Demand for seafood from wild fisheries and aquaculture around the world has nearly doubled over the past four decades.  In the past several years, major seafood retailers in developed countries have committed to source their seafood from only sustainably certified fisheries and aquaculture, even though it is not clear where that supply will come from. 

A team of researchers from the University of California, Davis, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and other groups has focused its attention on fishery improvement projects (FIPs), which are designed to bring seafood from wild fisheries to the certified market, with only a promise of sustainability in the future.  They conclude that FIPs need to be fine-tuned to ensure that fisheries are delivering on their promises.

The researchers’ policy forum titled “Secure Sustainable Seafood from Developing Countries” will be published May 1 in the journal Science.

“We’re cautiously optimistic that fisheries improvement projects, which fast-track access to international markets, can lead to sustainable fisheries, especially in developing countries,” said UC Davis Professor James Sanchirico, associate director of the UC Davis Coastal and Marine Science Institute.

Retailers like Walmart in the U.S. and Sainsbury’s in the U.K. have promised that soon all the fresh, frozen, farmed and wild seafood they sell will come from sustainable sources.  Respected private third-party certifying programs like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) are helping to ensure compliance with meaningful sustainability standards designed to help conserve fish populations and protect oceans.

While many of the sustainability standards have been met by commercial fisheries in the developed world, fisheries overseen by developing countries make up only 7 percent of MSC certified fisheries, even though these developing-country fisheries account for about half of all seafood entering the international market.

Fishery improvement projects have been developed to get fisheries on a path to sustainability and potentially certification by the MSC. These projects involve partnerships between the fishermen and firms up and down the international seafood supply chain. A critical objective of the partnerships is to create market incentives for continual improvements by allowing seafood from these developing country fisheries to enter the potentially more lucrative export market for certified seafood.

"It is hoped that the projects will protect marine life and ecosystems in areas where local and national governments have not acted to oversee sustainable practices, while also satisfying the demand for sustainable seafood”, said Gabriel Sampson, UC Davis graduate student and lead author of the study. 

Sampson and colleagues report that seafood from two-thirds of developing-world fisheries enrolled in fishery improvement projects are already being bought by retailers, intending to satisfy their sustainability commitments while making little progress in improving their management.

Such fishery management reforms should include data collection and ongoing monitoring, strengthening harvest and access rights to the resources, limits on the catch, and instituting traceability throughout the supply chain, the researchers say. They suggest, for example, that if access to the fisheries is not better regulated, the current efforts by retailers to secure sustainable, wild-caught seafood could stimulate a “race to fish” and ultimately undermine the sustainability claims.

Without the proper safeguards to ensure progress and reforms in fishery improvement projects, fisheries with full sustainability certification – such as that provided by the MSC – could find their market benefits diluted by the increased competition for a share of the global certified seafood market.

The researchers project that multiple types of certified seafood in the market could lead to a “race to the bottom” in terms of sustainability standards, unless the fisheries improvement projects are carefully monitored to make sure that seafood retailers closely adhere to the sustainable-improvement requirements for market access.

“The retailers and organizations involved with managing fisheries improvement projects need to insist on progress toward reforms from the fishery as a condition for purchasing seafood from that fishery,” Sanchirico said.

“It’s possible that more durable protection could be achieved if the improvement projects withheld market access from the fisheries until after sustainable fishery-management systems are in place,” said Dr. Stacy Jupiter, WCS’s Melanesia Director and a co-author on the paper. “In addition, member retailers and organizations must hold fisheries accountable for meeting benchmarks for measurable reform and implementing appropriate social safeguard in line with cultural norms in developing countries.”

“The future of our oceans and the people who rely on them for depends on the successful management of fish populations by governments, the fisheries sector and fishermen themselves,” said Dr. Caleb McClennen, Executive Director of WCS’s Marine Program. “The chasm between management effectiveness of developed vs. developing countries is large.  Fisheries Improvement Projects provide one critical tool for narrowing that gap and improving the overall sustainability of the world's fisheries.”

Authors on the commentary were Gabriel Sampson, James N. Sanchirico, and J. Edward Taylor of UC Davis; Cathy A. Roheim of the University of Idaho, Moscow; Simon R. Bush of Wageningen University in the Netherlands; Edward H. Allison of the University of Washington, Seattle; James L. Anderson of the University of Florida, Gainesville; Natalie C. Ban of the University of Victoria in Canada; Rod Fujita of the Environmental Defense Fund; Stacy Jupiter of the Wildlife Conservation Society; and Jono R. Wilson of The Nature Conservancy.