Demystifying the seafood label: Where your seafood actually comes from

A fisher in the Solomon Islands.

A fisher in the Solomon Islands. (© Filip Milovac/ Flickr Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: In the lead up to the U.N. Ocean Conference June 5-9, we’re launching an occasional series called Sea the Future, offering expert insight into the latest oceans news. Today’s topic? The mystery behind seafood labels. 

The seafood you buy comes from either a fishing business or an aquaculture (fish farming) operation. What you buy has implications for the health of the ocean, the livelihood of the fisher or aquaculture farmer whose catch you did or didn’t buy, the profits of the commercial business or aquaculture operation — even the number of fish we have left in the sea.

If that feels overwhelming — all you wanted was some shrimp, right? — you’re not alone. Human Nature sat down with Jack Kittinger, Conservation International’s (CI) senior director of fisheries and aquaculture, to break it all down.

Question: How has aquaculture changed over the years? What is aquaculture’s relationship to wild-catch seafood?

Answer: I think most people don’t realize a what an important role aquaculture plays. When I was a kid, aquaculture was about 10 percent of the global seafood supply; it’s now supplying more than half the global seafood supply. That’s a dramatic jump. It has been the fastest growing food production sector on the planet for the past couple of decades. With half of the global seafood coming from aquaculture, we obviously have to increase the sustainability of how we are farming seafood. It has a huge impact in some places, but it can also provide a monumental benefit in terms of the livelihoods it supports and the food and benefits it provides to global economies.

The demand for seafood is increasing, particularly in the developing world. The pressure placed on wild fisheries is enormous and it is also driving the aquaculture boom. We have to manage that pressure sustainably. If we don’t simply put, fisheries will continue to collapse and the benefits they provided people will vanish. That’s the space for sustainable aquaculture to grow in. And that’s the impetus for CI to act.

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Q: How is CI tackling aquaculture and fisheries work around the world?

A: CI works in more than a dozen countries to improve the sustainability of fisheries and aquaculture and the benefits they provide global humanity. We describe these global efforts as our “blue production” work.

Our strategy focuses on three key essential areas: increasing sustainability of how we produce food from the sea, increasing resilience to climate change and other threats, and improving how we manage and govern our ocean resources. Blue production is central to CI’s ocean work. It’s simple: The biggest benefit that people get from the sea is the ability to feed themselves. Seafood is the most traded commodity on the planet. It is the last thing we hunt. Therefore, we need to improve the way that we manage these fisheries so the benefits they provide global humanity will continue now and into the future.

Q: What role do small-scale fishers play in the global seafood trade?   

A: More than 90 percent of people employed in the fisheries sector are employed in small-scale fisheries. By our best estimates, they also produce about half the global wild catch.

These fisheries are incredibly diverse. In the places where CI works, across the developing world and the tropics, there are all kinds of fisheries, from vibrant multispecies coral reef fisheries, to lobster fisheries, snapper, grouper, you name it.

These are fisheries that are critical to feeding and supporting people. If we lose the benefits they provide, it’s going to have a real world impact on people’s livelihood and well-being.

Q: What can the average person do to be smart and responsible about their seafood buying choices? 

A: The most important thing that you can do is to make sustainable choices when you purchase seafood. The average consumer can vote with their wallet. Seafood packaging usually offers little information — so unless you can talk directly to the fisher, you might not have anything to go off of in terms of where or how it was caught. So it’s hard for most customers to know what is “right”: What’s the right thing to purchase? What is sustainable and what is not? Who am I supporting with my purchase?

By simply asking at the restaurant or at the seafood counter, you can make a sizeable, positive contribution to this issue. Buy sustainable seafood and start that conversation at your local restaurants and retailers. That will make all the difference, because consumers have the ultimate say in this issue.

Jack Kittinger is senior director of fisheries and aquaculture at CI’s Center for Oceans. Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer at CI.

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