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The Fight Against Fish Eco-Fibbing

I'm an accredited journalist working at the intersections of science, food and public health. I am also a certified nutritionist.


The seafood industry deals with conflicting pressures. Seafood is a staple of a healthy and nutritious diet and with the rise in conscious lifestyle choices, companies are bearish on global economic growth prospects. But even amid economic uncertainty, sustainability compliance becomes a license to operate in addressing climate change, now and in the future.

Seafood Sustainability Commitments

Global demand for sustainable seafood is growing in response to public health and environmental health aspirations. Fish consumption around the world has already doubled since the 1980s and is expected to double again by 2050. Whether we can lower the risks for consumers and the environment will depend on what types of fish people choose to eat.

The interest in sustainably caught fish is strong across wholesalers, fine-dining restaurants and major fast-food chains alike. An estimated 65% of dollars are spent on seafood at restaurants rather than in dining rooms, so food service businesses and restaurant chains especially have powerful incentives to develop their sustainability vision.

The Dow Jones Sustainability Index for the food products segment is one of them, as interest rates for stakeholders are tied to the achievement of sustainability performance targets. Restaurateurs realize, too, that selling and advertising sustainable fish on their menu attracts high-end customers and commands a premium.

The current geopolitical, logistical and trade issues are only a few of the challenges facing seafood companies aiming to achieve their business and sustainability goals. When looking in the usual places—wholesalers and distributors—companies may find that not all of these fish are as sustainable as they’re said to be.

Half of the world’s species are currently fished at their limit, and another quarter, including popular fish like Atlantic cod and red snapper, are critically threatened. Without proper certifications and ratings, “sustainable” is more of a marketing tool than a classification. We all want to support sustainable fisheries. But what does that really mean?


Defining Sustainable Fish

It is less about the kind of fish or where it’s caught and more about the method in which it’s acquired. Knowing how a fish was harvested is key to choosing responsibly. Sustainable means fish that isn’t overharvested or caught or farmed in a way that does undue harm to ecosystems.

It also means that the fisheries have received the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification or are engaged in “Fishery Improvement Projects” as credits toward the MSC certification.

Every fishing method leaves a footprint and changes the ecosystem. But the scale is what matters. Most fish on classical menus today are caught by methods that leave a virtual dead zone in their wake, like bottom trawling, or that surpass the sustainable yield of any given fishery, such as longlines.

Species that either have been overfished or are raised or harvested in a way that damages the oceans or takes unwanted bycatch include Atlantic cod, ahi tuna, bluefin tuna, Chilean sea bass, day boat scallops, farmed eel, farmed hamachi, farmed salmon, flounder, grouper, monkfish, orange roughy, Petrale sole, sanddab, shark, skate, snapper, steelhead, sturgeon, swordfish and tombo tuna.

The best seafood choices often come from the bottom of the food chain. Maine lobsters, for example, are fast-growing and caught in traps that aren’t harmful to most other ocean life. Fish like sardines and anchovies have short life spans, reproduce often and are harvested with gear that is ocean friendly and does not take unwanted bycatch.

Other sustainably caught fish are Alaskan halibut, troll-caught Alaskan salmon, true Alaskan cod, California anchovies, California black cod, California halibut, California sardines, California squid, troll-caught California albacore tuna, California white sea bass, Dungeness crab, farmed shellfish (oysters, clams, mussels), mackerel and McFarland Springs trout.

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Scoring Sustainable Fish

Various movements have emerged over the years to try to better classify sustainable fish. Originating in Monterey, California, in the late 1990s, the enormously successful Seafood Watch program was one of the first consumer-based resources for sustainable seafood information.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch List classifies fish as red, yellow or green according to criteria such as fish health and abundance, habitat availability, the harm inflicted by the method of harvest, and incidental damage to other species from bycatch. The list is updated in an app twice a year and printed on wallet-sized cards for consumers and chefs.

To date, the aquarium has distributed over 40 million of these assets, and its red, yellow and green indicators are used by many consultants in the seafood industry as prime resources for sustainable seafood information.

By these standards, the most responsible ways to bring in a fish are the Scottish seine and the rod-and-reel fishing techniques. In contrast, bottom trawlers drag across the ocean floor for up to 25 miles, bringing up huge amounts of bycatch and wreaking devastation on coral reefs, rocky outcrops and benthic life.

Longlines are also amongst the most destructive fishing methods. These fishing lines can be up to 60 miles in length and catch not just fish but also leatherback turtles and seabirds. And longlines are cited as one of the main threats to shark populations across the globe.

Some of the world’s largest retailers of natural and organic foods are making commitments to stop selling species like longline-caught ahi tuna and all red-listed fish.


Fighting Fish Eco-Fibbing

It is estimated that over 80% of American seafood comes from overseas and passes through several brokers and wholesalers before it gets to the dinner plate. There is intense temptation for actors along the supply chain to raise prices by claiming sustainability. Greenwashing is common, especially with tuna.

Claims made on menus or by wholesalers are rarely checked or policed. Reports have suggested that less than half the wild salmon in markets during winter months is wild, and more than 60% of red snapper is fake.

The FDA, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the National Marine Fisheries Service all theoretically police seafood labeling. But fish dealers sell produce from fishermen spread across the world, which makes it very difficult to trace its origins and verify how it was caught.

Many players in the seafood industry are recognizing the need to champion new technologies for enhancing traceability. Sectors like shrimp farming are already working with blockchain to determine the point of origin of both the fish and the fish feed.

Seafood companies’ vessel code of conduct should address illegal fishing and labor practices across their supply chain, too, to fully consider the economic, environmental and social aspects of seafood sustainability. Internal and external third-party auditing of fishing vessels is becoming more extensive and ubiquitous in the field.


Inclusive Sustainable Sourcing

Certification schemes and fishery and aquaculture improvement projects are key for increasing seafood sustainability. The criteria shaping certification programs today originate from the Agenda 2030 ambitions of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the OECD-FAO Guidance for Responsible Agricultural Supply Chains.

The FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and the FAO Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries are two especially important directives in the development of certifications.

Ensuring that these certifications reach all those along the supply chain, including producers in developing countries lacking access to sustainability tools, is still a work in progress to improve performance. Sustainability solutions in seafood need to keep these underlying complexities in mind for people all over the world to have a healthy future.

For markets and species where certification is currently not available, schemes to aid the acceleration of sustainability efforts are now in the crucial implementation stage.

The Seafood MAP program launched by the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (GSSI) and IDH, the Sustainable Trade Initiative, will be ready by the end of 2022, and a fully functioning digital platform will follow in 2023. GSSI created the Global Benchmark Tool, which provides formal recognition of global seafood certification schemes and promotes their improvement.

The Seafood MAP platform works with interoperable data and can therefore be used to collaborate with multiple stakeholders using a common language. It will be available to every actor in the seafood industry, including producers, buyers and investors, nonprofits, and development agencies.

GSSI’s taskforce is comprised of various members of the seafood sector to bridge the gap between public- and private-sector efforts. Making the playing field more inclusive and creating common environmental, social and economic goals that the industry can collaboratively work toward are essential components of the path toward global sustainable seafood.

The expected longer-term impact of these measures and the continued focus of organizations like GSSI and the Monterey Bay Aquarium is increased participation from small-scale actors, more transparency in the global supply chain and an ever-increasing demand for safe, healthy and sustainable seafood.


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Camille Bienvenu

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