Seafood Sustainability Requires a Global Approach

Fish are displayed at the seafood district on December 19, 2012 at the international wholesale market in the southern Paris s
Fish are displayed at the seafood district on December 19, 2012 at the international wholesale market in the southern Paris suburb of Rungis. The market is almost a city in its own right, spread over 234 hectares (578 acres), and Christmas its busiest season. The 120,000 tons of food that pass through its alleys in December account for a quarter of its annual trade. AFP PHOTO / MARTIN BUREAU (Photo credit should read MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images)

Seafood is the largest traded food commodity in the world. The amount coming from aquaculture production is increasing but nearly half the global supply comes from boats that go out and capture wild fish from the world's oceans, lakes and rivers. This is the only significant commercially traded protein source on earth that is still hunted in the wild.

And it's a remarkably self-sufficient and renewable food source. All we have to do is not destroy the habitat and not take too much fish each year. The fish will do the rest, replenishing their numbers between harvests.

But how do consumers know which fish stocks are protected in this way and environmentally safe to eat? Or if the fish they are told they are buying is, in fact, accurate? Mislabeling of seafood is all too common.

Seafood is a regular part of our national diet in the United States. While many people try to "buy local" and often confuse that with a guarantee of sustainability, Americans continue to import more than 90 percent of our seafood (some fish caught by U.S. fishermen is exported for processing and re-imported to the U.S.), at the same time exporting more than 63 percent per year to other countries. The numbers are staggering and make clear that safeguarding wild seafood supplies requires a global approach.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), more than 1 billion people depend on seafood for their sole or main source of protein. A half a billion people depend on it for their livelihood. For these people, fishing is a necessity, not a luxury. The alternative is economic collapse, poverty and hunger. Safeguarding the world's fish stocks is one of the most important global issues today. Some opinion leaders say it is second only to climate change. For the sake of environmental, economic and food security in both the developed and developing world, we can't afford to miss our opportunity to get it right. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) was established for this very purpose.

It began more than a decade ago when Canada's iconic Grand Banks cod fishery collapsed, putting 40,000 people out of work. Many working on these issues realized that advocacy and regulation alone were not moving things along quickly enough. Hundreds of experts around the world came together to help develop an innovative concept to harness the powerful force of the international marketplace to reward fisheries that fish sustainably and incentivize change by those who don't. They reached consensus on a rigorous, scientific global standard for determining the sustainability of fisheries -- from large industrial fisheries to small artisanal fishing communities. They created a traceability program to track seafood certified to the standard as it entered and traveled through the supply chain. The independent, nonprofit MSC was created to operate the program.

Today, the MSC is the world's leading certification program for wild seafood. More than 18,000 product lines in 106 countries bear the MSC eco-label, indicating the fish is from, and fully traceable back to, a sustainable fishery. More than 11 percent -- 10 million metric tons -- of the global wild-caught seafood harvest is either certified or in assessment to the MSC standard. In the U.S., more than half is certified. Even the scientists who predicted complete fishery collapse before mid-century have acknowledged a turnaround. The fishing industry and the thousands of businesses, from small, independent restaurants to multinational retail corporations like Walmart, Costco and Whole Foods Markets who have all committed to produce and source using the MSC standard, have made a difference. The trend line now is in the upward direction. The latest example is the decision made by McDonald's in the United States, which has sourced MSC certified sustainable Alaska pollock for several years to display the MSC ecolabel on its seafood offerings in all 14,000 U.S. restaurants as a way to engage its customers on sustainability.

In fact, consider the journey from ocean to table of one common whitefish, Alaska Pollock, the world's largest MSC-certified fishery and one of the best managed because of both its tracking and reaction to the fluctuations of the fish population. Alaska Pollock has been MSC-certified since 2005 and fishery managers have historically taken a precautionary approach, setting annual harvest levels that are even lower than the acceptable biological catch levels set by scientists.

Pollock and other whitefish are among the species considered at risk for substitution or mislabeling. Recently, the MSC conducted a comprehensive review of pollock supply chains from the U.S. source fishery into China where much of it is processed and back into global markets. MSC cross-checked the purchase, sale and processing information from 68 processors in China with sales records from exporters and purchase records from importers. The review covered over one year's worth of trade and a total of 18,000 tons of pollock exported from the U.S. No evidence of product substitution was found. Moreover, the most recent independent DNA testing indicates that the overall mislabeling rate for MSC certified products, from large industrial to small artisanal community fisheries globally is only about one percent.

When you see the MSC eco-label in your grocery store or on a restaurant menu, it not only means the fish you are buying is accurately identified. It represents a collective effort to address a global issue that affects the food security and livelihood of billions of people. As more fisheries and buyers join this global effort, the greater our chances of harvesting fish from our oceans indefinitely into the future.