Fisheries Managers Can Limit Risk in the Seafood Supply Chain

Stronger efforts to curb illegal fishing would help bolster sustainability—and business

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Fisheries Managers Can Limit Risk in the Seafood Supply Chain
About a dozen people stand examining large blue bins full of whole fish in a warehouse. Some people are in green clothes, others in blue, and all wear ballcaps. A few hold clipboards.
Potential buyers examine fish for sale at the Hakodate market in Hakodate, Japan. Seafood buyers, retailers, and others in the industry should use their leverage to help reduce the likelihood of illegally caught fish entering the supply chain.
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Getting seafood from the ocean to the marketplace is complicated and often risky, with numerous players and ample opportunities for bad actors to skirt the rules. This starts on the water and in ports, where illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing can threaten the viability of the entire supply chain and the long-term health of the ocean.

Fishery management is improving in some areas and for some stocks, but IUU fishing still presents a significant challenge for authorities and for buyers throughout the seafood supply chain. Efforts to improve governance are especially challenging in international fisheries due to the scope and scale of the activity and to the transboundary nature of these stocks.

And although the primary onus to prevent IUU fishing is on governments and other regulatory bodies, stakeholders at the end of the seafood supply chain, such as seafood suppliers and market retailers, also have an important role to play in calling for legal and sustainable supply.

IUU fishing and overfishing are major risks to seafood supply chains

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, in 2019 less than two thirds of global fish stocks were within sustainable levels. According to the World Bank, depleted fish stocks – which are largely the result of poor fisheries management – lead to an estimated annual economic loss of $83 billion globally.

IUU fishing compounds this problem. As an example, in the Pacific Ocean, which is home to some of the world’s largest tuna fisheries, IUU activity accounted for nearly 200,000 metric tons of the tuna caught between 2017 and 2019. These transgressions included fishing without a license, illegal transshipment, misreporting or falsifying catch data, and more.

In addition to resulting in $36.4 billion per year in illicit trade and corruption with significant cost to the global economy in unpaid taxes, customs, and license fees, IUU fishing commonly occurs in conjunction with other crimes that further endanger food security and threaten livelihoods, and it can flourish in fisheries without at-sea monitoring or thorough data collection on vessel activity. This can particularly affect small island nations and developing States, which depend on healthy fisheries for livelihoods and as a vital source of protein.

Regional fisheries management organizations could help more

There are ways to reduce IUU fishing and overfishing. More than 130 fish stocks, including some of the most valuable species of tuna and swordfish, are managed by international governing bodies called regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) that are made up of countries that share a practical or financial interest in the fish stocks in a particular region. The five RFMOs focused on tuna management are responsible for fisheries spanning approximately 91% of the ocean.

Historically, many of these RFMOs have found it difficult to prevent overfishing and maintain healthy fish stocks, largely because management decisions have been made in favor of short-term economic gain instead of long-term sustainability. Seafood buyers and retailers stand to benefit from the market stability that healthy fisheries bring and are well-positioned to influence RFMOs on behalf of consumers and a sustainable supply chain.

In particular, large-scale seafood buyers should be calling on RFMOs to:

  • Improve fisheries data collection by ensuring that vessels provide high quality, timely, and accurate information on catch volumes, locations and times. That would help prevent fishing over the scientifically advised limit. This information could also be used to identify vessels that may be engaged in IUU fishing and boost the accuracy of the RFMOs’ IUU vessel lists.
  • Establish effective reviews of member country compliance to ensure adherence to RFMO rules and guidelines, including around catch limits and vessel monitoring. These can include requiring a clear and stand-alone compliance committee, predetermined consequences for noncompliance and even provision of funds to support improved compliance by a member country.
  • Implement comprehensive harvest strategies that support sustainability and profitability. These pre-agreed frameworks for managing fisheries are designed to promote long-term sustainability through predictability, stability and transparency of management decisions. Harvest strategies can minimize the contentious, reactive and short-sighted negotiations that often drive RFMO policies.

The decisions RFMOs make reverberate throughout the seafood supply chain. To help improve stability and sustainability from the ocean to the table, seafood buyers should help drive improvements in management of commercial fisheries. There are various ways those buyers can get involved with RFMOs to ensure they – and their consumers – aren’t left feeling the pain from poor decision making.

Eric Walton is a senior associate and Katy Hladki is a senior officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project.

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