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Sustainable seafood

In this article, Dr Bryce Stewart highlights how businesses and consumers can encourage more sustainable fishing practices.
A collection of logos for sustainable seafood
© University of York

A further way to improve fisheries management is to put the power back into the hands of consumers and retailers – otherwise known as Market Based Conservation.

This basically means mobilising and channelling the private sector to solve environmental issues. But for it to work you need consumers (the public) to be aware of and care about the issues at hand.

Market Based Conservation is employed in lots of situations – think of Fairtrade bananas, Free Range eggs and Rainforest Alliance coffee. In terms of seafood, the first example was the Dolphin Friendly tuna logo established in the 1990s. This was created in response to the ill-fated practice of setting nets on pods of dolphins that were known to associate with schools of tuna. Nowadays you would do well to find a can of tuna without the dolphin friendly eco-label on it!

Educating retailers and consumers

The idea behind ecolabels is to create an easily identifiable label that guarantees that the product is environmentally and/or socially responsible. You then need to educate both retailers and consumers of the need for such products and the benefits they can bring. Demand for eco-labelled products should follow – inspiring change in resource management and business practice to enable eco-label standards to be met even more widely.

Advisory bodies

In 1997, two of the world’s leading advisers on sustainable seafood came into being – Seafood Watch and the Marine Stewardship Council. These operate in similar, but slightly different ways. Seafood Watch, like Fishonline it’s counterpart in the UK, produces lists of fish to eat and fish to avoid, aimed at both shoppers and businesses. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), on the other hand, only focusses on the best choices, certifying them with its distinctive ecolabel (see Further resources).

Both the consumer guides and ecolabels assess species from particular fisheries based on strict criteria. This involves looking at the health of the stock, how heavily it is being fished, the environmental impacts of the fishery, and how well it is managed. This last point considers how illegal fishing is dealt with and whether or not products are fully traceable from boat to plate. In the case of the MSC, assessment is a lengthy and peer-reviewed process, which can take several years.

Criticisms of advisory bodies

Despite the rigour of these assessments, the MSC in particular, has been subject to some criticism. Some argue that standards are slipping to meet the race to certify more and more products, while other say that the impacts of fisheries on the wider environment are not given enough weight. However, research shows that MSC certified products are almost always more sustainable than non-certified ones, and the MSC continues to grow. It now certifies more than 10% of all wild caught fish in the world.

The benefits of advisory bodies

The MSC and other assessments are also making a difference. Fisheries often have to improve their practices to gain certification or achieve a higher ranking in consumer guides. In different fisheries around the world this has resulted in the rebuilding of stocks, tighter management and reduction of bycatch. Many retailers (e.g. Supermarkets) and events (e.g. the Olympics) now choose their product lines on the basis of consumer guides, and actively search out eco-labelled seafood products. As a result, certified products are easier to sell at market and are starting to attract higher prices.

If you want a make a difference to our oceans, check out the links in Further resources at the bottom of this page.

Further resources

For the best advice on sustainable seafood check out Fishonline if you are in the UK or Seafood Watch if you are in the USA.

Otherwise look for the blue fish and tick logo of the Marine Stewardship Council

© University of York
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Tackling Environmental Challenges for a Sustainable Future

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