The answer is a resounding NO! I’m an Environmental Scientist who has worked on ocean and coastal resource management for the last decade. The Seaspiracy argument is wrong. There are sustainable fisheries in the world. We can save our oceans through regulation, institutional investment, and consumer action.
Seaspiracy: Good point, Poor execution
If you have a Netflix subscription, you probably have come across a documentary named Seaspiracy. This film, released in late March 2021, caused a stir in the world of ocean conservation and fisheries management. The film argues, correctly, that our oceans are threatened by pollution, overfishing, habitat loss, and climate change. Then it proceeds to tell the viewer, incorrectly, that you can solve all these problems with a magic bullet: Stop eating seafood.
Environmental issues are complex. Contradictory to Seaspiracy’s claim, there are no silver bullets when dealing with complex problems. Not eating seafood will not solve all the ocean’s problems. Analyses of truths and misinformation in Seaspiracy can be found in a BBC Seaspiracy reality check, Dr. Daniel Pauly’s Vox article, or this wonderfully detailed University of Washington article. The authors agree, as I do, that well-managed fisheries are a key component of healthy oceans. Well-managed fisheries allow marine stocks to recover. They also provide jobs, timely biological data, and nutritious low carbon sources of protein. Sustainable fisheries are an integral part of the livelihoods and cultures of coastal communities. We can be part of sustainable fisheries’ success stories.
The US: A Sustainable Fisheries Success Story
In 1976, the US government passed the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. A pivotal law, the Act requires that federal and state agencies manage stocks in a manner that results in sustainable levels. As a result of the law, stocks of fish such as Maine haddock and Gulf of Mexico red snapper have transformed. These stocks went from being severely overexploited to holding steadily at sustainable levels. There is now an abundance of sustainability safeguards and programs in place that ensure the recovery and ongoing health of fish stocks.
The Magnuson-Stevens Act catalyzed public and philanthropic funding which played a critical role in the recovery of fisheries. Private parties also joined the effort. Several funds helped to transition and maintain the sustainability of US fisheries. The California Fisheries Fund was created in 2008 to provide loans to the California fishing community. It’s currently managed by Community Vision and works with individual and institutional investors. An East Coast fund example is the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust. The trust makes use of local investment to ensure the sustainability of smaller-scale fishing businesses.
As a result of regulation and investment, if seafood is caught in the US, there is now a high probability that is sustainable and legal.
The Rest of the World: A Work in Sustainable Fisheries Progress
Restoring fisheries in the US was a good first step but there is more to the picture. Marine life does not recognize national borders, nor does seafood trade. An astounding 65% of the seafood consumed in the US is imported. This means that regulation and investments in seafood sustainability need to expand beyond the US. There are many multilateral, bilateral, regional, and international treaties regulating management and access to fisheries.
The Role of Technology
Efforts to improve compliance with fisheries management treaties are ongoing. Technology is starting to play a significant role. Blockchain initiatives are disrupting supply chain traceability in seafood. Norwegian seafood producers are already using blockchain to provide fully traceable products. We will soon see full implementation of Electronic Monitoring to improve onboard observing activities and regulation enforcement. California expects by 2024 that all fishing vessels are equipped with EM equipment. The rest of the West Coast has similar timelines. Companies like Archipelago already have significant market shares in EM technology and services.
Investments in fishery management offer a good case for sustainability and can be profitable. Peer-reviewed research shows that with the right kind of investment, “by 2050 sustainably managed fisheries could produce 16 million metric tons (or 29%) more wild fish, generate $53 billion USD (or 204%) more profits, and boost the amount of fish left in the water for conservation by 118%.”
These potential environmental, social, and governance (ESG) benefits and profits have captured the attention of several funds. Mirova’s Sustainable Ocean Fund, the Credit Suisse Rockefeller Engagement Ocean Fund, Hatch, and AquaSpark have raised capital and invested hundreds of millions of dollars in sustainable seafood.
In addition to regulation and institutional investments, consumers play a major role in ensuring that fish and seafood stocks are kept at sustainable levels. Consumers can help by buying locally caught fish and seafood, purchasing certified fish and seafood, and investing in well-managed fisheries.
Consumers interested in supporting locally caught fish delivered fresh to their neighborhoods (similar to a community-supported farm), can check Local Catch’s directory of community-supported fisheries. Consumers based in the Bay Area can check the Monterrey Bay Fisheries Trust for local fish. One of the Trust’s members, Real Good Fish, is a community of fishermen and seafood lovers. Real Good Fish developed the Bay-to-Tray program which provides schools with access to healthy and local seafood that was once discarded as bycatch.
Most consumers buy their seafood at big retailers. How can consumers know if their seafood comes from a sustainable source? This where certification and ecolabels play a pivotal role. Despite what Seaspiracy wants you to believe, labels and organizations like the Marine Stewardship Council, Dolphin Safe, Responsible Fishing Management provide consumers with reliable information. (Disclaimer, I worked for two years for the Science division at the MSC).
Sustainable Investing for Retail Investors
For the investor or risk assessor, ecolabels also provide useful market intelligence. If you are looking for an opportunity to expand your sustainable investment portfolio, sustainable seafood operations could be an option. Let’s say you are considering Omega Protein (ticker: OME) or Aker Biomarine (ticker KBMME:NO) as investment opportunities. How can you check if these companies have sustainable fisheries operations? You can access the main ecolabels databases and look for details about company operations. For instance, the Omega Protein Corporation U.S. Atlantic menhaden fishery is certified by the MSC as sustainable.
Certified fisheries often are well-managed and have lowered their risk level. This is because these fisheries have already invested heavily in their ESG strategy, as part of the certification process. Other tools have been developed to assess the risk of fisheries. The EDF / Credit Suisse’s tool was specifically developed to better assess the risk of investing in fisheries. Additionally, non-profits like Fishwise or Future of Fish offer resources for better understanding how investment can help to increase the number of sustainable fisheries.
Seafood product is the most traded commodity in the world, and it includes more than fish. Investment in shellfish such as oysters and mussels farms provides economic and incredible environmental benefits. Seaweed aquaculture is slowly but surely gaining traction in the US with Alaska leading the way. A suite of startups, focusing on monitoring activities in aquaculture practices to fishing gear deployment in international waters, are being spawned. It is a very exciting and profitable investment landscape.
Rich (but Tricky) Waters
We can help be stewards of the wonder that is the ocean and all it contains. Consumers can buy locally caught or ecolabelled fish or seafood. Investors interested in fisheries or aquaculture investments have sustainable options. Once we have charted ocean sustainability, the bounties can be rich and plentiful.
Gonzalo Banda-Cruz has worked for more than 15 years on environmental management. The last 10 years of work focused on ocean and coastal resource management. I worked as Marine Affairs Coordinator for Conservation International, Advisor to the Galapagos National Park Service, and Fisheries Assessment Manager for the Marine Stewardship Council. My graduate research at the Bren School centered on investment strategies design for the recovery of the Chilean hake fishery, a collaborate initiative with EDF. My primary professional goal: create and implement entrepreneurial solutions for sustainable use of ocean resources.