Seafood arranged on a blue table

The Challenges and Triumphs of Sustainable Seafood

By Judy Seybold, MS, RD

The sustainable seafood movement is coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the Sustainable Fisheries Act this year, and this marker has spurred many reflections on how far the industry has evolved. Past generations have taken our food supply – especially seafood – for granted. Finally, we’re beginning to see a new reaction to depleting fish stock, polluted waters, and labor concerns as consumers become engaged in sustainability. But what is sustainable seafood and where is it going?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the domestic fisheries advises: Sustainable seafood is fish and shellfish caught for human consumption by fishermen operating under sustainable fishery management systems that conserve fish stocks and the ecosystems that support them. This is helpful, but it doesn’t offer a clear actionable direction. Like many social concerns, there are various definitions and no standard for what sustainable seafood actually means. With the number of non-government organizations working in the space, this definition is constantly evolving and can create message confusion.

In this complex environment, suppliers and retailers must satisfy the needs of their customers, but they struggle to create a definition they can achieve. Many companies selflessly want to do the right thing, but they also need stable sources of seafood to sell in perpetuity, which can be challenging. We need to keep in mind that the need for sustainable seafood sometimes exceeds what is available. Since, supermarkets are where we buy about half of our seafood, the choices retailers make for sustainable offerings leave a significant impact.

What Does Sustainable Seafood Mean Today?

  1. Traceability

With access to information at their fingertips, consumers are now wanting to know not only where their fish came from and how it was caught but also how it was treated and how the people on the boat were treated.

Traceability makes good business sense. The ability to track and trace products throughout the entire supply chain has become of paramount importance to the food industry. However, it does come at a cost. One finding from Springboard’s recently released report “Industry Perspectives On the Next Phase of Sustainable Seafood,” based on interviews with a variety of suppliers, retailers, and foodservice representatives, made it clear that it needs to work for all companies, large and small, and can’t be cost prohibitive.

(Want to learn more about traceability? Check out this interactive infographic on supply chain from GS1.)

  1. Labor, Local Economies, and Other Social Concerns

Sustainability isn’t just about environmental concerns for consumers anymore. An investigative report in The Guardian uncovered labor issues on fishing boats that triggered concerns ranging from forced and child labor to a lack of workplace safety precautions in past years. The article approximated up to 30% of our seafood may be caught illegally. As a result, many companies have been seeking to secure sustainable seafood sources to help gain consumer loyalty. They want to be ahead of this.

These concerns drove Fair Trade USA to create its only animal certification in 2014. And at the recent FMI/GMA Global Sustainability Summit, this was a hot topic, including a session on “Assessing and Improving Human Rights in Fisheries.” At the session, Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, Seafish, and Sustainable Fisheries Partnership showcased a tool that identifies and assesses risks to human rights in fisheries worldwide: the Human Rights Risk Tool for Seafood.

  1. The Oceans Goal

United Nations’ “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” set goals for the seafood industry, also known as Goal 14 or the Oceans Goal. Goal 14 seeks to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development. Announced in spring 2016, it includes several measures by 2020 of effectively regulating fisheries management; by 2025 of reducing marine pollution; and by 2030 of improving economic conditions for developing nations and for small-scale fishing businesses to thrive. This has served as a strong motivator for many companies looking to see how their business models are aligning with these goals and how they can move these goals forward.

What’s Next?

  1. NGO Confusion

Many major retailers and manufacturers have joined a group called the Seafood Task Force. This is just one of many coalitions trying to help set standards, educate, and make it easier for suppliers to provide sustainable options. Other groups playing in this space are Sea Pact and Sustainable Fisheries Partnership. The industry is trying. A recently formed coalition for social issues released a paper in Science – authored by a team of 30 experts at more than 20 leading organizations – proposing a framework for social responsibility. Five of the leading seafood certification and ratings groups are working together to increase efficiency and address challenges. Their goal is to provide complementary, coordinated tools and strategies for measuring and improving fishery and aquaculture performance.

  1. Rising Costs That Consumers Won’t Pay

The cost of sustainable certifications are a real concern for value and mid-range retailers. With the multitude of pay-to-play programs, the cost of seafood could increase so much that it may price itself out of the market – the biggest challenge. Suppliers are beginning to feel the pressure of sustainable seafood becoming the norm and every retailer demanding it, but it remains to be seen how much more consumers will be willing to pay.

  1. A Lesson in Farming and Ranching – of Seafood

The majority of consumer questions about sustainable seafood are focused around one topic: aquaculture. The concept of farming fish and shellfish is foreign to many people. When consumers think about seafood, they think oceans, lakes, and rivers – not farming. However, more than 50% of all seafood we eat comes from aquaculture, and that percentage has been rising and will continue to rise, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But don’t worry: there are Responsibly Farmed certifications in the marketplace, too.

The SPINS Product Library team has its eye on this issue and many more to keep you up to date with emerging industry standards. Want to know more about sustainable seafood and what it may mean for your business? Contact [email protected] with questions on this topic, or to learn how SPINS’ industry-leading, proprietary attribution can deliver nuanced and actionable insights to your business.