Seafood Supply Chain
Initiatives aimed at improving efficiency, product quality, boat-to-plate traceability, and increased supply and demand for sustainably harvested fish are inextricably linked to reducing both overfishing and its resultant damage to marine ecosystems. Yet, we learned from our research that the impact of these efforts is hindered by barriers at every link in the supply chain, from fisher to processor to plate.
One proven and powerful way to change behavior on the water is to empower fishers to sell sustainably harvested fish directly to the market. However, this model is difficult to scale and efforts to grow this approach have been hampered by the challenges of (a) organizing individual fishers, (b) effectively matching amounts of fish to market demand, and (c) building business models flexible enough to serve both depleted and abundant fisheries.
The current method of dividing the activities of the supply chain into multiple roles results in:
- Fish preservation and handling practices that are based on antiquated cold storage technology
- Indirect quality accountability for fishers
- Price bullying on the part of processors
- Staggering waste and financial losses for processors and distributors when flows of supply and demand for fresh fish are not synchronized
In an attempt to use market forces to change the destructive practices associated with the fishing and aquaculture industry, there is movement afoot to push consumers to limit their fish consumption to species that are verified to be “sustainable”. However, competing definitions of sustainability confuse people about which fish they should and shouldn’t buy. Typically, such definitions encompass two factors.
- Fishery health: Did the fish come from healthy stock? (i.e., one that is harvested at a rate that allows population levels to recover and thrive);
- Catch method: Was the fish captured using methods involving minimal impact on the environment and minimal bycatch?
The information needed to determine the sustainability of a particular fish is usually unavailable at the point of purchase—for both consumers and wholesale seafood buyers. Even where detailed information does accompany a seafood product, that information may actually be false. In fact, 20-25 percent of fish worldwide is mislabeled by species, origin, or catch method.
Numerous investigations in the U.S. have caught restaurants and retailers mislabeling fish with impunity, as most consumers can’t taste the difference between, say, red snapper and ocean perch. Yet, the costs of such practices are substantial. On top of being defrauded of billions of dollars, health- and socially conscious label-reading consumers may inadvertently purchase fish that is illegal, unsustainable, and/or that contains dangerously high levels of mercury or other toxins (Consumer Reports, 2011; Oceana, 2011).
All parties in the supply chain agree that traceability is critical for ensuring sustainability, preventing fraud, and ensuring food safety. Yet, it is not common practice for accurate data about species, origin, or catch method to accompany a fish through the supply chain. Traceability is possible, but many current realities prevent players from easily sharing information, investing in enabling services and systems, or creating simple, affordable verification systems in a practical way—particularly because the return on these activities is sometimes unclear. For example, if consumers are satisfied with broad categories such as “breaded whitefish,” the supply chain has little incentive to push accurate, detailed information through to the point of purchase. An approach that removes key barriers for individuals at all levels of the supply chain can drive more widespread adoption of methods that support traceability as the industry standard.
Limited Certified Product
The dominant seafood certification program is run by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) which, since it began in 1997, has certified 133 fisheries of the thousands that exist. MSC-certified seafood represents just over 6 percent of all wild fish caught today. At this point, there’s not enough certified sustainable fish in the marketplace to satisfy demand, especially as more and more big-box retailers and food service companies make sustainability commitments. The long certification process requires the cooperation of governments, non-profits, fishery management councils, fishers, communities, and seafood companies—disparate stakeholders with often-competing interests. Additionally, it is notoriously difficult to verify fish stock levels, and the requisite scientific data can be prohibitively expensive (MSC, Seafood Business, 2011, FAO, 2010).