Navigating ocean sustainability: Three actions for the seafood industry

Imagine being asked to design a strategy to pre-empt an emergent humanitarian crisis: The primary source of food for a billion people is at risk. In the initial briefing, you are told that small-scale responses have been successfully deployed, but more expansive responses are needed. “Business as usual” means that no businesses in an entire portion of the food industry may exist in the coming decades.

This sketch is not hypothetical. It outlines, in aggregate, the global trends threatening fisheries globally.

Oceans are essential to the health of people, the planet, and business. The numbers are compelling: Ocean plants produce 50 per cent of the world’s oxygen, and marine environments absorb 25 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide. Ocean currents distribute heat around the world, helping regulate weather patterns. Around a billion people rely on seafood as their primary source of protein and important nutrients. The industry has enormous reach, with several hundred million jobs directly related to fisheries, and total fish imports estimated to exceed US$100 billion.

Apart from the significant humanitarian and environmental concerns, these issues matter to business success. For companies, the pathway forward is far simpler than it may seem, and includes three actions that businesses can take.

1. Show intent through sourcing and supply chain

It is time for companies to set clear sustainable seafood sourcing policies, hold supply chain partners accountable, and demand that fish are fully traceable. These requirements should include identifying which fish are caught where, and with what impacts on species viability.

Addressing this wide range of threats to oceans and fisheries requires a mix of national and subnational regulation, as well as global attention. Companies can demonstrate their commitment by advocating for policy change in support of healthy coastal areas, marine environments, and fisheries

Acting on this approach can be as simple as sourcing and selling seafood that has been certified, such as by the Marine Stewardship Council or the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (for farmed fish). Where no certified options exist, companies can discontinue sourcing from a particular area or avoid a specific species, or they can ensure that seafood is caught within Fisheries Improvement Programs. Recently, Darden Restaurants and the Walton Family Foundation announced work in Honduras on just such a program.

2. Align corporate goals and investing

Business leaders can establish corporate goals of “net neutral” or “net positive” impact— including positive impacts on coastal and marine environments. This would require due diligence on a project or facility’s impacts and dependencies on ecosystem services. Businesses will find themselves in good company, since the International Finance Corporation and 79 global Equator Principles financial institutions now require biodiversity and ecosystem services as part of due diligence processes, as well as “no net loss of biodiversity.”

To achieve this goal, companies should apply ecosystem services assessment approaches and decision aids and explore how to invest in restoring and maintaining coastal and marine ecosystem services. Companies can draw on existing approaches, such as those recommended by the Forest Trends’ Marine Ecosystem Services program.

3. Advocate for policy change

The next step is considering the broader context that affects coastal and marine health. For example, pollution is a concern that goes beyond the usual suspects of wastewater or sewage to include radiation from Fukushima, as well as plastics and garbage. And, of course, there is climate change and the related dynamic of ocean acidification.

Addressing this wide range of threats to oceans and fisheries requires a mix of national and subnational regulation, as well as global attention. Companies can demonstrate their commitment by advocating for policy change in support of healthy coastal areas, marine environments, and fisheries. It will be a step forward for companies to demand policy action on climate change, particularly in light of rising ocean temperatures, which affect fish populations.

Imagine if the issues facing ocean sustainability were perceived not as a constraint, but as an opportunity to drive real change and innovation throughout the fisheries industry. Imagine if companies took these issues seriously and began to engage. It might not only reinvent the industry, but secure its future as well.

Sissel Waage is director for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services at BSR. This post originally appeared in BSR.

Sissel Waage and BSR communications managing director Melanie Janin will attend The Economist World Ocean Summit, February 24-26 in Half Moon Bay, California. Speakers and attendees will explore sustainability and governance of the oceans at the three-day event, of which BSR is a supporting organization.

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