UW News

April 30, 2015

Sustainability progress should precede seafood market access, researchers urge

UW News

Demand for seafood from wild fisheries and aquaculture around the world has nearly doubled over the past four decades. In the past several years, major seafood retailers in developed countries have committed to source their seafood from only sustainably certified fisheries and aquaculture, even though it is not clear where that supply will come from.

A fish market in the Solomon Islands, near Papua New Guinea.

A fish market in the Solomon Islands, near Papua New Guinea.

A team of researchers has evaluated fishery improvement projects, which are designed to bring seafood from wild fisheries to the certified market while promising sustainability in the future. In a policy paper appearing May 1 in Science, they conclude these projects need to be fine tuned to ensure that fisheries are delivering on their promises.

“Fishery improvement projects are a good idea for sustaining fisheries that supply developed countries like the U.S., but they don’t reach the small-scale fisheries supplying local markets in Africa and Asia that employ the vast majority of the world’s fisher folk and support a larger proportion of the world’s fish consumers,” said co-author Edward Allison, a University of Washington professor of marine and environmental affairs.

“Nevertheless, with the E.U. and North America being among the largest markets for the seafood that is exported from developed countries, making this export-orientated part of the seafood system sustainable would help sustain some of their major fishery resources.”

Retailers such as Walmart in the U.S. and Sainsbury’s in the U.K. have promised that soon all the fresh, frozen, farmed and wild seafood they sell will come from sustainable sources. Respected private third-party certification programs like the Marine Stewardship Council are helping to ensure compliance with standards designed to help conserve fish populations and protect oceans.

While many of the sustainability standards have been met by commercial fisheries in the developed world, fisheries in developing countries make up only 7 percent of the council’s certified fisheries, even though these developing-country fisheries account for about half of all seafood entering the international market.

An oyster trader in Nigeria.

An oyster trader in Nigeria.

Sustaining fisheries that supply the seafood choices of well-fed consumers in developed countries could lead to neglect of the management needs of fisheries that supply poorer consumers in developing countries, Allison said.

“While the fish imported to the U.S. from poorer countries helps their economies, we do need to leave space for small-scale fishers and fish traders to stay in business, and we shouldn’t let our developed-world appetite for sustainable seafood override more pressing needs for food, employment and the survival of their societies and cultures,” he said. “This means also supporting local community-based management and local marketing systems.”

Fishery improvement projects have been developed to get fisheries on a path to sustainability. These projects involve partnerships between the fishermen and firms up and down the international seafood supply chain. The partnerships must create market incentives for continual improvements by allowing seafood from these developing-country fisheries to enter the potentially more lucrative export market for certified seafood.

“It is hoped that the projects will protect marine life and ecosystems in areas where local and national governments have not acted to oversee sustainable practices, while also satisfying the demand for sustainable seafood,” said Gabriel Sampson, a UC Davis graduate student and lead author of the study.

Fishery management reforms should include data collection and ongoing monitoring, strengthening harvest and access rights to the resources, limits on the catch, and instituting traceability throughout the supply chain, the researchers say. They suggest, for example, that if access to the fisheries is not better regulated, the current efforts by retailers to secure sustainable, wild-caught seafood could stimulate a “race to fish” and ultimately undermine the sustainability claims.

Without the proper safeguards to ensure progress and reforms in fishery improvement projects, fisheries with full sustainability certification – such as that provided by the Marine Stewardship Council – could find their market benefits diluted by the increased competition for a share of the global certified seafood market.

The researchers project that multiple types of certified seafood in the market could lead to a “race to the bottom” in terms of sustainability standards, unless the fisheries improvement projects are carefully monitored to make sure that seafood retailers closely adhere to the sustainable-improvement requirements for market access.

Other co-authors are James Sanchirico and J. Edward Taylor of UC Davis; Cathy Roheim of the University of Idaho in Moscow; Simon Bush of Wageningen University in the Netherlands; James Anderson of the University of Florida in Gainesville; Natalie Ban of the University of Victoria in Canada; Rod Fujita of the Environmental Defense Fund; Stacy Jupiter of the Wildlife Conservation Society; and Jono Wilson of The Nature Conservancy.

This research was funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Allison’s work on food security was also funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.


This story was adapted from a UC Davis news release.