ish1_OleksandrRupetaNurPhotoviaGettyImages_japanfisheryunloading Oleksandr Rupeta/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Rising Tide of Sustainable Seafood

Despite its swift rise, the sustainable seafood movement’s work is far from done. To safeguard the future of fish, more seafood businesses must commit to sustainability, and consumers must be even more resolute in demanding a transparent seafood supply chain and supporting sustainability with every purchase.

STOCKHOLM – McDonald’s. Hilton. IKEA. Each of these corporate titans enjoys an enormous customer base. But what most of their customers might not realize is that these companies are leaders in ocean stewardship: they all sell sustainable seafood. This is an important precedent – but it is not enough.

When it comes to harvesting and selling seafood, “sustainable” is not just an empty label. It represents accountability throughout the value chain, beginning the moment a fish leaves the water, to ensure that the entire process is conducted in a way that enables fisheries – and the ocean ecosystem – to continue to thrive.

The sustainable seafood movement has grown rapidly. Just 20 years ago, sustainability was a niche concept in the seafood industry. Hardly anyone in the business talked about it. Most companies failed to recognize the long-term business consequences of overfishing, let alone place a high priority on conservation.

At that time, the environmental groups that advocated for sustainable seafood were met with suspicion, if not outright rejection. A 1997 cover of Seafood Business magazine asserted that seafood companies should not “crawl under the covers with greenies.”

But much has changed in the last 20 years. Consumers all over the world increasingly expect that the seafood they purchase – whether at a grocery store or a five-star restaurant – qualifies as sustainable. The Marine Stewardship Council’s iconic blue product label is now found in nearly 100 countries, illustrating the increasing demand for sustainably sourced products.

People are becoming more engaged in their food choices, and their habits are evolving. We expect our food, which we share with our children, to be safe and nutritious. We also increasingly expect the companies whose products we consume not to contribute further to the overfishing, warming waters, and pollution that are putting pressure on the ocean. We express those expectations in how we spend our money.

SUMMER SALE: Save 40% on all new Digital or Digital Plus subscriptions

SUMMER SALE: Save 40% on all new Digital or Digital Plus subscriptions

Subscribe now to gain greater access to Project Syndicate – including every commentary and our entire On Point suite of subscriber-exclusive content – starting at just $49.99

Subscribe Now

But, equally important, attitudes among industry leaders are also shifting. Many are now engaging with marine conservation groups to address how to help exhausted fisheries recover and keep healthy ones thriving. This partly reflects their desire to satisfy their customers. But as much as shifting demand and weakening brand loyalty are bad for businesses, nothing is worse than exhausted supply. Companies now realize that it’s impossible to sell fish if there aren’t any left.

And it takes only a few companies to make a difference. Seafood may be consumed by millions around the world, but it is traded by just a handful of firms. Relatively small changes on the part of a few entities would therefore go a long way toward protecting the future of the entire industry.

This effect is compounded when major players work together to tackle issues in the seafood supply chain. Already, collaborative efforts among industry leaders, such as the Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship (SeaBOS) initiative, have played a major role in propelling progress on sustainability.

Until recently, international seafood companies might have had one-on-one partnerships with conservation NGOs; but they weren’t collaborating with one another. SeaBOS changed that. A science-based initiative, SeaBOS has engaged the CEOs of ten of the largest seafood companies, with the goal of stimulating transformative change toward sustainable seafood production that supports a healthy ocean.

But the sustainable seafood movement’s work is far from done. If we are truly to safeguard the future of fish, even more seafood businesses must commit to sustainability. For those that already have, the imperative is to recruit their counterparts around the world – from Japan to China to Chile – to join the effort.

Moreover, at a time when pressure on the ocean is intensifying rapidly, advocacy groups and scientists must work equitably with small fisheries and the communities that depend on them to ensure that they can manage the challenge of implementing sustainable practices. And a larger share of consumers must be even more resolute in demanding a transparent seafood supply chain and supporting sustainability with every purchase. By choosing the ethically sourced Pacific cod over the discount mystery fish, consumers drive real change.

Technology can support this emerging international commitment to sustainability, including by facilitating data collection and ocean management. Before long, artificial intelligence may be able to tell fishers exactly where they can catch the most fish of the needed size, while minimizing adverse effects on ecosystems. Perhaps even sooner, consumers will be able to glimpse a fish’s entire journey from the sea to the local grocery store, simply by scanning a QR code with their mobile phones.

The ultimate hope, however, is for the “sustainable” label to be so commonplace and legitimate that consumers one day are more surprised by its absence than its presence. The default expectation – among seafood companies, fishery managers, conservation groups, and consumers – will be that all seafood is harvested sustainably. We are hopeful that sustainability becomes the norm soon – in a matter of years, not decades.

Update: May 17, 2019
An earlier version of this commentary mentioned Costco in the opening paragraph. This has been replaced with a reference to Hilton.