EU governments, businesses, consumers must work together to demand sustainable fisheries

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Curbing illegal fishing requires action at all levels of the supply chain. [Shutterstock]

As the seafood industry enters an era that many experts say will bring growing demand and dwindling supply, every player in the supply chain must work to advance sustainability and end illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, writes Amanda Nickson.

Amanda Nickson directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ work on international fisheries.

This week in Brussels, nearly 30,000 people will come together at the seafood industry’s largest annual trade fair to talk all things seafood. As buyers, retailers, and other professionals of this almost $150 billion industry fill the halls of Seafood Expo Global, they should pay heed to a vexing challenge: How to ensure the sustainability, and thus availability, of seafood.

As one of the largest seafood markets in the world, the EU is a key player in worldwide trade. But sanctioned overfishing across the globe continues to threaten the stability of the valuable fisheries on which the EU depends.

Many of the people and institutions in charge of managing the world’s fish stocks, including regional fisheries management organisations in which the EU plays a critical role, have committed to ensuring sustainability, but they lack agreement on what that actually means—and how to achieve it.

The result, not surprisingly, has been less than stellar: Recent statistics indicate that 85 percent of global fish stocks are overexploited or fished to the limit of sustainability.

Thankfully, a modernised fisheries management approach, known as harvest strategies, is gaining momentum. The first step of the harvest strategy process is for managers to agree on goals for their stocks and fishery—for example ensuring a high probability that a stock stays at, or recovers to, a healthy level. Scientists then test a variety of management options to determine the best way to reach those goals.

The last step calls for managers to commit to implementing that top option, replacing what is now time-consuming and highly politicised negotiations over quotas with a pre-agreed set of measures and catch limits. The result is not only a more effective approach to achieving sustainability but more transparent and predictable outcomes for the global seafood industry.

Of course, even if harvest strategies are successfully implemented, more work is still needed. The global community also must do more to end illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which exacerbates overfishing and accounts for up to 26 million tons of seafood every year.

This vast shadow industry begins at sea, far from inspectors and regulators, where there are no assurances of safety for the crew, no tracking of trade and profits, and where for decades criminals have poached almost at will, with little fear of punishment.

IUU fishing robs coastal communities of food and income, cheats governments out of licensing fees and taxes, and tilts the playing field against law-abiding operators. Further, it skews scientific assessments of fisheries and harms the environment, for example when illegal actors use banned gear or fish in closed areas.

All of this, of course, undermines the sustainable sourcing practices on which the seafood industry depends.

Curbing illegal fishing requires action at all levels of the supply chain. Although there’s been progress in many areas—from improved dockside inspections and vessel identification systems to satellite tracking of ships and cooperation across governments—one critical facet needs attention now: tracing individual fish from when they enter the supply chain to the final point of sale.

Because catch documentation schemes aren’t yet mandated across fisheries, illegal operators can easily falsify records and mislabel species. Traceability isn’t easy—millions of fish from thousands of species change hands every day—yet one case shows it is possible.

Atlantic bluefin, one of the world’s most commercially valuable species, with sales estimated at $800 million per year, has been the target of illegal fishing for decades. In response, in 2016 the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) implemented an electronic catch documentation system for eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin, requiring catch and trade to be tracked in almost real time. The policy applies to fish that are traded internationally or between EU member states.

While the road to implementation was long, the fact that it happened shows that electronic catch documentation schemes are possible, and indicates that such tools can be transferred to a broad array of other fisheries to close loopholes and shrink markets for illegal catch.

Seafood traceability, combating illegal fishing, and science-based management must be global priorities, and the buyers and other attendees at Seafood Expo Global can help make that happen. As consumers grow increasingly concerned with where their seafood comes from and how it was caught, corporations that commit to ensuring sustainability and legal, traceable sourcing of seafood will benefit, while those that do not will suffer.

As the seafood industry enters an era that many experts say will bring growing demand and dwindling supply, every player in the supply chain must work to advance sustainability and end IUU fishing. Any other course could lead to the decline of a trade that is vital to the global economy—and to hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

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