The most important environmental and sustainability stories of 2018

Published on
December 27, 2018

Sustainability has become a buzzword in the seafood industry in recent years, a prerequisite for doing business in the 21st century. 

But with the advent of real effects of climate change being felt in fisheries and aquaculture operations around the world, paying attention to environmental news is no longer shunted off to corporate sustainability officers.  

In 2018, even more evidence was presented that increasing water temperatures, ocean acidification, and deoxygenation caused by climate change will result in devastation and disruption in the world’s marine economy. A November report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, compiled by 13 U.S. government agencies, painted a grim picture of the future of both U.S. and global fisheries as the effects of climate change continue to advance.

Beyond economic damages, upheaval in the global marine economy is likely to lead to political upheaval, a study published in the journal Science in August revealed. Climate change is driving fish species to migrate to new areas, with fish and other marine animals shifting toward the poles at an average rate of 70 kilometers per decade. That rate is projected to continue or even accelerate as the planet warms. In the process, they’re crossing political boundaries – potentially setting up future conflicts as some countries lose access to fish and others gain it, according to the report.

Climate change is also creating a cascade of deleterious secondary outcomes, one of which – the changing feeding and migratory habits of the North Atlantic right whale – is causing havoc with the U.S. and Canadian lobster fisheries and the Canadian snow crab fishery. Following centuries of being hunted to near-extinction, fewer than 450 North Atlantic right whales remain, qualifying the species as endangered in the U.S. and Canada. That means the federal governments of both countries have to make extraordinary efforts to protect against the death of even a single individual right whale. But with the whales migrating earlier in the year and into new feeding grounds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, their interactions with fishing lines and equipment have increased. The result is mounting pressure on the fisheries and their regulators to take more drastic action to mitigate the impact the fishing industry is having on the North Atlantic right whale population.

Another major environmental issue confronting the seafood industry is the scourge of plastic waste. A January 2018 report found the volume of plastic in the ocean will exceed that of fish by 2050, and a United Nations Environment Program reported that even plastics marked as biodegradable do not degrade rapidly in the ocean. Additionally, there are recent scientific reports that marine plastic accumulates toxins, while biofouling with algae also makes it attractive to fish. SeafoodSource spoke with Ramani Narayan, a professor at Michigan State University in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, about the problem and a potential solution: bio-based and biodegradable plastics.

Long a scourge of the seafood industry, the issue of forced labor came to the fore in 2018 after reports from Greenpeace and the Environmental Justice Foundation revealed evidence of human trafficking in Taiwan’s distant-water fishing sector. The reports detailed poor labor standards, dire working conditions, and harmful fishing techniques, making the case that forced labor is often firmly intertwined with illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. That case was furthered by a report by The Pew Charitable Trusts, showing illegal fishing damages fish stocks, driving vessel operators to work longer hours and fish harder, sacrificing safety and working conditions in the process. The Cape Town Agreement, which is coming closer to obtaining enough signatories to become law, is a potential solution, according to Pew. Another promising tool is a new method that has been developed to allow companies to “efficiently and effectively assess” the risk of forced labor in supply chains. 

Finally, the issue of IUU fishing has come front and center, especially in Asia, home to many of the world’s highest-consuming countries of seafood per capita. As the wealth of the region has increased, so has its demand for seafood. Smuggling and illegal fishing have become interrelated offshoots of this growing demand. Very often, the destination for smuggled seafood is the Chinese market. But increasingly, Chinese fishing companies are expanding their fishing effort in distant-water fisheries – often skirting or shirking local laws and regulations – to maximize the catches they bring home.

The end result is at times explosive; In response, Indonesia has instituted a policy of blowing up vessels it discovers fishing illegally. That policy was found to be effective at deterring illegal fishing in the country, a May 2018 study found.

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