Can seafood truly define 'sustainability'?


Lauren Kramer, Contributing Editor

Published on
July 15, 2015

As more consumers gain greater insights into the meaning of and need for sustainable seafood, the gap between demand and supply is growing. The United States and European Union represent the largest markets for sustainably certified seafood, but demand in Japan, China and Australia is also increasing.

“A significant portion of consumers prefer sustainable seafood as indicated by an eco-label and are willing to pay a premium for it in Europe, North America and Japan,” said Cathy Roheim, head of agricultural economics and rural sociology at the University of Idaho in Moscow. In the United Kingdom consumers are paying premiums of up to 10 to 15 percent for Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)-certified seafood over non-labeled seafood at their retail markets, she added.

“Today the word ‘sustainability’ encompasses biology of the seafood stock, economics, the socio-cultural aspect of fishing, labor practices and food security,” said James Sanchirico, professor of environmental science and policy at the University of California at Davis. The definition of sustainability has evolved considerably over the past two decades, he said, and even among the third-party certifiers tasked with finding out if a fishery meets sustainability standards, there isn’t complete agreement about the parameters of the definition.

So it’s no surprise consumers are confused, too. Roheim said focus groups and surveys show consumers either aren’t sure what the term means or find it overused and tend to discount it. “But if we get more specific and start talking about issues related to fisheries or aquaculture, such as overfishing or ecosystem health, then consumers do engage and show clear preferences,” she said.

With more buyers choosing certified sustainable over non-certified seafood, the necessity for sustainable product will only grow. To accommodate those needs, efforts are being made to increase supply of sustainable seafood through Fisheries Improvement Projects. FIPS are partnerships between buyers, fishery regulators, retailers and fishermen that voluntarily come together to improve fisheries management, reduce illegal fishing and improve data and monitoring of supplies. “There are 130 fisheries in FIPS today but eNGOs estimate some 400 fisheries in FIPS will be required to meet the growing demand for sustainable seafood in the future,” Sanchirico said.

FIPS are supposed to follow what is typically a multi-stage process, but particularly in developing countries those stages can be difficult or impossible to police. “There are often weak governance arrangements in those countries, little data available to assess the status of a fishery and lots of incentives to carry out illegal and unreported fishing,” he said. “The fisheries fail to meet standards of sustainability certification and lack the financial or human resource capacities needed to meet those standards.”

The order of the stages and the market access they provide is questionable. For example, in stage two of one common FIP process stakeholders are provided access to marketers as having sustainable seafood product. However, it’s not until stages four and five of that process that fishery management reforms, improvements to water, changes in stock status and bycatch are required to occur. “What we’re finding in developing countries’ fisheries is that two thirds of FIPS are stagnating in stage two,” Sanchirico said.

There are exceptions, of course. A mahimahi FIP in Ecuador has successfully implemented policies to reduce sea turtle bycatch, proving that FIPs are potentially powerful agents of change when enforced and implemented. “But things need to be done to improve FIPS’ likelihood of success,” Sanchirico insisted. “FIPs need to define rights to harvest and access in areas. There needs to be conditionality of market access to retailers. And transparent monitoring by a third party is crucial, to ensure fisheries are moving through the stages in a timely way, and if not, their market access gets pulled. Otherwise, how will consumers know that what they’re eating is sustainable?”

Roheim agrees this is a concern. “FIPs should reach the point of clear improvements in fisheries management before seafood from FIPs is given preferential treatment by buyers. There needs to be rigorous traceability to ensure the source of the fish, and buyers need to be rigorous in their demands for continuous improvement by the FIPs, and be willing to withdraw their commitments to buy from those FIP fisheries if the improvements don’t continue in a timely fashion. And if they do all that, should fish from FIPs be considered by seafood buyers as equally ‘sustainable’ to fish certified by the MSC and being sold as such to consumers?”

In the future the greatest challenge will be moving from demand for sustainable seafood driven by developed countries to delivery of fisheries and aquaculture improvements even when it is for seafood from the developing world sold in their own local markets, she added.

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