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A new wave of sustainable seafood to feed generations to come

MSC sustainable seafood
Marine Stewardship Council

Seafood is having a moment.

Fish, especially canned and frozen options, increasingly have become a go-to choice for Americans during the pandemic as they stock their pantries and freezers; seek out new immune-boosting meal ideas; and look for alternatives to meat due to shortages and health concerns over meat processing. For example, U.S. shelf-stable tuna sales were up 31.2 percent over last year in March, according to Nielsen data.

While increased seafood consumption may be good short-term news for the U.S. seafood industry, it also is combating other major challenges, such as severely decreased foodservice and export business due to the pandemic. We must look at the flexibility and long-term viability of the seafood industry globally to prepare for the long-term implications of the current crisis.

Earlier this month, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released its "The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020" (SOFIA) report, which indicates more than a third of fisheries (34.2 percent) globally are operating at unsustainable levels. Compare that to 10 percent in 1990, and it becomes an abundantly clear global issue we must quickly and sustainably address, even as the industry is plagued with pandemic challenges.

While these numbers seem perilous, efforts by the U.N., the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), fisheries and conscious consumers already have led to stock recoveries for skipjack tuna, Alaskan pollock and Atlantic cod. The industry must look to these examples to enact changes that will ensure seafood is around for generations to come.

Specific to the U.S., the survey revealed 65 percent of Americans believe supermarkets should remove all unsustainable fish and seafood products from their shelves.

Total fish production is set to increase to 204 million tons in 2030, up 15 percent from 2018, according to the SOFIA report. Additionally, per capita consumption of seafood is already about 45 pounds annually with forecasted growth to more than 47 pounds by 2030. 

While the global seafood industry already has moved at lightning speed to adapt to the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, it is critical that when we emerge from this crisis we do better because we know better. The industry must adapt and rebuild with sustainability at its heart or we risk the loss of a vital protein source, as well as jobs and major economic support the industry delivers as consumption increases.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in the United States specifically, the seafood industry represents $212 billion in total sales and contributes $100 billion to the GDP. Additionally, the industry supports more than 1.7 million jobs across the country.

Unsustainable fishing includes mismanagement of stocks and unintended catch of non-target species or, worse, endangered, threatened and protected (ETP) species. This can directly affect marine biodiversity and completely disrupt the food chain. In addition, forced labor, illegal fishing and seafood mislabeling go unchecked outside of sustainable practices. 

Seafood provides an important source of protein to the more than 3 billion people on our planet, according to the World Wildlife Fund, so it’s crucial to adopt habits that ensure the ocean and seafood will be around for generations to come. The MSC’s sole mission is to make sure the wild seafood we love is around forever, and the MSC Standard is based on the U.N. Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries

While fisheries must be performing at a high level to be MSC-certified, there is often room for improvement. In fact, as cited in the 2019 MSC Global Impacts Report, 92 percent of certified fisheries have made at least one improvement, which are required conditions for fisheries to maintain certification.

Between 2016 and 2018, 143 conditions of the 288 completed conditions by fisheries globally specifically worked to minimize environmental impact, including through bycatch, habitat, ETP species and ecosystem structure and function improvements. The fisheries specifically completed these conditions by participating in research, taking technical actions and/or completing impact assessments.  

Eeulachon in Seward Alaska

Specific to the U.S., the Oregon and Washington pink shrimp fishery is working to protect a lesser-known fish, the eulachon, a tiny silverfish that migrates from the sea up rivers to spawn similar to salmon.

Climate change, habitat loss and the impacts of fisheries all may have contributed to declining numbers of eulachon, and the species is classified as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. In 2013, state fishery managers began to research ways to reduce the amount of eulachon bycatch as a response to a condition of MSC recertification. Researchers found that by placing LED lighting on the foot ropes of the nets, they were able to reduce unwanted eulachon bycatch by up to 90 percent. By 2018, 100 percent of vessels adopted this method. 

While the environmental and economic impacts of seafood provide compelling support for a sustainable seafood sector, consumer interest can and should drive the industry to improve. High levels of concern for our ocean are driving a new wave of consumer activism as consumers increasingly "vote with their forks" to safeguard our ocean.

Conducted by independent research and strategy consultancy, GlobeScan, the MSC recently completed the largest survey of its kind involving more than 20,000 people across 23 countries. Specific to the U.S., the survey revealed 65 percent of Americans believe supermarkets should remove all unsustainable fish and seafood products from their shelves.

In the same GlobeScan study, 55 percent of U.S. seafood consumers agreed that in order to protect the ocean, we have to consume fish and seafood only from sustainable sources. Through aspirational marketing campaigns, such as the current "Little Blue Label, Big Blue Future" effort, MSC works diligently to inspire consumers to make good on their intentions to purchase sustainable seafood by simply looking for the MSC blue fish label on seafood products. 

Now more than ever, we need to work together to protect our oceans. Sustainable fishing reduces environmental impacts, keeps fish populations healthy and protects hardworking coastal communities.

The call from the FAO to ensure that all fish stocks are managed within biologically sustainable limits is welcome. This is essential to safeguard seafood supplies and contribute to a healthy ocean. The industry should look to organizations such as the MSC for tools and resources to help fisheries all over the world improve their ocean impacts and reverse the overfishing trend.

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