Making fishing sustainable

Posted on April, 05 2011

We’re working to secure a future for marine species, the millions of people who depend on fishing – and your tuna sandwich
We’re working to secure a future for marine species, the millions of people who depend on fishing – and your tuna sandwich

The tuna sandwich that got you through a terrible day at work.

The cod and chips you ate on the promenade, fending off the seagulls, during the endless summer holidays of your childhood.

The upmarket sushi restaurant where you went on the night you got engaged.

The grilled sardines in the seafront taverna as the sun set, so fresh you felt you could taste the ocean.
And the families from islands and the coasts of continents all over the world, who for thousands of years have set out to sea in search of food.

We think these things are important. We also know a healthy ocean teeming with life is essential for people and nature. That’s why we’ve done so much to promote sustainable fishing.

It’s a journey that takes us from fishing communities to the boardrooms of multinational corporations.  And it’s helping to make sure our seas can continue to provide a source of fresh food – and fresh memories…

What’s at stake?

The world’s oceans produce 70% of our oxygen. They influence weather systems, support economies and feed people.

About 950 million people rely on fish as their main source of animal protein, and fishing is the principal livelihood for over 200 million people around the world.

The sea seems a place of limitless bounty. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

Unsustainable fishing is currently the biggest single threat to our oceans. Over three-quarters of fisheries are already exploited to the limit of what’s sustainable, or beyond. As fishing fleets continue to plunder what’s left, many fisheries are on the brink of collapse.

Destructive fishing methods, such as cyanide poisoning and the blasting of coral reefs, are still widely practised. And each year, millions of tonnes of unwanted, untargeted marine animals are caught by indiscriminate fishing gear. These animals are called bycatch and are often thrown back into the ocean – dying, or dead.

We urgently need to conserve marine habitats and start using sustainable fishing methods to give our seas the chance to recover. And not just for wildlife, but for coastal communities, indigenous peoples for whom fishing is a way of life, and all of us who want fish kept on the menu and oceans thriving.

The story so far

Governments had been trying to halt the world fisheries crisis for years, with limited success.

In 1992, the devastating collapse of the cod stocks off the east coast of Newfoundland was a wake up call for the global fishing industry and forced the Canadian government to take drastic measures and close the fishery. This affected 40,000 Canadians, and cost the Canadian Government US$3,9 billion in reparations and social assistance. Around the same time, the UN developed a number of instruments to try to improve fisheries management.

In 1996, WWF started an initiative with Unilever, at the time the world’s largest buyer of frozen fish, to change the way fish are caught, sold and marketed. We established the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

Now an independent non-profit organization, the MSC is the world’s leading certification and eco-labelling programme for sustainable seafood. It works with fisheries, seafood companies, scientists, conservation groups and the public to promote the best environmental choices in seafood.

Fifteen years on, it’s clear that growing demand for seafood that’s credibly certified as sustainable is changing fishing for the better.

More than 100 fisheries around the world are now MSC certified. These fisheries supply over 7% of all the seafood we eat. And many more are now working to achieve MSC standards. This means that today, across the world’s fisheries, 40 per cent of wild-caught salmon, and almost 50 per cent of prime whitefish are now fished responsibly.

Worldwide, more than 8,000 seafood products bear the blue fish tick MSC eco-label, meaning they can be traced back to certified sustainable fisheries. The market for MSC-certified seafood is estimated to be worth over US$2 billion annually.

Alongside our work with the MSC, WWF is working in other ways to conserve the places we’ve identified as the most important marine biodiversity hotspots. We’re working to promote effectively managed marine protected areas, clamp down on illegal fishing, reduce the unintended capture of threatened species in fisheries, clean up shipping and limit the impacts of other activities in the marine environment.

Did you know?

Over 300,000 small whales, dolphins, and porpoises die each year after becoming entangled in fishing nets. It’s the single largest cause of death for small cetaceans.

Facts and stats

  • 950 million - people who depend on fish as their main source of animal protein
  • 200 million – people whose livelihoods depend on fishing
  • US$2 billion – annual retail value of MSC-certified seafood
  • <1% - area of the ocean that’s protected

WWF in action

MSC certification doesn’t just mean fish stocks can recover. It’s a win for fisheries in other ways too. It can help them sell their fish at a higher price or get better access to important markets. It can even save whole fishing communities.

The American Albacore Fishing Association (AAFA) is one organization that’s seen huge benefits from MSC certification for its tuna fisheries off Bonita, California.

Their albacore tuna now sells at US$2,260 per tonne to customers around the world. Before certification, it only sold it for around US$1,700. That’s because global demand for the internationally recognized MSC eco-label is so high. In 2009, for the first time in many years, the fishermen began to be able to dictate the price themselves!

 “We couldn’t have created the new market without the eco-label,” says Natalie Webster, the AAFA’s director of operations. “We have good penetration in Switzerland, Germany and France. Our product was never in the UK before, but now all the big chains stock our albacore. Thailand is looking at processing it; the Loblaws grocery chain in Canada is demanding it.”

MSC certification doesn’t just mean more money for the AAFA. It’s saved their traditional fishing community. “Due to low prices, there wasn’t a good future – and because of instability, the next generation wasn’t following in the traditional footsteps of their parents and grandparents. In our minds, the fishery would cease to exist because the fishers were all in their late fifties,” says Webster.

Now, younger people are eager to get on board and Bonita is thriving – thanks to the MSC.

What next?

We’re continuing to provide seafood producers with technical assistance to assess and adjust their operations so they can achieve MSC certification. We’re working with our seafood and fishing sector partners to infuence policy to ensure sustainable markets and improve practices in the water. And we’re educating consumers about how smarter purchasing can help preserve marine ecosystems.

WWF partners with global retailers that purchase large amounts of seafood to get them to commit  to buy from sustainable sources. Commitments from major retailers include:

  • Coop: a third of the Swiss retailer’s wild-caught seafood comes from MSC-certified fisheries.
  • Carrefour: the French supermarket giant has joined forces with seafood brands Findus, Connétable and Labeyrie to promote MSC -labelled products in France.

With their considerable buying power behind us, we’re working together to shift the global seafood market and the fishing industry towards sustainability.

But there’s still much more to be done to recover the health of our oceans and safeguard seafood supplies for tomorrow. Other highlights include:

  • Targeting tuna: Together with 14 of the world’s largest tuna canning companies, representing over 80% of global canned tuna, WWF launched the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation ( ISSF) to support long-term sustainability of tuna fisheries and marine ecosystems.
  • In the case of Mediterranean bluefin tuna, we’ve kept relentless pressure on decision-makers at ICCAT, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. As a result, catches and the number of boats on the water have been scaled back, and increasing numbers of businesses are joining WWF in giving the endangered fish a break.
  • Building partnerships: The Coral Triangle is the centre of the planet’s marine life. In 2009, we helped bring together the heads of state of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste to launch the Coral Triangle Initiative – one of the most detailed and ambitious ocean conservation strategies ever seen. We’re working together with governments, local communities, businesses and other partners to create a regional network of protected areas to conserve coral reefs, stop the decline of sea turtles and other endangered species, and transform fishing practices.
  • Lobbying for better ocean policies: We’re campaigning for reform of the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy, which is being reviewed in 2012. It’s a once-in-a-decade chance to end overfishing within EU waters and other places where European vessels fish. 
  • Conserving the most critical habitats: Less than 1% of the ocean is protected. We’re working with scientists and governments to identify the most important habitats and implement conservation plans to protect marine life while allowing sustainable use.
  • Improving lives and livelihoods: No one has more at stake in the conservation of marine biodiversity than those who depend on the sea for survival. We work with local partners to ensure that the rights, customs and livelihoods of communities that fish sustainably are respected and preserved.
  • Promoting smarter fishing gear: Bycatch can often be reduced by making simple changes to fishing gear so that fewer non-target and juvenile species are caught. In 2004, WWF joined fishermen, industry leaders and scientists to launch a global competition called Smart Gear to find the most practical, innovative design for fishing gear that reduces bycatch. This competition has been running successfully ever since, generating innovations and enthusiasm to eliminate bycatch.

What you can do

You can easily identify fish that comes from certified fisheries by looking for the blue MSC eco-label.

Tikina Wai villagers catching fish just outside the Marine Protected Area (MPA) area in Tikina Wai, Fiji. The MPAs are a WWF Project that started in the year 2000 together with mangrove protection. The catch is a spill over from MPA sites. The fisherman use a traditional form of fishing gear - spear and nets. Trevally and emperor fish make up the majority of the catch. Before the MPA's were set up the villagers didn't have enough fish so they had to buy meat from outside. Now, the villagers find more fish in the same area, within 2 hours they can catch eight baskets and don't have to buy other meat. The fish from the MPAs, sold to generate income, is enough to make a living and meet obligations to Vanua, Church and family.
© Brent Stirton / Getty Images
Line caught yellowfin tuna fish (Thunnus albacares) for sale at a supermarket in the UK.
© WWF / Richard Stonehouse
MSC certified sustainable seafood, here a package of frozen salmon, sold in MIGROS stores, Switzerland.
© WWF / Elma Okic