Why eating seafood responsibly is not a solution to the fisheries crisis

Fisheries regulation is, more often than not, motivated by political objectives instead of biological concerns, and has, therefore, not borne much fruit.
Why eating seafood responsibly is not a solution to the fisheries crisis
Why eating seafood responsibly is not a solution to the fisheries crisis
Written by:

Rahul Muralidharan and Ajit Menon

Let’s imagine we decide to have a meal at one of the finest seafood restaurants in town. The waiter gives us the menu and tells us that all the seafood served in the restaurant – be it fish, shrimp, crab, squid or lobster – have been sourced in an environment-friendly way. We end up feeling good about ourselves and enjoy the meal even more.

This is not just a hypothetical situation. Restaurants around the world are increasingly selling ‘seasonal’ and eco-labelled seafood that are known to be harvested sustainably from fish stocks without harming other species or ecosystems. The larger aim here is to sensitize us, the consumers, so we are aware of what fish to eat when, and, in a small way, be part of the solution of making fisheries more sustainable.

Consumer-centric programmes

The last two decades has seen the global rise of environment-friendly seafood certification schemes focused on consumers. Such consumer-based approaches are aimed at shaping the market in ways that are not harmful to the marine ecosystem.

Till date, India has been part of this market only to the extent that companies exporting seafood abroad have to meet international quality assurance standards. For example, the European Union (EU), United States and Japan regulate imports to check if seafood is safe to consume – free of pollutants, such as toxins and antibiotics, and disease-causing microbes. The EU began regulating the entry of illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) seafood products only a few years ago.

Responsible seafood consumption markets in India are still at their infancy. However, recently, the ‘Know Your Fish’ campaign was launched and some restaurants are now marketing themselves as sustainable eateries. It is likely that in the years to come, with a growing middle class eager to eat out, this market will expand significantly.

Approaches that encourage responsible seafood consumption gain credence because of the failure of conventional fisheries regulations. For instance, solutions such as the reduction of fishing effort and catch, cutting down on harmful subsidies to avoid unsustainable fishing, substituting wild caught fish with aquaculture, and expanding the networks of marine-protected areas to keep certain spaces safe from the ‘adverse’ effects of fishing, have not borne adequate fruit.

This is mainly due to the glaring gap between fisheries management policies and their implementation in not just India but other parts of the world as well. In the case of developing countries, especially, fisheries regulation is motivated more by political objectives as opposed to biological concerns. Governing authorities fail to regulate and the fishing community fails to comply, resulting in a situation where resource sustainability is compromised.

The issues with the initiatives

This notwithstanding, there are numerous problems with responsible seafood initiatives as they oversimplify both the complexities surrounding fisheries management and the working of seafood markets. Responsible consumption initiatives are based on the idea that fishing, unless markets dictate otherwise, is a destructive activity.  This sits well with existing conservation discourses that also highlight the adverse impact of fisheries – excess bycatch, the accidental capture of charismatic species, undersized fish and habitat destruction. Such discourses rarely articulate what forms of fishing are destructive and what forms are not.

The idea that fishing is destructive has existed for several hundreds of years, but it was reinforced and universalised through modern fisheries science developed for the management of industrial-scale single-species fish stocks in the temperate waters of North America. The selective harvesting of species with nets of a particular mesh size was encouraged.

But tropical fisheries are very different. Whereas in temperate waters there is an abundance of a limited number of species, in tropical waters the species diversity is high but less abundant. Small-scale fisherfolk use a wide range of fishing gears to target multiple fish species, other than the target species alone. Responsible seafood approaches, if successful, might have an adverse impact on the already burdened small-scale fishers. For example, they may result in a one-size-fits-all strategy that is not conducive to tropical fisheries and ignore the equity issues between mechanized and small-scale fishers. They may also lead to unfair barriers on trade that undermine the well-intended initiatives aimed at making fisheries more sustainable.

Not seeing the larger picture

Responsible consumption initiatives also miss seeing the woods for the trees. Overfishing is not the result of specific species being fished at the wrong time of the year. Such practices are at best symptomatic of the wider technological malaise within mechanized fisheries that does not distinguish between mature fish and juvenile fish, or good fish and trash fish.

More attention needs to be paid to the unregulated production, distribution and use of intensive fishing technologies by mechanized boats especially, but, also to a lesser extent, small-scale ones. The question of how much can markets help here, given the insatiable appetite of consumers, is an open one. Paying attention to low-end fish species that invariably become trash fish is of equal importance – they might not be served in fancy restaurants, but are of vital importance for the food security of poor coastal and urban communities.

There is nothing wrong in feeling good about consuming fish that is caught in environment-friendly ways. But doing so hides more than it reveals. Consumers are unlikely, after all, to enquire about the details of how the food on their plates affects fisheries stock. If they were to do so, a much more complex social, political and economic scenario regarding unsustainable fisheries would be revealed. Tried and tested regulatory mechanisms need to be implemented properly, along with strengthening fisheries management efforts that actively involve fishing communities. This is more likely to bring about meaningful changes in marine ecosystems and the lives of people who are dependent on them, than in the lives of those consuming seafood responsibly in posh city restaurants.

Rahul Muralidharan is a PhD Candidate at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bangalore and Ajit Menon is a professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai

(Views expressed by the authors are personal.)

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