Sustainable Fisheries Make Good Business Sense

Meghan Jeans

Profitable fisheries and sustainable fisheries are not mutually exclusive goals. Indeed, there is a strong business case to be made for healthy, sustainably managed fisheries. Providing a stable supply of seafood, jobs, infrastructure, and tax revenue are among some of the key social and economic benefits of responsibly managed fish populations. But these benefits are not just limited to fishermen and their communities. Indeed, the profitability and success of businesses throughout the seafood supply chain – from major seafood buying companies to mid-level suppliers to independently owned restaurants – depend on a stable and predictable supply of fish. Sourcing from poorly managed and/or under-performing fisheries represents both a business liability and a reputational risk for many companies.

As such, there are an increasing number of businesses working to improve the sustainability of their seafood supply. Typically, the sustainable seafood movement relies on market–based tools (i.e., certification, fishery improvement projects, preferential sourcing, etc.) and the purchasing power of major companies to drive change in both fisheries governance and performance. While this approach remains a key driver in motivating improvements in many fisheries, there is a growing recognition that the seafood supply chain also has significant political influence that it can leverage to drive change. Likewise, there is a growing expectation among NGOs, consumers, investors, decision makers, and others that good corporate citizenship includes political and civic engagement, particularly where there is strong alignment between business interests and the public interest.

In 2008, the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions, a coalition of U.S. and Canadian NGOs working with businesses representing over 80 percent of the North American retail and food service markets, created the Common Vision for Sustainable Seafood as a roadmap for companies seeking to improve the sustainability of their seafood. The Common Vision calls upon seafood buying businesses to, among other things, actively engage in policy and management reform including “advocating for national and international fisheries and aquaculture policies and management to be more environmentally responsible.” While corporate engagement in policy is certainly not new, harnessing the political influence of companies to address environmental issues that may or may not directly impact the company’s bottom line is less familiar territory for many.

With the globalization of the seafood supply, however, the seafood industry is increasingly under a microscope with headline-making stories about slave labor on Thai fishing vessels, illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing, and seafood fraud and mislabeling among other things. This increased scrutiny is prompting many companies to take a harder look at their own supply chains to identify areas of environmental, social, and economic risk. Not surprisingly, the seafood products or categories with the greatest risk are often caught, farmed, and/or processed in developing countries where governance can be weak or non-existent. Even in countries with relatively strong governance such as the U.S., disparities in how laws and regulations are interpreted, applied, and enforced can create some risk for companies.

In the United States, it is widely recognized that the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens Act) has been a pivotal tool in moving U.S. fisheries toward greater sustainability. Since 2000, 34 fish stocks have been rebuilt leading to a 92 percent increase (54 percent, inflation adjusted) in commercial revenues for these stocks since the start of rebuilding plans. What’s more, the National Marine Fisheries Service projects that fully rebuilding U.S. fish populations will lead to a $31 billion increase in annual sales and support for half a million new U.S. jobs.

Progress to date is due, in large part, to the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s mandate to end overfishing, establish strong science-based catch limits, and rebuild overfished populations as quickly as possible. These core provisions have helped to prevent population declines and rebuild fisheries so that businesses, fishermen, and consumers can reap the benefits of healthy fisheries and ocean ecosystems. Despite this progress, efforts are underway to weaken or eliminate these critical elements by injecting greater “flexibility and discretion” into the law. History, however, has shown that where public resources are concerned, flexibility and discretion are not the hallmarks of a sustainably managed and commercially profitable public resource. Indeed, the flexibility and discretion that the law provided prior to the 1996 and 2006 Magnuson-Stevens Act amendments led to widespread fishery population declines. To ensure continued progress towards more sustainable and profitable U.S. fisheries, it is in businesses’ best interest to support science-based decision-making, annual catch limits, and appropriate rebuilding timeframes for overfished stocks.

New and confounding challenges such as climate change, ocean acidification, and other stressors contribute to the complexity of fisheries management. Innovative management tools along with a more holistic and precautionary ecosystem-based approach to management can build resilience in our oceans and help us improve our response to existing and future threats. The Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization process provides an opportunity to build on the progress that has been made thus far and mitigate these future threats. It also provides an opportunity for seafood companies to engage and levy their political influence to safeguard and strengthen the law.

Relative to some developing countries, the need for domestic fisheries management reform may be less, but the U.S. can play a strong leadership role by modeling best management practices and driving innovations. As such, increased corporate focus on, investments in, and support for strong U.S. fisheries policy and management are likely to have far reaching impacts.

Likewise, a demonstrated commitment to strengthening domestic fisheries policy provides U.S. seafood businesses with additional leverage and credibility when engaging with fishery managers, producers, and decision makers internationally. For example, U.S. seafood retailers played a critical role in encouraging Congress to ratify the 2009 United Nations’ Port State Measures Agreement which would cut off market access for illegally caught fish and erode the profit incentives associated with illegal fishing. The United States is the 11th party to ratify the Port States Measures Agreement along with nine other countries and the European Union. U.S. leadership and major seafood buyer support of the Port States Measures Agreement will play a critical role in prompting other countries to ratify the Agreement, which will only take effect after 25 countries sign on.

Whether the motivation to engage in federal fisheries policy is a targeted risk mitigation strategy or a pro-active effort to elevate the profile of the brand, companies have a role to play in strengthening federal fisheries management in support of greater seafood sustainability. Inspiring more constructive industry engagement and diversifying the chorus of voices calling for strong, forward thinking federal fisheries management will contribute to healthy and resilient ocean economies, communities, and ecosystems.

About Meghan Jeans

Meghan Jeans is Director of Conservation at the New England Aquarium.

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