Four signs the seafood industry is getting wiser about the ocean

Fishermen brings up the trawl

According to a new study published in Frontiers in Marine Science, researchers have identified four areas in which actions by the seafood industry are starting to align with concepts of stewardship. Photo: K. Hellmig/ Azote

“Bitter realities” remain but signs exist that seafood industry operations are starting to be more reflective of stewardship ideals

Story highlights

  • Much of the ocean is fished by multinational corporations and their subsidiaries and suppliers. Questions remain over their sense of stewardship
  • A team of scientists, industry experts and civil society representatives analysed the sustainable seafood movement of the past 50 years
  • They identified four dimensions in which efforts by actors within the seafood industry have aligned with theoretical concepts of stewardship

SLOWLY GETTING THERE: At a local level, many examples exist of coastal communities with close connections to their fishing grounds and surrounding seascapes, which have shaped sustainable resource management practices.

But much of the ocean is fished not by local communities, but rather multinational corporations and their subsidiaries and suppliers. So what hope is there that they can learn to be equally good stewards of the ocean?

According to a new study published in Frontiers in Marine Science, there are some bright spots to consider.

The study is the result of a collaboration between researchers from Stockholm Resilience Centre, the Beijer Institute and the GEDB-programme (both at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences), as well as scientists, private sector experts and civil society representatives from Japan, Malaysia, Australia, Thailand, Netherlands, USA, Norway and Canada.

The seafood industry has the potential to transform humanity’s relationship with the ocean.

Robert Blasiak, first author

A 50-year journey

Blasiak and his co-authors analysed the scientific literature on the sustainable seafood movement over the past 50 years from a stewardship perspective.

Everything from seafood boycotts like “give swordfish a break” to the emergence of certification schemes and various voluntary environmental programs were examined.

Seafood boycott milestones. (a) dolphin-safe tuna labels; (b) poster for “Give Swordfish a Break” campaign; (c) bycatch deposited outside a Tesco supermarket in the UK during Greenpeace’s “Recipe for Disaster” campaign (Photograph from John Cobb, reproduced with permission from Greenpeace image database

Signs of alignment

The researchers identified four areas in which actions by the seafood industry are starting to align with concepts of stewardship.

  1. Evidence for “moving beyond compliance” with governmental regulations is provided by several cases, for example the Association of Responsible Krill Harvesting Companies (ARK), which established a series of voluntary spatial closures in the fishery that have been adhered by all members since 2018.

  2. A “systems perspective” (recognizing that a target species is part of and interacts in a broader ecosystem) is particularly evident in the aquaculture industry’s efforts to reduce the use of fish ingredients in aquaculture feed.

  3. “Living with uncertainty” is about recognising that natural variability can never be fully controlled for. One example is how salmon fisheries has started to focus on a portfolio approach, where better attention is paid to maintaining the genetic diversity of sub-populations to hedge against unexpected variation and change.

  4. “Understanding human society as part of nature”: the authors also saw some scattered evidence of this in industry reports. “Language in line with this thinking can be found throughout industry sustainability reports, yet how this is reflected in operations is less obvious,” they write.

While much of the paper focuses on the bright spots, it also identifies emerging stewardship challenges and acknowledges several bitter realities: overfished stocks, labour abuse and a number of other grim statistics that show the global seafood industry still has a long way to go to become truly sustainable, and an even longer road to fully realizing its potential as stewards not only of fish populations, but of the ocean.

Link to publication

Published: 2021-06-09

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