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SUSTAINABLE SEAFOOD THROUGH LABELS: DOES SUCH PRACTICE EXISTS?

INTRODUCTION:

Consuming seafood has become a part of our daily lives. A variety of sea creatures are seen as delicacies across Asia and America. To promote the marine ecosystem withstanding the seafood consumption in the world, we have the concept of sustainable seafood. Such products are placed at higher prices for their efforts to be “sustainable” in comparison to other brands. However, the conception of sustainability in marine life is a myth. The “extra effort” taken by these “sustainable” companies is to make their product more profitable. The commercialization of the seafood industry is the result of such an effort.

This blog will provide an insight into the sustainable seafood industry is a sham. The labels for sustainable seafood are a certification to earn more money than their competitors which is destroying the whole purpose of the concept. A part of the blog will analyze the gap between the vision and ground-level reality that should be looked after.

WHAT IS SUSTAINABLE SEAFOOD CERTIFICATION:

Whenever we assume about the seafood industry, we assume a fragile boat with few men having (maximum five) fishing nets to catch the desired sea creature. This visualization is only a part of the seafood industry. The unseen reality is different because of the seafood industry’s commercialization. There would be gigantic boats with advanced technologies to catch the sea creatures. Trawling, where the huge-sized net pulls the fishes from midwater to the deep sea and Gillnet, where the nets entangle the fishes’ gills[1] are commonly used methods for capturing sea creatures. These two methods ensure that a whole area of the sea is under the net.[2] These other creatures are killed during the catch and cannot be sold in another market. Other than that, the area with the plants or small creatures is also destroyed. By using such methods, the industry has introduced the phrase bycatch. Bycatch is the accidental capture of non-target species in the nets.[3] Bycatch is inevitable given the commercialization of the seafood industry. Other sea creatures are ultimately dropped into the sea/ocean without analyzing the impact of these modern techniques on the marine ecosystem.  However, we have few seafood products sold by multi-national companies mentioning that the product is sustainable.

Certain questions that arise upon the statement are: firstly, what are the methods used in capturing the creatures and secondly whether the issue of bycatch arises. If they have followed the commercial methods, then immediately the problem of bycatch comes in. If bycatch arises, where other sea creatures are slaughtered then the ultimate question of the product being sustainable is important and absent. With this background, the seafood industry is segregated into sustainable and non-sustainable seafood products. Overlooking such labels is the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).[4] This private organization’s label is the stamp of the product being sustainable. Relying on such labels for consuming sustainable seafood is not preserving the sea creatures but a marketing technique to sell the products at a higher rate. The label of dolphin-safe tuna[5] is worthless because neither the consumers nor the industry knows the truth.

REALITY OF SUCH CERTIFICATION:

The management of this organization granting the labels to the commercial products works in isolation with its aim to promote sustainability in the marine ecosystem. The vision is driven by the criteria to get the MSC label. The assessment of products is done by a third party with three qualifications: impact on the fish stock, the impact of the company carrying out its activities on the ecosystem and the company’s management structure.[6] These broad criteria hinder the performance of the organization. Firstly, the assessment of the product conducted by the third party defeats the purpose of the organization’s existence. The quality of the assessment is not guaranteed by such parties. Further issues like a bias towards the company or corruption are not addressed by the organization. Secondly, assessing the impact of the company’s operation on the marine ecosystem. The operations of the company would focus on the catchment area to avoid the problems of over-fishing. However, the important point of how fishing is done in the catchment area is used is missing. The MSC’s label can be applied to any fishing method. These would include the commercial methods of fishing. Thirdly, the conduct of the company in managing the stock from the catchment area. This criterion only overlooks the ultimate stock from the catchment area. The absence of including the problem of bycatch removes the purpose of this criteria. Without understanding the whole process of extracting the sea creatures this criterion only focuses on the ultimate result from that area. From all these three criteria, the essence behind each category is not fulfilled.

These criteria are framed in a void without any true purpose of sustainability and protection of the marine ecosystem. The certification is the market technique to earn hefty profit and destroy the sea/ocean. This harsh reality is missing in the minds of the consumers. As consumers, we think that we are making a conscious choice about saving the sea/ocean but we are being deceived by the creation of such labels. The sham of MSC explains that the consumers trust such deception. The absence of counter-mechanism to object to the removal of the label is one of the major reasons for consumers to take the fact as presented. The result is still the same that is reducing the sea creatures and harming the marine ecosystem.

IS SUSTAINABLE SEAFOOD THE BEST OPTION AVAILABLE?

After assessing the reality of sustainable labels, the credibility of such stamps is not relevant. The important point is the protection of the ecosystem and sea creatures at large. Amidst such practices, seafood has become the most traded food in the world. Between 2011 and 2021, the seafood trade has grown 2.4 % every year.[7] The continuing surge of the seafood trade has shed light on the existing sustainable seafood laws. The first option is abiding by the sustainable seafood laws. One of the prominent compliance agreements is the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards (SPS) agreement. This agreement is binding on WTO members and a member should ensure the safety of the animals, plants, and humans.[8] The international application of the agreement is vague. The reason is agreement does not provide uniform compliance standards for countries but leaves it for each country to decide on which is the best practice. For example, the EU can decide on their exporting standards to be different from the SPS agreement, thus it promotes difference in standards.[9] Another agreement is the Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement (TBT), which reduces the technical barriers to achieving the target of the SPS agreement. The fundamental role of this agreement is to facilitate the industry’s promotion and development[10] into a sustainable one. However, the former agreement gives leeway to the countries to enforce their standards without minimum international compliance. This feature forgoes the enforcement of strict standards to promote the sea ecosystem. The latter agreement’s purpose is meaningless because if the former agreement does not have uniform standards, TBT becomes a hurdle to ensuring the practice of sustainable seafood. The agreements fail to address the problems within the international seafood industry.  

The second option for saving the sea ecosystem and creatures in it is plant-based foods. Not revolving around this quagmire of the product being MSC label or bycatch-free, plant-based products complement sustainable seafood in the best way. Solving the problems of consuming the contents of the sea creature and protecting the marine ecosystem can be achieved through this approach.[11] Instead of slaughtering the sea creatures putting that one sea creature on your plate is cruelty towards those creatures. That path and the goal of such sustainability are wrong. The right path and goal to sustainability are consuming plant-based food without interfering with the marine ecosystem. The idea of being on an end is our solution to save our seas/oceans.

CONCLUSION:

Segregating the seafood industry between sustainable and non-sustainable products using MSC labels overrides the purpose of being sustainable. The underlying truth behind such labels is a sham. The starting point of this harsh reality is the commercialization of the industry and the end road is covering the goal of commercialization with the marketing tactic of MSC labels. The constant effort of the consumer to be sustainable is false and deceptive by multi-national companies. In addition to that, the criteria of such certification are broad and fail to understand the relevant problems. After analyzing such a sham of the MSC labels, we as consumers are left to wonder about sustainability being the right path. SPS and TBT agreements fail to provide a uniform standard of sustainable seafood practice in the world. Our way forward as consumers is to consume plant-based products. These products stop the starting point of commercializing industry and adopt to save sea creatures from bycatch with it ultimately ensuring that the marine ecosystem is safe.  

Author(s) Name: Kanumuri Sai Pavani (Jindal Global Law School, O. P. Jindal Global University) 

References:

[1] ‘Commercial Fishing Methods’ (Sustainable Fisheries UW, 2018) <https://sustainablefisheries-uw.org/seafood-101/commercial-fishing-methods/> accessed 15 July 2022.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Michel Gunther, ‘ What is Bycatch?Understanding and Preventing fishing Bycatch’ (World Wildlife, 2018) <https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/bycatch > accessed 16 July 2022.

[4] Bloom Authors, ‘The Sham of the MSC Label’ (Bloom Association, 5  May 2020) <https://www.bloomassociation.org/en/sham-msc-label/> accessed 16 July 2022.

[5] Rene Ebersole, ‘How “Dolphin Safe” Is Canned Tuna, really?’ (National Geographic, 10  March 2021) <https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/how-dolphin-safe-is-canned-tuna> accessed 17  July 2022.

[6] Stefano Ponte, ‘The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the Making of a Market for ‘Sustainable Fish’ (Journal Agrarian Change, 5 March 2012) <https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1471-0366.2011.00345.x > accessed 17 July 2022.

[7] Novel Sharma and Gorjan Nikolik, ‘Global Seafood Map Reveals Soaring Demand’ (Fish Farming Expert, 17 May 2022) <https://www.fishfarmingexpert.com/article/global-seafood-map-reveals-soaring-demand/> accessed 17 July 2022.

[8] ‘Understanding the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures Agreement’ (World Trade Organization) <https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/sps_e/spsund_e.htm>.Introduction> accessed 21 July 2022.

[9] Martin Doherty, ‘The Importance of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures to Fisheries Negotiations in Economic Partnership Agreements’ (Research Gate, January 2010) < https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238769638_The_Importance_of_Sanitary_and_Phytosanitary_Measures_to_Fisheries_Negotiations_in_Economic_Partnership_Agreements > accessed 17 July 2022.

[10] Ibid

[11] Joan Sabaté and Sam Soret, ‘Sustainability of plant-based diets: back to the future’ (The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 4 June 2014) <https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/100/suppl_1/476S/4576675> accessed 17 July 2022.