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The sustainable seafood industry is spawning. A recent report shows that production of sustainably raised seafood grew by 35 percent per year between 2003 and 2015, outpacing conventionally sourced seafood by tenfold. 

Fishing in Bangladesh, 2006. (Photo Credit: Michael Foley, World Bank via WikiMedia Commons)

Fishing in Bangladesh, 2006. (Photo Credit: Michael Foley, World Bank via WikiMedia Commons)

In 2015, the $11.5 billion industry represented 14 percent of global seafood production, with 23 million metric tons certified that year.

It is important to note that the most eco-friendly diet is purely plant-based. However, on average, seafood has a smaller environmental footprint and is healthier than other animal-based foods like red meat. 

The report states that the seafood industry nets an estimated $140 billion each year, provides roughly three billion people with their main source of protein and employs over 10 percent of people on Earth. If we are going to eat animal-based protein, sustainably raised seafood is a relatively healthy and low impact option.

What exactly is “sustainable” seafood? In short, sustainable seafood is raised and caught in a way that can continue indefinitely without harming ecosystems or depleting biodiversity, and provides equitable livelihoods for those managing operations. 

Interestingly, the report shows that five types of seafood (Peruvian anchoveta, cod, salmon, tuna and mackerel) dominate the sustainable market, partially due to their high price tags in developed countries. Although some debate whether eating seafood can be part of a sustainable diet, there are several voluntary programs with sustainability standards that offer certifications for applicable producers. 

About 400 tons (360 t) of Chilean jack mackerel (Trachurus murphyi) are caught by a Chilean purse seiner off of Peru. Purse seining is a non-sustainable method of fishing. (Photo Credit: C. Ortiz Rojas)

About 400 tons (360 t) of Chilean jack mackerel (Trachurus murphyi) are caught by a Chilean purse seiner off of Peru. Purse seining is a non-sustainable method of fishing. (Photo Credit: C. Ortiz Rojas)

This is a step in the right direction. However, about 80 percent of seafood is harvested in developing countries while most certified sustainable seafood comes from, and is served in, the developed world (with 25 percent being sourced from Peru). Over two-thirds of seafood on the global market is produced in Asia, but only 11 percent of certified sustainable aquatic food products come from that region.

One of the challenges with ramping up sustainable wild caught seafood, which accounts for 80 percent of certified sustainable stock, is obtaining reliable data. The study suggests that at most, a quarter of the global wild catch is currently subject to scrutiny by sustainability watchdogs. Obtaining accurate data on the remaining majority of seafood poses a significant challenge, especially in developing countries. There, the industry is less regulated, there are more independent subsistence fishermen, and a lack of resources and/or incentives to pay for third-party verifications can deter regional involvement.

On the bright side, certified sustainable aquaculture rapidly increased at 76 percent per annum over the last several years and is predicted to take up the whale’s share of growth in the sustainable seafood sector, with significant potential in Vietnam and China.  Aquaculture eliminates the monitoring problem because it is farmed on land, and if managed properly, can supply people with a source of protein that has minimal impact on our fragile planet.

Widening the net of sustainable seafood suppliers is crucial to maintaining Earth’s diverse array of aquatic wildlife.  Market demand for sustainably sourced seafood, although growing, may not be sufficient to secure ecologically responsible management of our marine environments. As the report indicates, help from policymakers, private investors and international organizations will play a crucial role in regulating and ensuring sustainable production of seafood for our children and the preservation of life under the sea.

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