Communities and small-scale producers around the world have long achieved resilience and self-sufficiency through stewardship: knowledge and care shaped by an intimate understanding of their unique surroundings, and agency to act. Talun-kebun in Indonesia; maeulsoop in Korea; kaitiakitanga in New Zealand; satoyama in Japan – these and dozens of other examples of stewardship have emerged across generations, and continue to inspire and shape action and ethics today.
But our current era, the Anthropocene, is one of hyper-connectivity, with truly global movement of goods, knowledge and people. Even the most remote communities are rapidly becoming linked into international supply chains and trade networks. What does stewardship mean in the context of globally active corporations? In many ways, transnational companies seem the antithesis of stewards: motivated by growth, shareholder dividends and short-term decision-making.
Yet growth often depends on frontiers and untapped resources, and some industries are already bumping up against planetary boundaries. In 2017, for instance, the FAO reported that only around 6% of fish stocks were “underfished”, while global fisheries catches have remained largely stagnant for the past 30 years.
Transnational corporations are also connected to diverse geographies, cultures and norms. In the seafood industry, shifting norms have elevated many issues, from labour and human rights, to gender equality and animal welfare. At the World Economic Forum in 2019, Jim Leape noted: “If your seafood is caught by slaves, it doesn’t matter if it’s sustainable.”
So what is the recent history of an industry encountering biosphere limits and navigating a changing world of norms? Together with colleagues from academia, civil society and the private sector, we studied the role of stewardship in the seafood industry, publishing our findings this June in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.
From boycotts to ‘buycotts’
We found the seafood industry to be inextricably linked and shaped by interactions with NGOs, academia, policymakers and other industry actors. High-profile NGO campaigns in the 1970s, for instance, focused on bycatch of charismatic species like dolphins in tuna fisheries, resulting in seafood boycotts and swift corporate, and eventually regulatory, responses.
Milestones in seafood boycotts and labelling
Boycotts quickly led to “buycotts”, as focus expanded beyond stopping the consumption of certain types of seafood to encouraging the consumption of sustainably produced varieties. The primary vehicle for such efforts has been certifications and ecolabels, with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Aquaculture Stewardship Council certifications among the most prominent.
Ecolabels are not one-size-fits all. More than 120 have been established since the 1990s, with varying levels of focus on social and environmental standards, and adapted to local or national settings. This proliferation can create confusion among consumers and retailers. It resulted in the establishment of the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (GSSI), which serves as a benchmark of certifications.
Marine Ecolabel Japan (MEL), for instance, was originally established in 2007 as a domestic labelling system. Traditionally a fish-consuming country with a high degree of trust and dependence on its local, small-scale fishers, Japan saw little need for an international labelling scheme. But growing market connections have caused a shift, pushing MEL to modify its standard and garner GSSI recognition in 2019.
The growing role of ‘green clubs’
More recently, green clubs – voluntary alliances of corporate actors committed to environmental or social goals that are not mandated by law – have become increasingly prominent in the seafood industry. These create a new potential for collaboration on sustainability. One such example is the Coalition of Legal Toothfish Operators (COLTO) and its forerunner ISOFISH, which brought together industry and other actors to address rampant illegality in the toothfish fishery. In 1997, around half of catch volumes were illegally caught. Transparency, cooperation and joint monitoring exercises were key to turning this around.
One factor working to the advantage of COLTO was the relatively small number of operators in the fishery. The seafood industry is highly consolidated, with the top 13 companies controlling 11–16% of global marine catch, and up to 40% of the largest and most valuable stocks. Ten of these seafood giants have formed the Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship (SeaBOS) initiative, with a public set of shared commitments and time-bound goals for achieving transformational change in the industry to move towards ocean stewardship.
The future of ocean stewardship
Looking closely at the past decades, some general patterns are evident. Companies are beginning to move beyond simply complying with legal and regulatory policy. They are actively seeking to position themselves as leaders in a transformation towards sustainable and ethical seafood. One such example is the Association of Responsible Krill Harvesting Companies (ARK). It established a series of voluntary spatial closures (areas where no fishing is allowed) which its members have complied with since 2018. Generally speaking, voluntary measures by resource-users benefit from speedy decision-making (compared with the slow speed with which legally binding international agreements are established) and high compliance, as users have been directly involved in developing the rules.
Other industry-led efforts take a broader ecological-systems perspective. One example is steps away from turning fish fit for human consumption into aquaculture feed (given that the food-grade fish may be of nutritional value to local communities, while the aquaculture production ends up supplying high-income markets). Another is hedging against the growing risks of climate change by making fisheries resilient to unexpected shocks. This involves a focus on ecosystem-based management and a “portfolio approach” to managing, for example, salmon stocks, which takes into account the genetic diversity of populations and sub-populations.
Some argue that stewardship is not an end goal, but rather an approach. As time passes, the list of social and ecological issues associated with stewardship has expanded, and it is unlikely to remain static. In recent years, for instance, animal welfare has become a hot-button issue, while minimising antibiotics in aquaculture production is an area of growing attention as antimicrobial resistance increases. Yet much remains to be done – some 34% of fish stocks are being harvested at biologically unsustainable levels. In many cases, sustainable fisheries management is still a distant goal. In other cases, new technologies and approaches to transparency are redefining the boundaries of how the seafood industry can understand and lessen its footprint on marine ecosystems.
As the concept of stewardship matures within the industry, it has the potential to act as a touchpoint for a suite of other ocean-based industries.
In the context of the Anthropocene, a globally connected world, and rapid consolidation of industries, our paper concludes that the “future of the ocean and humanity’s relationship with it may rest on efforts to translate stewardship from an aspirational notion to a pillar of standard operating procedure anchored in supportive public policy”.