Seafood sustainability labels – A wise choice?

As an alumna of the World Ocean Youth Advisory Council (2020-2021) with an academic background in environmental resource management, sustainable management of fisheries is a topic that I have studied with great interest. With the dire news of the diminishing state of the world’s fisheries, making the right choices as a consumer has always been at the forefront of my mind whenever I walk past the seafood section of the supermarkets in London, where I am currently based, Overfishing remains one of the biggest threats to the future of marine biodiversity. The latest estimates suggest that 70% of the world’s fisheries are overexploited [1]. But how can I, as a consumer, make a more ‘sustainable’ choice when it comes to buying seafood?    

Eco-labels are used to certify products that meet specific environmental and/or social criteria [1]. In the past two decades, eco-labels in the seafood sector run by private companies or organizations [2] have proliferated in the developed world as part of efforts to increase transparency for consumers in regards to  sustainable seafood sourcing. In Europe and North America, for example, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label is one of the biggest and most-well known. The blue tick logo is applied to wild fish or seafood from fisheries that have been certified through independent assessments to comply with the MSC Fisheries Standard, a set of requirements for sustainable fishing guided by the principles of “only fishing healthy stocks, being well-managed so stocks can be fished for the long-term, and minimizing their impact on other species and the wider ecosystem [3].” (MSC, n.d). Spotting the logo on packaging along the aisles of the supermarket I frequent was a reassuring sign, but I found myself wondering whether these labels alone, were enough to ensure ‘sustainable’ seafood for future generations. 

Photo: Ocean Bites (2020)

Upon further research, I found that in general, these kinds of certification processes are not without their critics. Some have questioned how effective they truly are for preventing harm incurred to local ecosystems through fishing. For example, one seafood certification has been criticized for certifying fisheries for only the sustainable portions of their catches, and discounting unsustainable fishing that occurred on the same trip [4]. Furthermore, it is difficult for experts to designate what  ‘sustainable’ levels of fish stocks are due to variations in how historical levels of fishing are accounted for,; which also affects what labelling companies choose to designate as ‘sustainable’ too. Other critics have challenged the certification process by pointing out evidence that fisheries continue to produce a large amount of bycatch [5] 

More fundamentally, there are chances for unsustainable fisheries to exploit loopholes in the sustainable certification process to rebrand themselves positively towards supermarket suppliers. Many fisheries need to pay for the expensive and time-consuming process of independent audits, which can generate a conflict of interest for private seafood certifiers. As seafood certifiers want to scale up the use of the label, it becomes tempting to grant certifications for fisheries yet to meet sustainability standards to provide incentives for them to improve sustainable practices [6]. This ‘watering down’ of sustainability then makes the label a form of greenwashing [7], and undermines the legitimacy of the certification as an eco-label to consumers. The reverse is the case in the developing world. Small-scale fishers, who tend to operate with limited intensive equipment, or on boats less than 15 meters in length [2]  have little incentive to certify for large sustainable certification labels because of its costly nature. More optimistically, this perhaps creates opportunities for the emergence of newer sustainable seafood certifications who can do the process at a lower cost. It is worth considering how consumers will interpret the proliferation of numerous different sustainable certifications for seafood, particularly whether it will bring about greater clarity or confusion for them.  

To progress the mainstreaming of credible sustainable seafood certifications, more involvement from the public sector in different jurisdictions could help to regulate and prevent loopholes for sustainability certifications. Moreover, certification programs can be redesigned with more capacity building targeted towards small-scale fisheries, given that many small-scale fisheries continue to be excluded from market opportunities and have limited capacity to collect the data needed to demonstrate the sustainability of their catches [3]. An increased focus on the social dimensions of sustainable catches, such as ensuring fair wages and market access, when granting certifications could also help consumers make more ethical choices.  

Ultimately, there is no denying that the labels are helping encourage consumers like myself think twice about what I am buying, and it seems they will be here to stay.  Certification processes increase the transparency and traceability of the seafood value chain for retailers and consumers downstream. But there are remaining flaws in the institutional design and implementation of seafood certification. The growing ubiquity of these labels provides opportunities to be more critical of how well certification can address the full spectrum of sustainability issues in the seafood value chain, such as labor regulations and carbon emissions from imported seafood.