Seafood Sustainability: Realising your Power as a Consumer

With much of the world’s fish stocks now overfished, consumers might be a little late to jump on the ‘seafood sustainability’ wagon. Can we make up for lost time?

by Nikhil Sreekandan

The daily catch, pictured at a port in the Ilocos Norte province in the northern Philippines. © Bernard Spragg. NZ /Flickr

In a matter of minutes, the early morning quiet had given way to absolute chaos. Tires screeched and doors slammed as a legion of footfalls echoed across the open space of the wholesale fish market in Margao, Goa.

The 4 am-raid by the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) officials took everyone by surprise. Confusion turned to panic amongst the fish traders as FDA authorities started collecting samples of fish from the loaded trucks. Samples of 10 different species of fish were drawn from 17 fish-loaded trucks that had come into the state of Goa from across the country.

The department chemist conducted a quick spot test and found the fish samples positive for formalin. Formalin or formaldehyde is a hazardous chemical generally used to create embalming fluids for the dead, in this case, used as a preservative for rotting fish. The FDA immediately seized all shipments, and what followed was a 15-day ban instituted by the state on all fish imports.

Suddenly, you could find people scouting for locally caught fish — fresh fish that weren’t contaminated with preservatives. The precipitous demand for local produce saw the prices soar, and there were even ideas of formalin testing kits and a whole bunch of other bizarre things that came into the picture.

This incident which took place in June last year, in the Indian state of Goa, created a furore across the nation. What was happening to our seafood? Was there such a dearth of fish in the sea?

For Aaron Savio Lobo, a marine conservationist and a resident of Goa, trade tricks like formalin in fish weren’t new. “Using preservatives in fish and the mislabelling of fish in the market is something that has been done for a very long period of time,” says Aaron.

These so-called ‘trade tricks’ are by no means isolated events, fishermen from around the world are struggling to get enough fish from our oceans. But what is even more significant is that these trade tricks are what one would call ‘the tip of the iceberg’. We are blissfully unaware of everything that happens under the sea.

As per the latest State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA) report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), 33 per cent of the world’s fish stock is now overfished and a further 60 per cent at maximum capacity with no possibility to increase catches without overfishing the stock. Also, the high amounts of bycatch and careless management of wild-caught fish mean that one in three fish caught around the world never makes it to the plate.

Global trends in the state of the world’s marine fish stocks, 1974-2015. © SOFIA/FAO

The SOFIA report is by no means an overall survey of all the world’s fish — although desirable it would be an expensive and unaffordable exercise. It is estimated by researchers that the fish are in even worse shape than what is assumed by the FAO.

A lot of the changes that can be done to address the issue has to do with stringent policy measures and regulations. But consumers can do much more than just watch from the sidelines. Consumers create the demand, the seafood production that happens today caters to the needs and the choices that we make. And these choices and actions hold unimaginable power to drive change in terms of sustainability.

Take the modern European consumer as an example. Europe is the biggest market for seafood in the world, with the EU importing more than half of their seafood. And half of these imports come in from developing nations such as India and the Philippines. Undoubtedly, the impact a European consumer has on the global fish market is massive.

Consumers can no longer afford to be ignorant about the world’s oceans and fisheries. There are approximately three billion people in the world who rely on seafood as their primary source of protein. It is invariable that ‘sustainability’ becomes the primary factor in the seafood-consumer equation. We can do more than just jump aboard the sustainability wagon, we can take charge of it and pave the way for a sustainable seafood future.

“How”, you ask? Let’s find out.

Awareness is key

The definite first step towards seafood sustainability is awareness creation.

The Fish Forward Project is a pan-European venture by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) to raise awareness of the social and environmental impacts of fish consumption. This EU-funded project is raising awareness of sustainable seafood consumption in 17 different countries.

Even though Europe has strong legislation for the label that needs to be on seafood, much like the rest of the world, the European consumer is generally unaware of the quality and origins of their seafood. Simone Niedermüller of WWF’s Fish Forward Project says, “I think that there is a lot of low awareness. For example, in countries where you have seafood production, people often assume that all the seafood that is served is locally produced, this is often not the case. There is currently a lot of attention directed towards meat consumption, but not so much towards seafood.”

Pooja Rathod, a marine biologist and one of the founders of Know Your Fish, an ocean-friendly lifestyle initiative from India, would be the first person in any room to acknowledge that we, in general, have a huge disconnect with the sea.

“When it comes to deforestation or when we see an elephant death while crossing a railway track, it is very visible and people feel very emotional about it. But in the sea, the same things happen down there and nobody sees it, nobody knows it. Because it is happening underwater, off the radar,” says Pooja.

As Simone referred to the public attention directed towards meat consumption, Pooja cites the example of organic food. “Everyone talks about organic food, you go to the supermarket and 50 per cent of everything you see is organic. But nobody ever talks about fish. Can fish have seasons like fruits and vegetables? People don’t understand that.”

But Pooja stresses that people are receptive to the idea of seafood sustainability. “It’s simply because of the lack of awareness. Given a choice we’ve really seen people wanting to make a difference in their choices,” she says. Simone has a similar opinion about the growing awareness among European consumers. She says, “We can see that it has improved, especially in the countries where we have been doing awareness raising for a long time.”

If you have read thus far, you have already taken your first step towards seafood sustainability. So what next?

Knowledge for mileage

Awareness throws open the doors for knowledge — knowledge of the sea, of fisheries, of the seasonality of fish and so much more — things we have chosen to be ignorant of until now.

Here are four simple steps to adopt to get started on this journey of sustainability:

1) Know your seafood – Seafood calendars and guides

Pooja, along with her marine biologist friends, started Know Your Fish (KYF) to help consumers understand the journey of their seafood to their plates. They came up with a simple solution, a seafood calendar for the west coast of India to help consumers make responsible seafood choices. The calendar with data on 40 different species of fish, acts as a guide, providing information on what fish you can eat and what you should absolutely avoid each month of the year.

A lot of information is curated and considered to provide these informed monthly recommendations, says Pooja. “We look at breeding seasons of every fish, how each species of fish is caught and the population trends of each fish (most of this information is from published research). Then there’s a way where we score each fish. So apart from just saying that these fish breed in the months of January, February and March, so don’t eat them during that period, that is not the only information that goes in. But a whole lot of other data such as its vulnerability, whether its population is already declining and multiple other factors.”

Know Your Fish’s seafood calendar for the month of March 2019. © Know Your Fish

Even collateral damage is taken into consideration. “Seerfish for example, which is caught by methods like gill nets and hook-and-line involves the by-catch or secondary catch of sharks. And, sharks are known to breed during the months of March, April, and May. This would mean that eating seerfish in March, April and May will risk sharks as unintentional by-catch. So, we modify our recommendation for seerfish accordingly.”

Similar to the Know Your Fish seafood calendar, WWF’s Fish Forward Project provides individually customised seafood guides to 17 European nations to help consumers make responsible seafood choices.

2) Break the pattern – Eat diverse and lower down the food chain

One of the major problems of seafood consumption today is our over-reliance on a limited number of species. Whatever the season, we want only these four or five kinds of seafood.

Pooja rues the lack of diversity in the seafood diet of fellow Indians. “India is a multi-species fishery where we catch more than maybe 50-70 different varieties of seafood. You simply have to take advantage of your country being located where it is!”

“Most people, especially city folk, they either want pomfret, kingfish or prawns. It’s because at one time they were available in abundance and restaurants could serve them. But, now the hotel industry itself has set this pattern where that’s the only thing consumers want. People’s taste buds have become so closed, the only thing they’ve ever tasted is the few that have been promoted for over the years and now it’s ingrained in their heads.”

Pooja takes the example of the prawn industry to stress on the importance of diversifying. “When you are not diversifying, you are restricting yourself to four or five different kinds of seafood, and by doing so you are putting pressure on the fishermen to catch just those fish, and they will use all the possible methods to catch them. “


A photograph of prawn traps that are dragged across the ocean floor by trawlers. © Mark Faviell/Flickr

“The biggest example of this is the prawn industry. Prawns are caught by trawling, where a large net is dragged on the bottom of the sea floor, and in the process, you are not just catching prawns, you are catching everything that’s coming in your net. You sort your prawns and the rest of it is thrown back. And this is happening simply because of the high demand for prawns.”

Similarly, eating lower down the food chain is equally important. The answer to the question of why has to do with simple biology. Take the example of mackerel, a species of pelagic fish which attains sexual maturity in just under a year and breeds twice a year, laying millions of eggs. Now, consider a species, much higher up in the food chain, like a shark, they attain sexual maturity in 20 years and give birth to just two individuals when breeding. Clearly, it will be much easier for mackerel populations to recover than sharks.

Simone of the Fish Forward Project acknowledges the importance of eating diverse and eating lower down the food chain. She says that it is reflected in the ratings of their published seafood guides. “This is part of our messaging as well, but I don’t think the consumer has this level of awareness yet,” she adds.

3) Look beyond eco-labels

Depending on where you live, the manner in which you source your seafood will vary. According to the UN, two-thirds of the global population will live in cities by 2050. Urban spaces mean supermarkets and the kingdom of the frozen fish empire, where traceability and transparency of seafood pose a potential problem. According to the SOFIA 2018 report, 31 per cent of the fish for direct human consumption is frozen.

The suggested solution for the urban crowd who depends on retail markets for their seafood needs is eco-label certification. Eco-labels are tags or labels placed on a product that certifies that the product was produced in an environmentally friendly way. They essentially provide consumers with sufficient information to enable them to recognize and choose sustainably sourced seafood.

There are various organisations managing and developing ecolabels for seafood. WWF recognises and promotes certification programmes like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) for wild-caught and Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) for farmed seafood.

Simone believes that these certification programmes are key to moving the seafood industry towards sustainability. “The advantage with eco-labels is that you have regular in-person audits, so you get the most information. So, you actually have better traceability, you have more transparency of what is happening. We also believe that some of the ecolabels have helped create a wider understanding of environmental standards for fisheries and have helped push along an improvement in sustainability.”

But certification is a tedious and expensive process which makes it extremely difficult for small-scale fisheries to get certified. “It’s definitely more difficult for them [small-scale fisheries], this is why we don’t only recommend certification. In our seafood guide, we also have green ratings for example for the stock risk assessments that are not certified.”

Aaron agrees that eco-labels provide an easy route for urban consumers to buy sustainable seafood, but he also believes it is problematic. “It is possibly the best thing we have living in an urban environment, however, data shows that ecolabels haven’t really made a big change on the ground. And I feel that ecolabels take consumers away from the source and that is problematic.”

He explains: “I was at a supermarket in Goa the other day when my friend showed me a can and said ‘Hey, we should try this’. It was herring in wasabi and it was eco-labelled and he knew that I liked that eco-label. I did, but the only problem was that it was coming all the way from Denmark. When you factor in food miles into eco-labels, sustainability goes out the window entirely.”

Aaron is of the opinion that though eco-labels help us choose organically produced food, we should try more to support local food producers. “In India, we still got the luxury to go to the local markets and we still talk to our grocers. So, whenever we get the chance I think we have to try and support the local fresh produce as much as we can.”

4) Support local producers

As more and more consumers move further and further away from the source of their food, transparency and traceability pose huge threats for sustainability. Particularly, first-world countries like the U.S., where 90 per cent of seafood is imported from other countries around the world.

This is the very problem LocalCatch.org and Joshua Stoll are trying to combat as they work towards effectively shortening the supply chain of seafood in North America.

LocalCatch.org is a community-of-practice that is made up of fishermen, researchers, and consumers from across North America who are committed to providing local, healthful, low-impact, and economically sustainable seafood via community supported fisheries (CSFs) and other direct marketing arrangements.

Joshua Stoll, the founder of LocalCatch.org, explains the crucial role of community supported fisheries, “CSFs are important because they create a link between harvesters and consumers, and without having that connection and that feedback loop, I don’t think that it’s possible, in a long-term, to have sustainable fisheries.”

LocalCatch.org is now present in more than 422 locations across North America. © LocalCatch.org

“The initial concept for community supported fisheries is very much poached from the agricultural sector and it kind of revolves around a share-based model. But the specifics of the model are less important than the underlined values of sustainability. What we are seeing is that there are a lot of people because of their local context who are doing something slightly different —some people do shares, some people have a farmers market and so on and so forth.”

By creating a direct link to a fisherman and his fishing family, you are investing in long-term sustainability, explains Joshua. “Right now, 90 per cent of the seafood that consumers in the US eat are coming from supply chains that have no link, it’s impossible to figure out the source. So, if you make that simple switch, to shorten the supply chain, by knowing the person who produces your product, you are contributing to the long-term sustainability of resources.”

LocalCatch.org is now present in more than 422 locations and Joshua has witnessed CSFs cropping up all over the world. “Ten years ago, there’s none of this happening, five years ago there’s barely any of this happening, now there are hundreds of places where people can link to their fisherman, they can know their fishermen and fishing family. And, the numbers just continue to grow astronomically.”

On the sustainability highway

Knowing where to source organically produced food is an important step towards seafood sustainability. Is it fresh from the fish market or do you pick it up at retail markets?

In southern European nations like Spain, Italy and Portugal, where fish is mostly bought fresh from the market, it is up to the consumer to converse with the fishmonger and understand where the fish is coming from, how it was caught etc. In fact, the onus will be on you to make them aware of your rights as a consumer to know this and make a choice based on the information provided.

In India and other developing nations, this holds true as well, with most of the seafood being bought at fish markets, either directly from producers or through middlemen. You know when and what seafood you should and shouldn’t buy, it is simply a matter of asking and finding out about the products that you are paying for.

A question that Pooja gets asked on a regular basis is: ‘What if I go to the fish market and I see all these fish which are breeding right now that have been caught by the fisherman? They are still there, they are still dead. I might as well buy them?’

People don’t understand that one by one we do create demand, says Pooja. “If a fisherman is not going to get money off selling shark or kingfish because people aren’t buying it, he’s not going to go and catch it. The reason he’s catching it is that there is a consumer backing the market.”

A consumer pictured weighing up her options at a fish stall in China. © dave.see /Flickr

But large parts of the world also depend on retail chains and supermarkets for their seafood, where traceability and transparency of seafood pose a potential problem. Eco-labels are a definite resource to tap into when buying frozen and packaged seafood, but it is always better to try and source local fresh produce whenever possible.

Of course, it’s easier said than done. But the word ‘local’ has a very different meaning today, says Joshua of LocalCatch.org. “We are seeing coastal communities, say in Alaska, who are creating connections to consumers in the midwest in the U.S. It is not geographically local, but through communication, technology and social media, they are able to maintain relationships with consumers and tell the story of what they are doing and how they are doing it and foster that important dialogue with the consumer. We live in a world where that is possible.”

Ultimately, it comes down to you and the effort you are willing to put in to get the food on your plate. There’s a very common phrase, ‘You work to get your meal’, and you really need to work to get your meal in today’s world.

During a time when we are so used to getting everything with the simple click of a button, this is probably the toughest challenge mankind faces in terms of long-term food sustainability.

As Aaron suggests, it will do us all well to realise that fostering a healthy relationship with our food is the most crucial step towards its conservation. “Food is one of those few direct links that every individual has to the environment. And depending on how you use it, it can be a big driver for change.”

So are you ready to put in the work?

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