Ensuring Sustainable Seafood

Ensuring Sustainable Seafood

Nearly 10 percent of the world’s population relies on fisheries and aquaculture for its livelihood, while consumer demand for seafood continues to rise. Yet 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. The need for rethinking the ways in which these fisheries operate is critical.

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

During the last decade, demand for sustainable seafood has increased dramatically around the world and a growing number of fisheries are interested in selling their fish in this expanding market, either by obtaining MSC certification, or by at least improving the sustainability of their operations through so-called fishery improvement projects. The costs, however, of undergoing the rigorous assessments required by MSC, or even of developing the work plans needed to engage in credible fishery improvement projects, can be a significant obstacle to many smaller-scale fisheries. In 2002, with support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, RLF created the Sustainable Fisheries Fund to enable such fisheries to participate.

RLF identified and engaged a team of experts that it worked with to design a global program to help key fisheries afford the costs of assessments and capacity-building they would need to undertake MSC certification. In India’s Kerala state, for example, RLF supported the Ashtamudi clam fishery as it went through the certification process. The support enabled this small fishery, contained entirely within a single estuary, to achieve the distinction of becoming India’s first MSC-certified fishery. Once over-fished, the Ashtamudi now monitored impacts to its ecosystem, put in place long-term management targets, and established a governing council. With certification in hand, the Ashtamudi fishery—which employs roughly 1,000 fishermen who dig out clams by hand and foot, and hand-dredge from canoes—gets higher prices for its product from markets it had never before reached.

Blue swimming crab with eggs

In 2009, the Walton Family Foundation became a partner in SFF, and helped expand the program’s reach and bring greater focus to the fishery improvement project work. 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, a group of Pacific tuna fisheries that has problems with accidental catch (“bycatch”) of sharks, turtles, and other animals. With support from RLF, outside experts are working with the fisheries to improve sustainability by bringing them into collaboration with fisheries from Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Indonesia. Together, they are crafting controls to limit catches, improving monitoring of catch and bycatch levels, and engaging more Pacific bigeye tuna fisheries in the fishery improvement project process. SFF funding 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 SFF’s funding for its proposed project and demonstrate a commitment to the MSC process. RLF works in close coordination with MSC global staff as well as staff from international conservation organizations to vet incoming projects and ensure that those most ready receive support.

Through regular communications with key international fisheries conservation organizations and refinement of SFF program guidelines in consultation with leading seafood sustainability and organizational development consultants, RLF has become a critical resource for many fisheries that could not otherwise have sought or obtained MSC certification.

The SFF program has been responsible for dozens of fisheries’ pursuing sustainability through MSC, adding critical momentum to the global sustainable seafood movement including its recent expansion into key markets like Japan, Iceland, and Brazil. Many fisheries have reported that, but for SFF support, they simply would not have been able to participate in the MSC process.

The depth and duration of the Sustainable Fisheries Fund makes clear RLF and its partners’ dedication to healthy oceans and fisheries worldwide. More important, the program’s ongoing success stands as an example of RLF’s ability to work with a range of partners, across geographic borders, to achieve conservation results, as well as to adapt its strategies as conservation needs and opportunities change.

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