What Does Sustainable Seafood Certification Mean?

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Seafood sustainability is a growing concern, with overfishing, fish fraud, human trafficking and pirate fishing pervading the system. 85% of global fish stocks are overfished, one third of seafood is mislabelled, and 24 million tonnes are caught and sold illegally in North America alone. It’s the wild west out there on the high seas.

As consumers demand more information about seafood provenance and responsible sourcing, certifications have ballooned. But with yet another food label, what does the stamp on your box of fish fingers mean?

Types of Certification

The two major certification bodies for wild seafood are the UK-based Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and EU-founded Friend of the Sea. The latter also certifies farmed seafood.

Farmed seafood – now the largest source of global seafood consumption, has two major dedicated certifying bodies, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA).

There are many others, adding to confusion and inconsistent standards. We lack a simple, widely-used global standard for both seafood-sourcing methods.

The recently-founded Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (GSSI) is attempting to address this by creating a new benchmark which the many certifications around the world can meet. This universal benchmarking tool would provide clarity about seafood certification worldwide, meaning that seafood buyers across the supply chain – including us consumers – would have greater confidence about sustainability certifications.

Are Sustainable Certifications a Bit Fishy?

Certified seafood is undoubtedly a superior choice compared to buying blind, but there are reasons to remain wary.

Sustainability standards are not necessarily very strict. The MSC has come under fire for awarding certifications to fisheries of questionable sustainability. The body can also certify an unsustainable fishery if an action plan for improvement is provided even if it’s not yet been implemented.

One study found that overfishing occurs in 30% of MSC-certified stocks, while the MSC itself admitted that 27% of certified stocks are depleted – meaning they have been overfished and have not yet recovered.

Part of the problem is that bodies like the MSC are under pressure to be ‘friendly’ for both fisheries and retailers. At the heart of this are their objectives – to ensure their labels are widely-adopted, which requires the cooperation of suppliers and retailers; and to ensure seafood sustainability is prioritised, and our sealife conserved.

Certification typically starts with a retailer or supplier initiating, in order to meet customers’ desire for information and assurance about the seafood they are purchasing. The certification itself is entrusted to a third party, much like it is for organic certification. The cost is high, between £9,500 to £95,000. This raises the question of conflicting interests, because of the large financial incentive involved.

The other issue is that smaller fisheries, or those in developing countries, can find it difficult to foot these costs. As a result, certification can become exclusive. Even if these smaller fisheries could meet certification standards, if they cannot afford it, the spoils are more likely to those fisheries that can.


The Future of Sustainable Seafood Certification

Global standardisation is an important stepping stone, but certifications are still just point-in-time snapshots. We need more data about seafood before catches are landed. We need more information about seafood farms, which theoretically should be easier to obtain than data on wild-caught seafood.

There are technological innovations taking place to start tracking supply chain data, from start to finish. For example, much of the illegal activity involved in fishing happens in international waters, in remote areas that are nigh-impossible to police and monitor. However, new technology allows remote surveillance by integrating satellite data with boat transponders to spot suspicious activity.

For now, the responsibility mostly falls to us. Ask your retailers about their seafood sources and be aware of the types of seafood you’re purchasing and consuming.