fishforward.eu/sl/facts-figures/#:~:text=An%20overview%20of%20the%20sad,as%2050%20years%20ago%20%5B1%5D&text=Over%2060%25%20of%20fish%20stocks,stocks%20are%20classified%20as%20overfished. 


B: Today you are going to give us an overview of the fishing industry. Then I am going to discuss some major issues around fisheries and sustainability, and talk about one fraudster who took advantage of the system that was intended to protect the sea. My dad actually gave me the idea for this episode, so shout out to dad. He’s a big recreational fisher himself.

S: Okay - fishing and the fishing industry. Not a small topic. I went down a lot of wormholes while doing this research, especially in light of seaspiracy. There are so many different stakeholders in the fishing industry and fishing is essential to food security and feeding the growing population, but (as we just discussed) it is far from a perfect industry. I definitely think we’ll have to revisit many aspects of the fishing industry in future episodes, but today I’m going to give you a brief overview of the industry, and I’ll cover some different types of fishing and the main methods used in industrial fishing. Sounds kind of boring but I actually found it pretty interesting! 

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is the only institution that collects national data on fisheries and aquaculture from each country - so basically they are the keepers of the international data. So, according to the 2020 report by the FAO, global fisheries and aquaculture produce 179 million tons of product annually, 87% of which - 156 million tons - is directly for human consumption. So that’s a hugely significant source of high quality protein for humans. About 54% of that is from capture fishing and 46% is from aquaculture. 

Capture fishing is probably what most people think about when they think of fishing, so it’s the catching of fish from natural open bodies of water like the sea, lakes, ponds, and rivers. This means that the fish can be at any level of maturity, because you’re just using a really big net and scooping everything up, and you tend to get a lot of bycatch (unintended catch) and you’ll get a mix of baby fish and adult fish. 

Culture fishing is essentially farming in water -  so growing, rearing, and capturing fish from tanks or cages. They are cared for until they are mature so that the harvest has a maximum yield, and is easily comparable to traditional farming with the use of selective breeding for optimal traits and bycatch isn’t a problem because the environments are contained. Aquaculture is growing in popularity and is expected to to surpass capture fishing by 2050, and if technology continues to evolve and the practice can become more efficient, this could be a great thing! But currently there are some downsides to aquaculture, very similar to the critiques of industrial agriculture: it takes a lot of small fish to feed the larger farmed fish, the large fish populations create a lot of concentrated waste, and there can be habitat destruction. But if fishery scientists keep innovating in this area, it could be key to a more sustainable system. 

Despite all the criticisms of the fishing industry, fisheries are essential to providing jobs and feeding the growing population. In 2016, the value of fishery production was estimated at 401 BILLION USD - a hugely profitable industry. Per capita fish consumption increased from 10kg/year in the 1960s to more than 20kg/year in 2016, but in some countries, particularly coastal developing countries, it can be as high as 91 kg per capita per year in Iceland! Seafood accounts for almost 17 percent of the world’s protein intake, and in some countries it can account for over 70 percent of their protein intake. So eliminating fish completely isn’t a worldwide solution. 

Beyond being an important dietary component, fisheries also maintain livelihoods, especially in coastal communities in developing countries. It’s estimated that fisheries support the livelihood of 10–12 percent of the world’s population, with approx. 60 million people directly involved in either capture or culture fishing, and another some 200 million along the supply chain from harvesting to distribution. If you consider family members and dependents, then you’re looking at the lives of up to 820 million people dependent on the fishing sector, and this number is growing. 

Fun fact: There are about 4.6 million fishing vessels in the world, with over 75% of the global fleet in Asia. 

There is also, as highlighted in the New York Times expose on sea slavery (which we will link in our references) and briefly touched on in Seaspiracy, a significant human cost to the fishing industry. The International Labour Organization and the FAO estimate that about 24,000 deaths occur in the fishing industry each year in the pursuit of fishing – making fishing one of the most hazardous jobs in the world (second to logger). The risk of death is 16x higher than for policemen or firefighters. Using the high end of that estimate, 32,000, means that every hour 3 fishermen die doing their job. And if you read the NYT expose or watch Seaspiracy, you’ll see that that number is likely higher because deaths go unreported and bodies are just tossed to sea. Another comparison is the aviation industry, in the past 5 years there has been an average of 480 fatalities per year compared to the 32000 in the fishing industry. And there are other health concerns for fishermen – working in a constantly moving environment, stress, poor dietary habits, and fatigue. Studies have shown that risk factors for chronic disease such as high blood pressure, high triglycerides, diabetes and obesity are more common in fisherman than among the general population. There are tons of other health concerns too, like alcohol and drug abuse, lack of work-life balance, musculoskeletal disorders, and mental health problems including high suicide rates. 

So there are significant social issues with the fishing industry in addition to the numerous environmental challenges, and yet, it’s a vital industry for many people around the world. I totally understand if you watch Seaspiracy and want to cut back on your intake of fish - but there are a lot of other factors to consider, like humans and their cultural preferences. and if you are in a position where you can make that decision and want to make that decision - do it! But don’t be critical of those who don’t make the same decision as you, because individual decisions are just one tiny piece of the super complex puzzle.

Let’s chat types of fishing, because not all types of fishing are created equal. The most common form of capture fishing is purse seine “sane” fishing, in which a boat finds a school of fish, drops a big net around the school, and draws it together like a drawstring bag. Because this type of fishing targets a school of fish, bycatch can be low which is good, but sometimes they will use what’s called a fish aggregating device to attract fish to a certain area and that will attract many types of fish resulting in more bycatch. 

Trawling is when a net is dragged through the water behind a boat, and you can have a midwater or bottom trawl which just depends on the depth of the net. While bycatch is not typically very high, habitat destruction can be higher with bottom trawlers. 

And then there are gillnets, which are bad. They are illegal in a lot of places but still used in some areas. It’s basically a big net wall with holes in it that fish swim into and get stuck. These are often used in developing areas of the world because they don’t require a big boat with an engine, but they are becoming less common because they have major issues with bycatch. 

You can also fish with a line instead of a net! 

Longlines look just like a long charm necklace with many hooks to catch fish. & the bycatch varies, but one concern is that they are closer to the surface of the water which is where turtles and sharks and seabirds hang out. And then there is the classic pole & line where a fisherman has their own fishing rod - I don’t really need to explain that one, but the risk of bycatch is very low.

You can also dredge, which is just like bottom trawling but instead a metal rake is used to collect scallops, clams, and mussels. Similar to bottom trawling, bycatch is low but habitat destruction is a concern. 

On a more positive note, progress towards more sustainable fishing has been made. The proportion of fish stocks fished within sustainable levels increased from 53% in 2005 to 74% in 2016 in the United States, and in Australia, that number increased from 27% to 69%. However, to achieve the UN goal of sustainable fisheries, there is definitely a need for collaboration between countries, policy coordination, and new technologies! So real quick, I’m going to tell you about a new-ish technology called aquaponics. 

Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics - which is growing plants in water, and so it’s the growing of fish and plants in the same environment. It’s a symbiotic relationship, where fish would be in the water and their waste acts as fertilizer for the plants that are growing in the water - it’s like a perfect combination of fishing and gardening.

There is a Canadian company called Water Farmers which uses aquaponics to build sustainable agricultural systems, so in Toronto, we actually have 4 different aquaponics locations - ripple farms, aqua greens. Waterwheel farms, and scadding court community centre. And fun fact: there’s also duckponics. 

B: Some of the sources I used include an article by Aditya Singh Verma in the Diplomatist, one by Brian Barth in the Modern Farmer, another by Antonia Farzan from the Washington Post and an episode of the docuseries Rotten, called Cod is Dead. And as always, all the sources can be found in our shownotes.

So we can’t talk about the crimes that took place without first talking about the structures and policies that currently exist around fishing globally and in the United States. Now this story is specific to the US, but it does affect the system and demand of seafood at a global level. And if you aren’t convinced that this sounds interesting, I swear there is SO much scandal in this story...I was pretty surprised. There is actually a lot of scandal, crime, and fraud within the fishing industry in general. And this is somewhat because of the separate laws that govern large bodies of water. So before the 20th century, these laws were a bit wishy washy, and large lakes and oceans were sometimes referred to as being “lawless”. This was based on the concept from the 17th century called “freedom of the seas”. According to this, cities and towns on the coastline had ownership and rights over just 3 nautical miles beyond the coast. Anything beyond that was deemed international waters - so it didn’t belong to anyone. Which, as you can imagine, would make it tricky to govern (Wikipedia, n.d.).

Between the 1950’s and 1980’s, the United Nations developed an international agreement called the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea OR the Law of the Sea Treaty. This was created in response to governments wanting to be able to source certain minerals beyond their borders, protect fish, and enforce regulations around pollution. The most recent version of this agreement was established and signed in 1982 in Montego Bay in Jamaica. But it only became effective in 1994 (Wikipedia, n.d.).

The treaty highlights the responsibilities and rights that each country has when it comes to the use of ocean resources. So things like business and environmental guidelines, as well as dispute resolution (Verma, 2020). Maritime countries control the water from the shore until about 12 miles out from the shore now. So each country will have their own laws and regulations governing this area. Then they can have up to another 200 miles of an exclusive economic zone, where the country can’t control the boats going through this area, but they have exclusive rights to the sealife and minerals in this zone. While some countries have 200 miles, others have much less, as the zone cannot overlap with that of another country. Anything beyond these zones are considered international waters, or the “High Seas”. If a crime occurs in this area, the country owning the vessel has jurisdiction over it. However, this gets a bit confusing in instances where someone from one country commits a crime on the vessel of another country, and is then on the waters of a completely new country when the crime is discovered (Rafferty, n.d.). But this agreement helps safeguard the high seas and implements somewhat of a legal regime where it can.

As of 2017, 160 countries have signed this agreement. Some countries who have yet to sign it include Peru, Turkey, Venezuela, and quite surprisingly, or not, the United States of America. There is a lot of speculation around this, and it was tough to find one consistent answer as to why they have not hopped on board, because the US actually helped shape this agreement. One historical theory is that the US thought that the treaty violated their sovereignty, or jurisdiction, giving power to more communist countries. Another theory is that if they signed on, the US would have to surrender sovereignty to the International Seabed Authority, which may affect deep seabed mining and open themself up to international lawsuits. But as I said this is just speculation. Overall I think that it's a matter of them not wanting their economy to be governed by anyone but themselves. 

By not signing this treaty, the US forfeits national security, trade opportunities and some resource extraction. They do however accept and act in accordance with the agreement...they just won’t sign it. So it’s a bit strange. I should mention that Canada actually only signed on in 2003, so it’s pretty recent for us. 

So we have these international sea laws, that the US chooses not to be a part of, then each country has legislation and policies around their bodies of water. More regulation has been put in place recently due to issues around sustainability, specifically around overfishing. Now fish and seafood are a huge component of our food supply. About 19.2kg of fish is consumed per person per year, which is about twice the amount that was consumed 50 years ago. It is estimated that 61% of the global fish stocks are fully fished, and that 29% of the global stocks are overfished (WWF, n.d.). To make matters worse, the FAO (food and agri org) estimates that 35% of all catches are wasted, mainly because they are too small, they are unwanted species or because of improper equipment, like refrigerators on board (Carrington, 2018). 

Now this brings us to our story for the day. We are in New Bedford, Massachusetts, which is America’s #1 fishing port. The fishing industry here apparently brings in over a billion dollars a year - from sushi grade fish to dog food, and everywhere in between. The US is the second-largest consumer of seafood in the world, right after China, so a lot of the fish stays local, but some of it is shipped for consumption around the globe. 

In the late 1960’s large foreign fishing fleets began removing large quantities of fish from the ocean. The New England coast, which is where New Bedford is, was a big target to these fleets, as it was so densely populated with fish. This process disrupted the whole ecosystem, and many fish species died off. In response to this, US Congress passed the Magnuson Act in 1976, which essentially said the same thing as the Law of the Sea - so only US citizens can fish within 200 miles of the local shoreline. /// While this protected American fishermen, they kinda forgot about the fish who were already being over caught.

Fast forward a few years and we have ourselves a global fish crisis. This time, Congress decides to set limits on the number of fish that fishers can catch. This really impacts the quality of life of all fishers, as this directly limits their ability to make money. And this feud kind of develops between the fishers and scientists who are supplying the research that justified why things needed to change.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, which is a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or the NOAA, was tasked with measuring the number of fish left in the area. So the results of these studies impacted the number of fish that the New Bedford fishers could catch. And these fishers thought that the NOAA was underestimating the amount. Turns out they weren’t and that the situation was even more dire than was initially thought. 

In 2010, the NOAA then implemented what are called “catch shares”, which are basically quotas that are divided up amongst the fishers. What some fishers were once able to catch in a day became their quota for the year. These catch shares essentially became the private property of the fisher, and they could sell or lease them as they pleased. Individuals over their quota could then buy or lease more shares.  

Many individuals were critical of this approach, since it basically privatized the fish, which are meant to be a public resource. And what happens when a country can’t meet the demand for a certain food product locally? You import it. This opened the door for an influx of foreign seafood. And these imports don’t necessarily have to follow the same sustainability protocols.

In addition, the limits and catch shares forced many smaller fish businesses to shut down, which meant that there were more opportunities for larger operations to take over. And one of these operations belonged to a man by the name of Carlos Rafael, aka the Codfather.

Since there were no limits on how many catch shares you could hold, these larger entities could essentially accumulate them and control a big part of the system. Rafael quickly accumulated about 25% of the groundfish quota for all of New England (Mettler, 2018).

Before we get too deep into what happened, I want to tell you a little bit about Carlos Rafael. So Carlos was born in 1952 in the Azores (EH-ZORZ), which are these fairytale-like islands in Portugal. At the age of 12 he was sent to live in a monastery since his parents were afraid that he'd be drafted to the wars in Angola and Mozambique. But after a short period of time, he was kicked out of the monastery and convinced his parents to move to the US. His family moved to New Bedford when he was 15. Pretty immediately, he dropped out of school there, claiming that the lessons were too “basic”. He then started working in the fishing industry, which is actually mainly run by Portuguese-Americans, which I didn’t know. But I was in Portugal a few years ago and they really do know their seafood there. After a few years, in the early 1980’s, Rafael started up his own seafood distribution company called Carlos Seafood. He slowly built up the business, by buying more and more fishing boats, until he controlled a huge percentage of the New England fish market.

His business dealings weren’t always the most ethical though. In 1984, he received 6 months in prison for tax evasion; a few years later he was charged, but then acquitted for price-fixing (which essentially inflated the price of the fish exported out of the area); and in 2001 he was found guilty of forging sales receipts. He received a 2 year probation sentence and 6 months of house arrest for this crime.

Many say that he earned his nickname and reputation because of his more cut-throat personality and criminal activities. I found one quote of him from a conversation with federal fishing authorities, where he said “I am a pirate. It’s your job to catch me” and he followed this with a bunch of F-bombs. 

Regardless, he remained one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the area. His processing facility and distribution channels were allegedly worth millions (Barth, 2017; Farzan, 2019). So you could imagine that someone with this kind of capital and a history of criminal activity would be thrilled by the new “catch share” policy which essentially allowed him to buy up the fish shares legally, all while controlling the market. He would also purchase the smaller operations that were going out of business. But this too is 100% legal and a pretty smart business strategy if you have the means to do it.

The system that was put in place to protect the ocean ended up giving the largest players the most power, and in this case, it gave a known criminal more resources and opportunity.

In 2015 Rafael decided he wanted to sell his business and move to Cape Verde, which is just off the African coast. But by this point, authorities were onto him. A few months later, in June 2015, two Russian mobsters contacted him about the sale. Except these weren’t really Russian mobsters, but undercover federal agents. So the two fake mobsters and their fake broker met with Rafael in his warehouse.

After a few meetings Rafael began spilling his trade secrets. He claimed that his company was worth over $175 million dollars, which was 8 times the amount that he had claimed to the IRS. He said that his business structure was perfect for money laundering and he showed the mobsters that he had made over $600k the last 6 months in off-the-books cash. He admitted to mislabeling fish for their dockside inspections. So what he would do is label fish like sole and flounder as haddock, which had a high quota, so that he could get away with catching more expensive fish that were in short supply. Because he also owned the distributor, he would then properly label the fish and sell it to a New York broker for literal bags of cash.

This cash was then laundered into Portugal through Boston’s Logan Airport, using Rafael’s extensive network. One of the pawns in this scheme was a man by the name of Antonio Freitas, who was a sheriff’s deputy and a former Immigration and Customs Enforcement task-force officer. Freitas helped him bring money into Portugal, but apparently didn’t realize he was doing anything wrong. 

In February 2016, they had enough evidence to arrest 65-year old Rafael, who, in March of 2017, pled guilty to over 20 offenses, including money laundering, tax evasion, falsifying fish quotas, and conspiracy (or seasiracy). He was then sentenced to 46 months in prison and has to pay a $3 million dollar penalty. His bookkeeper was also arrested, but her charges were later dropped. They then arrested and charged Antonio Freitas, who was the guy who helped launder the money. He was sentenced to 366 days. And he’s actually now suing Rafael for $600k in damages since, as I said earlier, he claims he didn’t know that what he was doing was illegal.

While this might seem like a win, Rafael had about 300 or so employees. As this all went down, many people were left without work and it severely impacted the New Bedford economy (Barth, 2017; Farzan, 2019). Part of Rafael’s settlement forces him to give up industrial fishing, and to sell his boats and permits. These were apparently sold to larger operations, but also some independent fishers. Rafael’s daughter, who helped manage these assets while he was in prison was quoted saying:

“My family is happy to close this chapter in a manner that allows people to get back to work on the water. I am hopeful that my parents will be able to enjoy a well-earned retirement spending time with their children and grandchildren.” (Dunlop, 2020).

But it doesn’t sound like he is fully retiring as of yet. Rafael’s release date was supposed to be in September of this year, but April 30th off 2020 he was transferred to “community confinement”, which typically means the prisoner is sent to a re-entry centre such as a “halfway house” or they are put under house arrest. But the Federal Bureau wouldn’t give any more details at the time, and Rafael was photographed at a country club in December, which I later found in my research he had purchased. He also recently purchased a 55-apartment complex in Dartmouth, Massachusetts (Lennon, 2021). So he is still doing business, just of a different kind.

As for the hard-working fishers in New Bedford, they started working with the NOAA to try to improve the way that fish are counted so that more accurate catch limits can be put in place. Clearly these quotas were put in place to help, and apparently, some depleted species of Pacific groundfish have already recovered, which is amazing. 

Most individuals do agree that limits should be imposed on how much quota one person can own, to prevent an occurrence like this from happening again in the future (Mettler, 2018). But I couldn’t find any recent information on this, so I’m unsure if adjustments to the quotas have been made.

And that’s the story of the Codfather! But before we wrap things up I want to just quickly mention a couple things that we as consumers can do to keep things sustainable or help improve the systems that are in place. It can be tricky because we are pretty far removed from the fish we eat. So here are a couple suggestions:

  1. Learn about sustainable fish sources. This might mean learning about the species that are more prevalent and those that are more at risk OR learning about the different labeling systems and what those mean. 
    In terms of fish species there are apps and resources that can help you select types of fish that are more sustainable, and less at risk. One platform that my dad uses is called Seafood Watch. Here you type in the type of fish, and it will tell you if it is the best choice or if it’s one to avoid, and it will give you some alternatives if that’s the case.
    I will add the link to our show notes in case you or any listeners want to check it out. But it’s super thorough and easy to use. 

    As we already discussed, In terms of labeling, there was a tremendous amount of criticism about certain labels in the Seaspiracy documentary, such as the MSC or Marine Stewardship Council. The organization hires third party sources, like biologists, to do audits on the fisheries. It might not be a perfect system, as some unsustainable activities might slip through the cracks, BUT it is one of the few organisations that has a set of standards like this. So in terms of selecting the MOST sustainable sources, this seems to be our best bet for now in regards to labeling. That brings me to my second point. If you don’t agree with the level of monitoring or the labeling practices that currently exist:

  1. Advocate for more transparent labeling. 
    Consumer demand dictates supply. And if we demand more transparency, fish brands and organizations will have no other choice but to listen to us. We can also advocate for a more measurable definition of “sustainable fishing” so that the standards that have to be met are more rigid.

  1. Discover local sources of sustainable fish/seafood.
    As local sources will be more sustainable in terms of the environmental impact of travel. And lastly, 

Limit single-use plastic. 
A lot of this ends up in the oceans and ends up impacting the ecosystems.