“Plenty of Fish in the Sea”

Most old sayings are still true today. This one is not.

Ninety percent of the big fish in the world are already gone and if global fishing trends continue, there will be no wild fish left by 2050.

Increasing global demand for seafood is resulting in record levels of overfishing and related damage to marine ecosystems. Unrestrained and heavily subsidized commercial fishing is responding to this growth in demand, aided by devastatingly powerful technologies, negligent fisheries management and little government enforcement.

Combined with the effects of climate change, this means that the world’s fishing stocks are reaching the “end of the line”, as another saying goes.

However, a compelling award-winning documentary movie of the same name illustrates that this environmental catastrophe can be avoided, if we try. A global movement is underway to ensure sustainably managed fisheries, and you are invited to be part of it.

Stewards of the seas

Healthy wild fish populations are essential for diverse marine ecosystems and thriving oceans. Sustainable sea life is also a food security issue. Over 2.6 billion people in developing countries get more than 20% of their animal protein from fish.

Complementing the work of other advocacy groups, like the Monterey Bay Aquarium in the US, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) emerged in 1997 to help fill a global void for international sustainability standards for fisheries.

Now with a presence on five continents, the privately funded MSC runs an eco-labelling program that enables everyone across the supply-chain, including consumers, to make environmentally responsible choices with seafood. It does this by providing third-party certification to fisheries abiding by sustainability practices.

Since setting up the MSC Japan office in 2007, local representative Kozo Ishii has been heavily promoting sustainable fishing by partnering with fisheries, processors, distributors and retailers.

A life-long fish lover, Ishii graduated from Japan’s National Fisheries University, which aims to cultivate leaders for the fishing industry. Having adjusted to only eating sustainable seafood himself, he now encourages his compatriots to buy green.

“Japanese people eat a lot of fish,” Ishii told us during a recent interview. “If Japanese consumers change their buying habits, this will have a huge impact on the world’s fisheries.”

Consuming consciously requires looking out for MSC and other eco-labels on your supermarket shelves. However, if you don’t see such labels when shopping or dining out, handy pocket guides (based on where you live) and a question or two to the fishmonger or server can help you find out which species to avoid.


Scaling up in Japan

“All stakeholders in the fishing business have a long-term interest in ensuring sustainable fishing. For retailers in particular, stable procurement of fish is very important,” explains Ishii.

That is why more and more supermarket chains are working with the MSC to source and sell certified fish. Impressively, for 2007/2008, the number of companies using the MSC’s certification and the total number of MSC labelled products (as shown in graph below) have doubled. In Japan alone, the number of MSC-labelled products grew a massive 614% during the same period, according to the MSC annual report (PDF).


Source: Marine Stewardship Council Annual Report 2007/2008

In the absence of strong enough international enforcement, the MSC’s voluntary industry standards operate under strict principles to ensure sustainability of targeted species. They also try to ensure sustainability of other species, that might inadvertently be caught through “by-catch” — the fishing industry’s version of collateral damage.

“If a fishery is putting a by-catch population at risk, then it won’t be certified,” explained Ishii. While progress is slowly being made, Ishii believes that those earning a living off fishing are caught in a survival net that is being pulled by both economic and environmental forces.

“There are some fishermen that recognise the problem, but still keep catching fish under increasing financial pressures,” he laments.

“What the MSC is trying to do is provide the means for well-managed and sustainable fisheries to be an example to the world.”

Larger role, larger responsibility

The MSC has been accused of being too close to the food industry, especially since the Unilever corporation is one of its founders. As we have seen via comments on previous Our World 2.0 stories, concerned citizens are grappling with the role that corporations should play in solving environmental problems — ones they are often accused of creating.

Environmental organization Greenpeace does not endorse any fishery certification programmes. It has been critical of the MSC even though the MSC adheres to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) eco-labelling guidelines.

In the absence of stricter regulation of our oceans, however, is there any alternative scheme that can be employed to promote sustainable fishing other than eco-labelling? The good point about eco-labelling is that it does bring the final decision to us, the consumers.

When asked about other controversial issues like whaling, and aquaculture — where farmed fish are typically maintained in controlled conditions in small pens and fed resource-intensive diets — Ishii told us that neither were within the MSC’s mandate.

There are controversial plans underway by the World Wildlife Fund to set up an aquaculture stewardship council modelled on the MSC. Critics claim that such a move does not “take into account the wishes of local communities” and will “legitimise environmentally and socially damaging forms of aquaculture”.

Two-way stream

We entered our conversation with Ishii expecting to find out about the difficulties of one man in a large country trying to convince profit-driven industry stakeholders to accept voluntary standards.

From our interview we gained the impression that passionate fish-lovers, from retail managers to artists, are approaching the MSC voluntarily and starting their own initiatives to spread awareness.

We noted that there are a range of educational tools, mainly directed towards children, that have picked up on the overfishing issue and the MSC’s work to help address it. In order to cut through to new audiences, activists are using forms of “edutainment” to promote serious environmental messages in clever and fun ways.

In one fascinating example, a producer of a manga comic has decided to tell a story about the MSC’s work in a volume entitled Tsukiji Uogashi Sandaime or Tsukiji Riverside Fish Market: Third Generation (pictured above).

The story focuses on how people in the fishing industry in Japan become aware of the overfishing problem, and begin to fish sustainably and label their products accordingly.

A world without fish

Can you imagine a world without fish?

Ishii can’t. That is why his final message suggests that we should not wait for others to make the change.

“These activities cannot succeed without support from consumers. So I would like to encourage shoppers to ask their retailers about sustainability and what MSC-labelled products they have.”

Consuming consciously is also one of the key messages for this year’s first World Oceans Day on 8 June. The day celebrates the connection of each person to the oceans.

As we enjoy the culinary and lifestyle benefits the oceans provide, we also have the responsibility to ensure the oceans continue to live and breathe for future generations.


Click here to find out what seafood is MSC certified in your country, and where you can buy it.

If you are keen to learn more about the MSC, watch the video below.

Creative Commons License
“Plenty of fish in the sea” by Mark Notaras is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Mark Notaras was a writer/editor of Our World 2.0 for the United Nations University (UNU) Media Centre from 2009–2012. He is a former researcher in Peace and Security for the UNU Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP). He holds a Masters in International Affairs (Peace and Conflict Studies) from the Australian National University and the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO) and in 2013 completed a Rotary Peace Fellowship at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. Currently Mark works in Timor-Leste advising local NGOs on community agriculture and conflict prevention projects.