Promoting sustainable seafood

Posted on April, 20 2011

We’re helping people choose the right food so there’s a future for fish.
We’re helping people choose the right food so there’s a future for fish.

“Dolphin friendly.” “Responsibly farmed.” “Protects the marine environment.”

You’ll see a lot of slogans like this on seafood today. But many of the claims manufacturers and retailers make are misleading or hard to verify.

We’re helping people make the right choices for the oceans, and buy seafood that’s genuinely sustainable.

What’s at stake?

Some 85% of the world’s fish stocks are being fished close to or beyond what’s sustainable. And that includes some very familiar names such as North Sea cod.

If we still want to eat our favourite fish in the future, we need to catch it sustainably today.

Along with changing fishing practices, creating consumer demand for sustainable seafood is one way to help make sure this happens. The idea is simple: the more sustainable seafood people demand and buy, the more enthusiastic fishermen will be to catch it.

The story so far

You might recognize the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)’s ecolabel from the packaging on the fish you buy in your local supermarket. It means the fish inside was caught responsibly. We set up the MSC in 1997 with Unilever to certify sustainable fish and help consumers make informed choices. More than 8,000 seafood products worldwide are now certified as sustainable by the MSC.

But MSC certification doesn’t yet cover all species of fish or fishing areas. So we’ve published seafood guides around the world to help consumers find out more about the sustainability of the wild and farmed fish they buy. Instead of the confusing claims often found on packaging, they use an easy-to-understand traffic light system to classify locally available fish:
  • green – sustainably sourced, recommended
  • amber – not clearly sustainable, avoid if possible
  • red – not sustainable, don’t buy
  • no colour – moving towards certification.
One successful example is the SASSI (Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative) card and “FishMS” service, which lets you text the name of a fish to get information to help you make ocean-friendly choices. We’ve received well over 100,000 texts already, and many people use the service when eating out or buying seafood – it’s most active around lunch and dinner time!

We’ve also seen restaurant chains and retailers get involved in SASSI after customers using the service have asked questions about their seafood. In turn, that’s encouraged them to source more sustainable seafood, driving positive change on the water.

Did you know?

Shark fin soup isn’t good for you. Fins have little nutritional value and may even be harmful to your long-term health, as they’ve been found to contain high levels of mercury.

Fact and stats

  • 85% – proportion fisheries being fished close to or beyond what’s sustainable
  • 73 million – sharks killed every year, largely for shark-fin soup
  • 43% – proportion of whitefish (such as cod, haddock, pollock and hake) certified as sustainable by the MSC, or seeking certification

What next?

  • You might think of them as fearsome predators, but sharks are vulnerable.
    Each year, 73 million are killed, mostly for their fins – and demand is growing. As a result, more than 180 types of shark are now listed as threatened species – 15 years ago, only 15 were.
    Because they take a long time to mature, sharks are particularly vulnerable to over-exploitation. And that has knock-on effects for other species. Sharks are the top predators in the food chain – take out too many and it destabilizes the whole marine ecosystem.
    At the moment, there simply aren’t any sustainable shark fisheries. So we’re campaigning for individuals to stop buying shark-fin soup and other shark products, and for retailers and restaurants to stop selling them.
  • The demand for tuna is driving many tuna fisheries way past what’s sustainable – particularly the Atlantic bluefin tuna, which is close to commercial extinction because of relentless overfishing. We’re campaigning to close the Atlantic bluefin fishery until stocks have recovered, and pushing other fisheries to adopt MSC-certified management practices.
    We’re bringing the tuna crisis to the attention of governments and industries, and seeking reforms to make tuna fishing sustainable. We helped establish the International Sustainable Seafood Foundation (ISSF), which brings together 70% of the world’s canned tuna market, and are encouraging MSC certification for healthy and well-managed tuna populations.

What you can do

  • Look out for the MSC eco label next time you’re shopping. Buying certified fish means you’re doing your bit to support fishers who catch fish sustainably.
  • Take a look at our sustainable seafood guides from around the world too, to see another way you can make sure the fish you eat is sustainable. Make sure fish sellers and restaurant owners know you want to buy only fish caught sustainably. This makes them take an interest, and builds commitment among retailers and wholesalers to purchase sustainably and avoid shady fish.
  • Don’t buy tuna unless it’s been sustainably sourced – and help to spread the word
  • Say no to shark fin! Take the pledge.

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Line caught yellowfin tuna fish (Thunnus albacares) for sale at a supermarket in the UK.
© WWF / Richard Stonehouse
Tikina Wai villagers catching fish just outside the Marine Protected Area (MPA) area in Tikina Wai, Fiji.
© Brent Stirton / Getty Images
MSC certified sustainable seafood, here a package of frozen salmon, sold in MIGROS stores, Switzerland.
© WWF / Elma Okic