Making mindful choices: why sustainable seafood will thrive 


19 Dec 2017 --- Sustainability and the notion of a circular economy are high on both the industry and consumer radar, with “Mindful Choices” and “Going Full Circle” among Innova Market Insights’ Top Ten Trends for 2018. One of the most important sustainability platforms relates to fish & seafood. The market researcher also notes “Ocean Garden” as one of its 2018 trends, where the industry is looking towards the sea as a source for ingredients and more holistic nutrition inspiration. 

The rise of seafood as a staple alternative protein is clear. One in two US and UK consumers would consider fish & seafood as an alternative to meat (2017 consumer study), with industry responding to this consumer interest with a +12% rise reported in fish & seafood applications (2012-2016, global).

Growth in the global supply of fish for human consumption has outpaced population growth in the past five decades, according to a 2016 UN FAO report. Consumption has increased at an average annual rate of 3.2 percent in the period 1961-2013, double that of population growth, resulting in increasing average per capita availability. World per capita apparent fish consumption increased from an average of 9.9kg in the 1960s to 14.4kg in the 1990s and 19.7kg in 2013, with preliminary estimates for 2014 and 2015 pointing towards further growth beyond 20kg.

These figures also indicate how the sea is quickly emptying. In just under 60 years, seafood production increased from a mere 19.3 million tons (1950) to 163 million tons (2009). The intensity of fishing activity, combined with the increasing demand for fish, has placed enormous pressure on the marine environment. Today, unsustainable fishing is a global issue with an estimated 29% of wild fish stocks considered to be overexploited.

Friend of the Sea certification
2018 will mark the ten year anniversary of the launch of the Friend of the Sea (FOS) certification scheme. This body works with fisheries, seafood companies, scientists, conservation groups and the public, globally, to promote the best environmental choice in seafood. Since 2008, it has been recognizing and rewarding sustainable fishing practices, as well as influencing consumer choices when buying seafood. Over 600 companies, in more than 50 countries, have relied on Friend of the Sea to assess the sustainability and origin of their seafood. Audits, based on the best and the most updated available scientific data, are run by accredited independent certification bodies. Recently the program has expanded its activities to the certification of sustainable shipping, ornamental fish and whale watching operators.

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Paolo Bray of Friend of the Sea

Friend of the Sea was started by Paolo Bray, the European Director of the Earth Island Institute Dolphin-Safe tuna project – the precursor of the sustainable seafood movement. More recently, the group expanded into the sustainable agriculture space with the launch of the Friend of the Earth certification scheme in 2015. According to a study commissioned by the UN Congress on Trade & Development, Friend of the Sea covers around 6.5% of the total seafood production, while Marine Stewardship Certified (MSC) [the other major seafood certification scheme] has a similar level of adoption. 

Can fishing be sustainable?
For Bray, himself a vegan, there is no paradox between sustainability and fishing, as it is “normal that we have some kind of impact on the environment and on marine harvesting.” Rather, the question is how far we want to go and what kind of world do we want to live in? 

“It is a part of human nature to obtain proteins from animal sources and this will probably go on for many years in the future. So we need to understand how far we want to go and what kind of biodiversity of ecosystem we want to have in the sea,” he notes. “There is a possibility to continue fishing within sustainable limits and this has been shown by several countries, which for most of those of their fisheries are reaching these objectives,” he says.

Significant progress has been made down this pathway in the last 15-10 years. “When I started meeting with tuna cooperatives in Europe and globally in my previous role around 1990, they were looking at me as if I were a Martian. They were wondering why I was asking them to change their suppliers,” he says. “But many things have changed since then in a relatively short time, as now 10-20 years later the word ‘sustainability’ has been introduced and nowadays all the major conferences focus on sustainability as one of their main subjects.” 

Drawing peace of mind
One key element of Innova Market Insights’ “Mindful Choices” trend revolves around peace of mind, which can involve making a positive impact in the world, through ethical claims. In fact, there has been a +44 percent CAGR in ethical claims (2010-2016, global), which includes ethical animal/human/environment, excluding ethical packaging. In 2017, 30% of new fish & seafood launches featured an ethical claim (e.g. “MSC certified,” “Friend of the Sea” certified, “dolphin friendly,” etc.). This is a more than double the number recorded in 2012, when 14% of fish & seafood launches featured an ethical claim.
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“If you go to seafood trade shows, you see that most companies claim to be sustainable; whether this is a self-claim or a verified one. But all of them have now understood that sustainability is a must. Consumers now expect it and without environmental and social sustainability you cannot be sustainable economically. I have to be optimistic about this and hope that this trend will spread soon and increasingly also into agriculture and the impact that man is having on land,” he says. 

For Bray, sustainability is now a must when compared to organic certification, which is more of a plus. “It is a must in the sense that consumers expect it. If your company is not putting effort into it, sooner or later you will have some trade problems as retailers are requesting and expecting that you look into this. Resultantly, there is a higher risk of being the subject of negative campaigns from NGOs, as has been seen in the past,” he notes. 

Being a must, it will also become part of legislation. “Nowadays there is some legislation in place, which requests that a percentage of trade is sustainable, but the terms and definitions of what sustainability actually is are still weak. I think that third party accredited certification should be what legislators refer to when requesting companies to be sustainable,” he adds.

Strength in numbers?
For Bray, the strength and impact of certification schemes is not necessarily down to the number of products that you see on the shelves. While it is important that requirements are such that at least some companies can obtain the certification, it is also important that these requirements are strict and reliable in order to dispel consumer skepticism that could come from an overload of certified products. “We have grown over the last ten years in a way in which an additional 100 companies have joined the project each year and have undergone an audit for certification,” he explains. “I want to stress that especially for products from fisheries, normally 35-40% of applications don’t pass the test. This is mainly because the stocks are overexploited or the fishing method is not sustainable, or in some cases due to social accountability issues,” he adds. 
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FOS certification has now reached around 80 species, including aquaculture species such farmed sturgeon for caviar. Unsurprisingly, the most assessed species for companies and fisheries is tuna, an industry that for years has been the target for various NGO campaigns. “This is why the tuna sector has been the first to be aware of the issues and tackle them to try to keep the stocks at sustainable levels and reduce bycatch. This has led to the highest interest in obtaining certification like Friend of the Sea,” he explains. “The tuna industry has been the main one but also several salmon producers have been audited and certified in different areas, such as Norway, UK and Chile,” he adds.

Bray believes that the mussels sector deserve a special mention in terms of sustainability, with growing adoption for certification. “Mussels are a source of good animal proteins, produced at a very low environmental impact. They do not need to be fed and it is normally also perceived as positive for the environment in terms of filtration and habitat that is good for fish spawning and protection,” he says. 

The aquaculture sustainability debate
The FOS strategy to certify both farmed and wild caught fish is appreciated by retailers. At the moment about 30% of products with FOS certification are farmed and originate from aquaculture and the remaining from wild catch. But while the general consumer perception is that aquaculture is more sustainable than wild caught fish, Bray stresses that this is not necessarily the case. “Aquaculture uses fish feed made of fish meal and fish oil and there is strong tie between the two activities that has a potential impact on the environment,” he explains.

The potential for having a lower environmental impact is there, however, and schemes such as FOS will undoubtedly help. “Normally as aquaculture is a closed cycle production with quite a high involvement of technology, it has a chance to improve in terms of environmental impact compared to what can happen at high investment fishing vessels,” he says, noting that both methods can be sustainable. 

The functional foods sector
Another area with growing potential for certification schemes is that of marine-based ingredients in functional foods and supplements. This is a logical area amid the “Mindful Choices” trend, as the target consumer primarily consists of well-educated and high-earning consumers who place a strong emphasis on both peace of body and peace of mind. “These are expensive supplements and they meet the needs of a well-educated target group, who are concerned about their own health and consequently interested in avoiding impacting the environment,” he explains. There are currently between 150-200 brands in this space in the US alone that are FOS certified, consisting of major and minor brands. 
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An interesting sub-trend within the fish meal and fish oil space is the rise in premixes, where batches of fish stock are blended together rather than focusing on one species and dumping bycatch. According to Bray, over 30% of fish meal and fish oil now consists of premix. “Some companies that are involved in omega 3 production, increasingly offer a premix of calamari and other fish. There is also a premix of tuna. This is what we should aim for as it reduces waste and pressure on the fisheries and stocks,” he says. 

Brexit and sustainable fishing
One major discussion point when it comes to sustainability and fishing that is bound to dominate discussions is Brexit, which was highly impacted by the pro-leave voting of struggling fishing towns and cities across the UK, whose livelihoods have been negatively impacted by EC fishing quota policy. But Bray does not believe that they will necessarily gain much from the negotiations.

“The British fishermen were those pushing for Brexit, because they disagreed with the EU quota system and also hoped that the UK would have closed its own waters just for them. These were their expectations,” he says. “One has to wait for the end of trade negotiations, which will likely continue for the whole of 2018, prior to the end of the Article 50 transition process in March 2019. It is not clear what will happen, but normally during these types of discussions, each party proposes their own solution and one can expect that the end solution will be in the middle and not in favor of the UK fishermen,” Bray adds. 
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He notes how Britain exports some 75% of its production and imports the majority of what it consumes. Cod stocks have been moving further north and the catches are around Norway and Iceland. The rest mainly consists of salmon tuna, haddock and prawns. “One has to wait and see where the middle will stop and the agreement that comes. But I would not expect a major change, even in terms of EU policy. Whatever happens, the UK will somehow have to follow laws that are not necessarily EU related and cover areas of the north Atlantic which are near coastlines of non-EU countries,” he says. 

While major changes would be surprising, the growth in the international trade of seafood goes far beyond the EU anyway. The major growing countries for fish consumption are outside the EU: China, South America and Africa, meaning that Britain may have to increase export to other countries or look for imports from elsewhere. Either way, Bray does claim an FOS advantage for EU companies. “What I always stress to EU countries which are involved and looking to be audited for sustainability certification is that FOS is currently the only certification for wild caught products based in the EU. I think this should be considered by the companies themselves,” he adds. 

Expanding into agriculture
Following the positive experiences of FOS and the conservation success, the body behind the certification scheme has expanded into certifying agriculture and farming too. “We looked around and considered that of the food on offer in the supermarket, only 5% consists of seafood. All the rest is from agriculture and farming. But there is little in terms of certification. You have ‘organic’ but this has its ups and downs and remains a niche certification, albeit a growing one at 3-10%,” he says. 

But what about the rest? “While some schemes exist that are more focused on tropical areas, no multi-product one exists for temperate regions. So we launched this as we thought about riding the wave and following on from our experience with FOS,” he adds. 

Friend of the Earth (FOE) is a scheme for products from certified sustainable agriculture and farming and it has grown over the past 18 months. FOE currently has 40 companies that are certified. “These include rice, milk, oil and wine producers. While the majority are from Italy, you also have quinoa from Ecuador and coffee from Costa Rica and milk from Sri Lanka and South Africa,” he says. 

Click to EnlargeWhile there is a growing interest, it is coming from a small base. But Bray is hopeful that as the logo becomes more visible, a snowball effect will lead to further adoption. 

For Bray, the key issue here is the social aspect. “In the EU, some 25 percent of production of agricultural products comes from situations of illegal labor and production issues related to social accountability. In Italy, this is 31% and in Portugal 65%. Imagine what it could be outside the EU,” he stresses.

“Nobody is checking that and we need to verify the products for ethical reasons. We need to ensure that the products that ultimately end up on our table are not produced in a way that is unfair to employees,” he adds.

A sustainable future?
Working in sustainability for agricultural products will certainly be required as the world’s population continues to swell and arable land use dwindles. In fact, Bray is more optimistic for the future of our waters from a sustainable fishing perspective than he is for the agriculture sector. “The marine habitat and resources have proved to be more resilient and able to recover relatively rapidly when compared to land biodiversity. This is also true of the marine habitat, even though this has obviously been happening at a slower pace. I am quite positive when comparing sea to land use,” he says. 

Growth outside of the western fisheries markets will be key to saving the seas as a whole. “Several countries are moving in the right way and those fisheries in South East Asia and Africa will soon have to comply, as the market is so global that they will have to accept it. Certification will have to be stricter and stricter over the years,” he concludes.

As the human population grows and the marine population continues to dwindle, certification schemes such as FOS and MSC will undoubtedly be part of the solution to help humans survive and thrive in the short term, without destroying the planet altogether in the long term.

By Robin Wyers

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