Defining ‘Sustainable Seafood’: Is it all about the fish?

This post comes to us from Taylor Witkin, Masters student in Marine Affairs at the University of Rhode Island, and was originally posted on SustainFish on October 10, 2016.

Ask a Whole Foods customer at the fish counter to define sustainable seafood and he might refer to fisheries conservation or pollution-free aquaculture. Or he might tell you that sustainable seafood is a tuna steak with a green Seafood Watch label in front of it. Folke et al. 1998 suggest that sustainable seafood originates from practices that make use of an ecosystem’s capacity without degrading it whilst protecting it from economic and social forces that incentivize misuse of that ecosystem. Though these definitions fit the concept as it pertains to the practice of fishing, sustainable seafood is also a marketing tool. Similar to the ascension of organic in terrestrial food markets, to completely define sustainable seafood one must address the role of marketing and its impacts on fishers and seafood markets as the concept becomes more mainstream.

Multiple organizations have sought to define and promote sustainable seafood. Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA), and others, have created guides like Seafood Watch that make it easy for other-wise unknowledgeable consumers to identify seafood that MBA deems sustainable. Seafood Watch’s guiding principles account for fisheries management structures, rate of bycatch, ecosystem degradation, and greenhouse gas emissions, to name just a few. However, these guides do not consider the social and economic complexities within the seafood industry. Tacking ‘sustainable’ onto seafood adds value to products. So the system can hurt fishers trying to compete in markets that value sustainability if certain regulations do not exist or equipment needed to receive certifications is too expensive.

In 2015, environmental non-profits like Oceana (which I worked for) lobbied for a bill that would allow Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries agents to enforce a federal law requiring turtle excluder devices (TED) on shrimp trawl nets. Despite the lack of enforcement, many shrimpers used TEDs to voluntarily reduce turtle bycatch. But before the bill passed, Seafood Watch listed Louisiana shrimp as “avoid” because Louisiana did not enforce the use of TEDs. Many Louisiana shrimpers’ fishing methods fit Seafood Watch’s guiding principles, but because of rigid rules defining sustainable seafood, those watermen could not add value to their catch; with a red “avoid label attached to their shrimp, they could not compete in markets that placed a premium on sustainability.

As a seafood retailer and then employee at a large environmental NGO, I have questioned the benefits of bringing sustainable seafood, as a marketing concept, into the mainstream since local, small-scale fishing fleets usually have lower ecological footprints than industrial fleets, despite ecolabels. Does excluding small-scale fishers from markets because of a marketing tool represent the concept of sustainable seafood? As consumers increasingly value sustainability, how can small-scale fishers compete with large operations that can pay for sustainability ratings? The concept of sustainable seafood must include economic consequences as well as ecological benefits. Truly sustainable seafood is harvested with minimal impact to an ecosystem and with as much benefit to fishers as possible.