This editorial first appeared on October 22 on the Cfood-Science of Fisheries Sustainability web site (http://cfooduw.org/). Reprinted in Landings, November, 2015, with permission.
Where is the science in seafood sustainability and certification? It is about money and values – science has been largely lost.
Seafood sustainability is again in the news as the Global Seafood Sustainability Initiative (GSSI) released its tool for evaluating the sustainability of fisheries. The GSSI tool has drawn immediate criticism from World Wildlife Fund (WWF) as they recently published an article titled, “GSSI compliance does not indicate sustainability certification, WWF warns.” This is an interesting development since WWF is on the board of GSSI.
GSSI is intended to provide an agreed standard for the wide range of certification and seafood labeling schemes. As their web site says “GSSI is a global platform and partnership of seafood companies, NGOs, experts, governmental and intergovernmental organizations working towards more sustainable seafood for everyone.” So who is right in this case, does the GSSI benchmarking tool tell you if a fishery is sustainable?
At its core, seafood sustainability is about the ability to produce food from the sea in the long term. Are the fishery and its management system operated in such a way that our grandchildren can still enjoy the same production from the fishery (subject to the constraints of external factors such as climate change) as we do today?
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, whose objective is food security, has been a big supporter of GSSI. For FAO, sustainability is about continued food production. During the 1990s when overfishing in developed countries was at its height, many retailers supported seafood certification because they wanted to have products to sell in the future … again a focus on food sustainability.
However, environmental NGOs such as WWF are interested less in food sustainability, and more in reducing the environmental impacts of fishing, whether that be catch of non-target species like sharks, or impacts of fishing gear on the seafloor. Consequently, WWF has been a strong supporter of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which is the leading certification scheme for sustainable fisheries. The MSC standard covers much more than sustainable food production and sets a high bar for environmental impacts of fishing. Yet environmental NGOs, including some national chapters of WWF, reject MSC certification because they feel the environmental standards in MSC are not high enough.
Due to the support of a broad range of diverse stakeholders, GSSI is a potential challenger to the MSC as the premier standard of what fish species are sustainably fished. If the GSSI standards are widely accepted, competitors to MSC that have a lower standard may be accepted by retailers as defining sustainability. Currently, consumer and retailers face a broad range of conflicting seafood advice. Once the criteria moves beyond just the sustainability of the fishery to include environmental impacts, things become confusing as there are so many different types of impacts with no consensus on which ones are more important than others. This is where fisheries certification moves from the arena of science, to one of values.
For consumers and retailers, all the conflicting seafood advice is confusing. Take pollock from Alaska, the largest fishery in the US. This fishery is MSC certified, yet the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch does not rate it as a top choice, but as a “good alternative.” Greenpeace puts pollock on its red list.
Equally interesting is the conflict within the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch itself. Skipjack tuna is one of the largest fisheries in the world and provides most of the world’s canned tuna. Skipjack from the western Pacific are red (Avoid), yellow (Good Alternative) and green (Best Choice) on the Seafood Watch guide, depending on how they are caught. Purse seine fishing has by-catch of many species and is thus red, while pole-and-line fishing has less by-catch and is green. However, purse seining has a much lower carbon footprint than pole-and-line fishing. Seafood Watch is valuing by-catch more than carbon footprint.
There is a major role for science in seafood sustainability. Science can determine if the management of a fishery will lead to long-term sustainability of food production. Science can also evaluate the environmental impacts of a fishery. However, science cannot tell you what environmental impacts are valued – that is a question of individual choice or public policy.
So where does this leave consumers, retailers and the rest of us interested in fish as food? The answer is confusing and will likely remain so. GSSI was seen as a hope to sort out the conflicts in seafood labelling – given the WWF response it doesn’t seem likely it will do so.
The most interesting development in seafood sustainability is the force driving certification, and — spoiler alert — it isn’t consumers. Not too many people buy their fish based on sustainability ratings. Retailers, like your neighborhood Whole Foods, Costco or Safeway, do not want the media on their backs or an environmental NGO picketing their store for selling unsustainably harvested fish; they would rather be seen as supporting sustainable fishing to avoid negative press. They consider seafood certification that is backed by key NGOs like WWF as their protection. The next logical step for retailers is formal partnership agreements with the relevant NGO to advise them on what fish products to sell and to pay for this service.
This is a dangerous development because the seafood certification turned partnership becomes a secure funding source for the NGO. Tim Wilson, in his 2012 paper, called this relationship between “friendly” NGOs that provide cover from “hostile” NGOs that might picket a retailer “naked extortion.” If, however, initiatives like GSSI were to be widely accepted, those steady sources of funds will dry up.
Moreover, it is in the nature of NGOs to raise money to fund their activities; alarmist appeals to stop fisheries collapses continue to bring in the big bucks. News of fisheries successes might, at best, raise an indifferent, “meh.”
I know of many private conversations where quite reasonable NGO staff admit the need to find new crises to keep donations flowing. It’s no wonder then, that no matter how well fisheries are actually performing, the bar must be raised again and again to maintain the story that fisheries are failing to meet the ever shape-shifting sustainability standards.
In the immortal words of Deep Throat [from the movie “All the President’s Men”]: Follow the money! Science, poor beggar, has largely been lost.