Sustainable Seafood: Four Issues to Watch in 2016

Can seafood play a starring role on our plates? Photo by Devin Harvey.
Can seafood play a starring role on our plates?

By Ned Daly and Mark Spalding

There’s enough going on in the seafood sector to fill a dozen trend lists — and in co-creating the program for the annual SeaWeb Seafood Summit, taking place Feb. 1–3 in Malta, we’ve probably considered every topic of conversation in the industry.

After several months of consulting colleagues and polling stakeholders, we’re confident that we’ve identified the top four issues in the seafood sector right now. You’re likely to hear about them all year long.

1. Seafood’s role on the changing dinner plate

Concern about how we’re going to feed a growing global population, the challenges of climate change, rising demand for protein in the developing world, and unhealthy diets in richer countries are causing people to rethink the balance of foods we eat. Seafood, as one of the healthiest and most sustainable proteins, is poised to play a bigger role on the dinner plate.

Seafood has some inherently sustainable traits: Because fish are buoyant and cold-blooded, less of their feed goes into energy production and more goes into fattening up filets, making the input-to-output ratio better than it is for most other animal proteins. Seafood also has a lower climate impact than other proteins. Farmed oysters and mussels, because they filter water, actually have a positive impact on their environment.

The questions we have to address are: Can seafood maintain its protein sustainability advantage while production and consumption grow rapidly? Can we eat a lot more fish while protecting our oceans? And how should we think about seafood’s sustainability profile — in comparison with other proteins or in isolation?

To get to yes on the first two questions, we need the majority of aquaculture operations to adopt best practices and start using alternative sources of fish feed, fisheries all over the world to be well managed, and sustainability-related technology to be broadly accessible.

2. Human rights and social issues in the supply chain

There are ethical issues to clean up before we crown seafood the clean protein of the future. Not many supply chains for food or natural resources are free from human rights abuses, but the stories of slavery and other abuses coming out of the seafood supply chain are particularly difficult to hear — especially for consumers who want to see seafood as the right choice (even if for their pet food).

Thailand, the world’s third-largest seafood exporter, has become the focus of many efforts to improve human rights in fisheries. The U.S. imported over $1.6 billion in seafood from Thailand in 2013, at the same time that the State Department was downgrading the country from the Tier 2 Watch List for human trafficking to Tier 3 (countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so). There are a few weak signs that Thailand may finally be responding to the problem, and there’s a big opportunity for retailers to put some weight behind the issue and urge Thailand to take much more serious action.

Solutions have to address social issues beyond slavery and human trafficking, though. About half the world’s population lives in coastal areas, and how fisheries are managed can have a significant impact on economic development in those regions. We need to start thinking about a more networked, connected approach for dealing with social issues, one that involves the communities that rely on fisheries.

3. The drive toward traceability

We need better traceability and verification in the supply chain to enable companies and consumers to support fisheries and aquaculture operations that follow good environmental and labor practices. Even though seafood is usually a fresh product, it can have a very tangled supply chain. Lots of small producers, traditional market practices, aggregation and transfer of products at sea, and fraud (species substitution) all make seafood traceability enormously challenging.

One of the biggest challenges is implementing solutions in a way that does not favor large industrial fishing operations while pushing out traditional or artisanal fisheries that may have difficulty implementing traceability measures. Another problem is that only 20 percent of the world’s fisheries have been assessed — so even if we know where the fish comes from, we may not know the impact of the catch.

Still, promising efforts are under way, including fish monitoring initiatives, genetic-testing and catch-tracking technologies, and voluntary verification programs such as the Marine Stewardship Council and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council. One of the keys to making these solutions useful is common data elements. Along with technology and systems development, we need a parallel effort to determine what questions we want to ask and how data collection can meet the needs of both government and industry.

4. Finance for sustainability

The seafood industry today is more dynamic than many people realize, and attracting private capital to finance new technologies and sustainable business models is a pressing concern.

There’s huge potential for growth in sustainable aquaculture (aquaculture as a whole is already the world’s fastest-growing agriculture sector), and there’s a lot of innovation around systems and technologies for both open-water and land-based fish farming. The challenge is to educate investors about the opportunity and differentiate sustainable aquaculture from operations that have negative impacts.

In the wild-caught sector, fisheries production has leveled off from its peak in the late 1990s, but there’s good reason to believe that well-managed fisheries can produce higher yields, and do it sustainably. Encourage Capital (a Summit participant) just published research outlining six investment blueprints for fisheries with varying sizes and characteristics. For any of these wild catch investment scenarios to succeed, we need to find the collective political will globally to roll back overcapacity and eliminate overfishing.  At this point, just a few nations are leading on this, so we have a lot more work to do.

We’re looking forward to insights and debate on all these issues at the Seafood Summit. Ultimately, we want the focus to be on collaborating to find solutions. Achieving seafood’s sustainability potential will most likely require precompetitive strategies that bring market players together to conduct research, test concepts and establish standards. That’s going to push many stakeholders out of their comfort zones—but feeding the world is a pretty big motivator.

Photo by Devin Harvey

Ned Daly is program director of SeaWeb, an affiliate of The Ocean Foundation that transforms knowledge into action by shining a spotlight on workable, science-based solutions to the most serious threats facing the ocean. Mark Spalding is president of SeaWeb and The Ocean Foundation.

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