The world of seafood is complicated. When the NGO community initially started to take action to improve the health of the world’s seafood industry, they realized they first had to come up with a definition to clearly define what sustainability meant for the seafood industry. In addition to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program and other similar entities who defined sustainability criteria to create consumer wallet cards, seafood certifications such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) for fisheries as well as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and the Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP), began to pop up and offer other approaches, some of which included social standards as 3rd party audits to verify compliance. These definitions ultimately allowed major seafood buyers to build seafood policies that included various sustainability commitments, such as committing to only using one of the certification schemes.
The result today is that almost every major seafood buyer has some sort of sustainability commitment which is definitely a great success. However, despite working with buyers with sustainability commitments over the past ten years, less than 15% of all global fisheries and aquaculture are currently certified. This highlights the need for a greater focus on improving seafood as buyers can only deliver on their sustainability commitments with a healthy supply.]
Fisheries and Aquaculture Improvement Projects
Seafood improvement projects are complicated and depend upon the nature of the supply chain for a particular seafood item including which country it is located in, the biology of the species, and whether or not the question “Are we sustainable?” has been considered before. Seafood improvement projects are divided into two categories: fisheries and aquaculture.
Fisheries improvement projects (FIPs) generally fall into two categories based on definitions created by the conservation lens for seafood solutions. “Comprehensive” FIPs are benchmarked against the MSC standards and work towards MSC certification within a five-year period, whereas “Basic” FIPs are projects that aim to improve fisheries without being too concerned about certification in the short term. Fisheryprogress.org is an online resource that lists all of the FIPs around the world and provides information about when they started, how much progress they have made, and how much further they need to go.
Unlike fisheries, there is no single agreed-upon aquaculture certification standard, and therefore, no real definition of an aquaculture improvement project. In reality, one simply needs to be able to demonstrate that their operation is improving against a standard that they have identified. While there are probably well over 100 FIPs in the world, the number of AIPs is only a small fraction of that. However, AIPs will likely become a bigger part of the landscape moving forward given that they are technically easier to execute than FIPs and more of the growth in seafood production will come from aquaculture.
Caught in the Seafood Supply Web
The leverage for most improvement projects today is being driven by major seafood buyers interests which have focused most of the attention on larger scale FIPs. While this should be celebrated, it’s important to note that small-scale fisheries and aquaculture make up the majority of global seafood production and part of the reason why only less than 15% of global seafood is certified. In short, we have not found ways to effectively engage the small-scale production community who are predominantly in developing countries where pursuing this work is more difficult and complicated.
For example, a small-scale shrimp farming operation may have to work with their farming neighbours: a hatchery to get baby shrimp, a feed company, a broker to harvest their shrimp and move it to a processor, and sometimes, there can be multiples of each one of these steps. In other words, we are not dealing with supply chains but rather, supply webs and that is a big part of what makes it complicated.
The Need For Global Solutions
While it sounds hard to try to resolve some of these challenges, the importance of supporting improvement projects cannot be understated. The reality today is that the challenges facing the seafood industry are global, and therefore, require solutions to be produced from a global perspective. Global seafood producers cannot be expected to figure out how to be sustainable on their own because the notion of sustainability is, in many respects, a bit of an idealistic Western concept. As a species, we are only as strong as our weakest link, and in this case, many of these seafood supply chains surround important ecosystems for our planet. We cannot simply abandon them, or we lose the opportunity to create sustainable change.
As western consumers, we need to find ways to embrace the realities of the supply chain and work together to find solutions with the stakeholders themselves to the greatest extent possible. This is what seafood improvement projects are trying to do but we need to go further and roll up our sleeves and get to work for the small-scale producers in the world.
This is where collaborations between chefs and small-scale producers could be a game changer as there are tremendous stories that come from seafood improvement projects. Producers around the world are proud of their stories and would love for them to be told.