The business of seafood begins in the ocean, sometimes on a large commercial vessel plying the open sea, but just as often with a small-scale fisherman in a boat just a few miles from shore.
In between where it starts and where it ends – as fish on a restaurant plate or sizzling on our backyard grill in summer – is a seafood supply chain connecting every one of us, as consumers, to the source.
In the not-too-distant past, it was close to impossible to follow that chain from hook to plate. Consumers could hardly trust information about the origin of their seafood, let alone the manner in which fish were caught and brought to market.
That absence of accountability had predictable results: an alarming rise in overfishing around the globe that damaged ocean health and depleted key fisheries from Indonesia to Chile to the Pacific Northwest.
But the seafood sustainability movement, in just over 20 years, has helped turn the tide.
The Marine Stewardship Council’s iconic blue sustainability label is now found in more than 100 countries. More than 350 fisheries have been Marine Stewardship Council-certified to date.
What changed? In a word, attitudes.
The seafood industry grew concerned both about its reputation and the increasing scarcity of fish. Companies recognized they cannot sell fish if there aren’t any more to catch.
At the same time, retailers made commitments to sustainability because they wanted to reduce the risks of selling unsustainable fish.
As someone who works to leverage the power of the supply chain to improve the health of our fisheries, I see the positive steps toward sustainability every day I’m on the job.
When I first started attending the Boston Seafood Show (now Seafood Expo North America) 15 years ago, it was rare to find anyone engaged in conversations about how to make the seafood business more sustainable.
If you wore a name tag with an NGO label on it – like I did – no one wanted to talk to you.
Today at major seafood shows, companies prominently feature the sustainability certifications their fisheries have earned. They talk with pride about their involvement with fisheries improvement projects.
Their conversations delve deep into the dark corners of the industry, like how to address slave labor associated with illegal fishing. The industry is concerned about issues like antibiotics in aquaculture and plastics in the ocean. Most exciting, they’re interested in engaging with fisheries managers and the bodies that govern how fisheries are managed to ensure that those stocks are sustainable in the long run.
The change of pace and the volume of discussion and marketing around sustainability has grown dramatically over the last 15 years.
Buyers and consumers now look at sustainability as an expected part of what they purchase.
When I go to seafood shows today, I talk to people who have inherited their parents’ or grandparents’ seafood business. When they tell me they can’t see a future in this business without working on sustainability, it shows me they are invested for the long haul and not doing it just for marketing.
They see sustainability as core to their business and to who they are as individuals.
There’s still a lot of hard work ahead.
Industrial fisheries are generally doing better on sustainability. Now we’re facing equity issues with small-scale fisheries and small-scale fishermen who rely on these fisheries for their livelihoods but sell product into the global supply chain.
The challenges in working with those fishermen versus working with an industrial boat are much greater. But the benefits of sustainable fisheries management to fishing communities are critically important to the well-being of those communities.
The good thing about working to improve the seafood supply chain work is that it provides an organizing point at which we can better work with the fishermen.
We need to better understand both the needs of the fisherman and the needs of the business community.
But the problem is solvable. We have seen fisheries recover. That’s why I am optimistic about the future.