Op-ed: Sustainability in the seafood sector in Latin America: What is needed, and how to move forward faster


Luis Bourillón

Published on
January 5, 2023
Luis Bourillón.

Luis Bourillón is the vice president of sustainability at the Mexican Council for the Promotion of Seafood Consumption and Aquaculture Products (Comepesca).

This is the time of the year for reflections on the results, achievements, and failures from 2022, coupled with resolutions and plans for 2023. One of the important outcomes that Comepesca had in 2022 was the organization of the third Sustainable Seafood Summit for Latin America, which took place in Puerto Varas, Chile, in October. The following is a selection of some of the conclusions reached during this gathering of over 250 in-person participants, with 1,000 virtual attendees with my opinion of what is needed to move faster to implement sustainable solutions in Latin America’s seafood sector.

Overview: The fisheries and aquaculture sector in Latin America is a strategic and essential actor for food security, and income generation in isolated and marginal communities, and contributes importantly to the economic development of all the countries that form this region. This importance must be communicated more and better, along with the fact that seafood products provide high quality and high-quality food for human health, with the lowest carbon footprint compared to other land-based animal proteins. We must talk about food, not about products. The Pesca Con Futuro movement, which started in Mexico but is expanding to other Latin American countries, is an important ally in the communication of seafood sustainability needs and choices for consumers.

Communications: I think that the seafood sector in Latin America is not investing at all in communication, and this is a big problem, since the communication about the sector is done by actors not directly linked to production and markets, mostly foreign NGOs that are very critical of commercial fishing, and only emphasize the negative aspects. There are incredible stories in Latin America about the positive impacts of seafood production, but they must be told by professional communicators working directly with and for the industry. The sector must invest in this and take control of the discourse.

Climate Change: The negative impact of climate change on fisheries and aquaculture is growing, but we have examples of adaptation in Latin America that are working. However, we must urge governments and research institutions to develop more early warning and prediction systems at large-scale, like the Humboldt Current System (Peru-Chile), we must work more to restore key ecosystems to improve resilience using nature-based solutions and ecosystem-based fisheries management and develop public policies to consider these impacts in the future of the sector.

My impression is that this is one of the biggest challenges in the sector, and our management and policies are not changing fast enough. However, we saw that local adaptation is possible at a much faster rate if we invest in local and community organizations that have shown their incredible adaptability during the strong disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. More support to study the changes and implement solutions is needed. Some of this can come from the NGO and scientific community but exclusively, it is not enough – governments must step in and support ongoing efforts.

Role of Women in Seafood: The role of women in the seafood sector must be recognized and valued, even more in Latin America which has larger participation of women than the global average. For example, according to data presented at the summit, women participate at a rate of 35 percent in fisheries extraction and processing, and the global average is 18 percent. Again, local and regional organizations are a key element to making more visible and scale-up their contributions, and fisheries organizations are evolving towards a more inclusive and respectful environment.

I have great hope this is another aspect where the Latin American seafood sector can move faster than other regions, not only because of the greater involvement of women in the industry, but because women's organizations are showing their resilience and transformational and inspirational spirit to fight for better coastal communities.

Technology Adoption: The use of technology as a tool for innovation is another front of change and has attracted the interest of younger generations that are critical for generational replacement in a sector that is aging fast. During the summit, we saw impressive case studies on carbon footprint reduction, selectivity of fishing gear, traceability, monitoring for enforcement, and surveillance. The creation of electronic platforms to share solutions among fishing communities that are far away but face the same problems shows promising results (Pesca Data electronic platform in Mexico is a very good example). 

In this aspect, I think the seafood sector can speed up and pass other regions of the world but only if the innovation and creativity of the people directly linked to the fisheries and aquaculture understand, engage, and adopt the technology presented as an ally to their competitiveness and to attract younger generations to this activity. In my opinion, if the intake of technology is too expensive, too complicated, and there is no economic and technical support to engage, and the market does not request transparency and traceability, the seafood sector will not use it.

Circular Economy: The circular economy was perhaps the subject that attracted more attention among the participants of the summit. Although most of the current experience with circular economy principles in Latin America’s seafood industry revolve around programs for recovering, recycling, and reusing plastic from lost and discarded fishing nets, it is a very good start for the industry. Emphasis was placed on the results achieved by the program Redes de América, operational in six Latin American countries (Chile, Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, Mexico, and Panama), under the coordination of ALPESCAS (Latin American Alliance for Sustainable Fishing). But also, the full use of fish and shellfish from the fisheries and farms, not only the meat but the whole fish to reduce and eventually eliminate waste and use 100 percent of this excellent source of proteins and other important substances.

And finally, the discussion about markets and commercialization of seafood circled on the need to include influential actors like chefs and cooks in the promotion of seafood consumption, to educate more than only communicate the values and benefits of eating seafood. Blue Foods nurture our bodies and communities and can provide even greater benefits with direct (or as direct as possible) commercialization between the fisher and the final consumer. Several presenters stressed the need to see the producers (fishers and farmers) as partners of the business not only as suppliers and to transition the role of the middleman (especially the first buyer at the dock/beach) as a key enabler of sustainability and traceability, and legality in the trading of fish.

Conclusion: In my view, this is another front of work that needs attention and a change of perspective since all players in the supply chain must collaborate to improve, in sustainability aspects, the process by which seafood is brought from the fisher to the final consumer. Starting on both ends of this chain, at the level of the small-scale producer in Latin America, the first buyer has immense control, good or bad, of what is fished, how, when, and how much. The existing regulations that in theory control these variables, in practice is secondary because the first buyer is the most important control point. It also provides the money to keep fishing going, buying fuel, gear, bait, ice, even boats, or whatever is needed to capture fish. On the other end of the chain, if the final consumer (the restaurant, retail, or food service operator), does not request sustainability, or at least legality, there is no incentive (or pressure) on the supplier to in turn request such characteristics in the seafood purchased. In the markets of Latin American countries, with weak governance, incomplete scientific knowledge of small-scale fisheries, and markets interested only in price and volume, our best hope for more controlled, legal, and sustainable fisheries reside, in my opinion, in the forces of markets interested in the future, thus sustainability is a key element of a future for the business.

Photo courtesy of Compesca

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