Ensuring Sustainable Seafood

Ensuring Sustainable Seafood

The United Nations estimates that 11 of the world’s 15 major fishing areas and 69 percent of the world’s major fish species are in decline. At the same time, nearly 10 percent of the world’s population makes a living by fishing or aquaculture and consumer demand for seafood continues to rise. The Marine Stewardship Council works to resolve this dilemma.

Founded in 1996, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an international nonprofit organization that uses market-based incentives and an environmental standard for well-managed fisheries that takes into account the vulnerability of the fish, impact of the fishery on its ecosystem, and effectiveness of fishery management.

A growing number of people in the fishing industry seek MSC certification in order to sell in the expanding market for sustainable seafood. But they face financial hurdles: certification requires work plans, rigorous assessment, and credible fishery improvement projects.

In 2002, with support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Resources Legacy Fund created the Sustainable Fisheries Fund to enable more fisheries to participate. In India’s Kerala state, for example, RLF supported the Ashtamudi clam fishery through the certification process. Once over-fished, the Ashtamudi fishery now features monitoring, a governing council, long-term targets—and its 1,000 fishermen get higher prices for the clams they dig by hand and foot.

Blue swimming crab with eggs

In 2009, the Walton Family Foundation helped expand and focus the Sustainable Fisheries Fund. RLF provided a two-year grant, for instance, to aid the development of a regional fishery improvement project for Western and Central Pacific Ocean Bigeye Tuna, fisheries that often involve accidental catch of sharks, turtles, and other animals. With support from RLF, outside experts are working with the fisheries to craft controls and improve monitoring of catch and bycatch levels. The Sustainable Fisheries Fund also supported design and distribution throughout the Pacific of brochures illustrating how to release accidentally caught sea turtles, sharks, rays, and dolphins.

The fishery improvement project process has created new challenges, however, primarily because it engages fisheries that are not yet ready to pursue MSC certification. This has triggered a fear among some conservation groups that fishery improvement projects could in some cases constitute “greenwashing,” allowing retailers to stock their shelves with products that are labeled “sustainable” but are not really so, potentially undermining the credibility of the more stringent MSC program. To neutralize this challenge, RLF is working in close coordination with its foundation partners to revise the program’s strategy and guidelines, to increase accountability and transparency in fishery improvement project work by requiring more public reporting of fishery assessment results as well as milestones reached in fishery improvement projects.

During the last 13 years, RLF has awarded more than $6 million in grants and contracts to support the engagement of more than 180 fisheries in 35 countries in assessments and improvement projects, including grants to more than 30 fisheries that have achieved MSC certification. RLF worked with its foundation partners and fisheries experts to design the program criteria, which require that each applicant match funding for its proposed project and demonstrate a commitment to the MSC process. With accounting, transparency, and publication of milestones, RLF also works to address “greenwashing” concerns that fisheries not ready for MSC certification might sell their catch as “sustainable” and undermine the credibility of certification.

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