Insights and Impact

3 Minutes On: Sustainable Seafood

Jackie Marks, SIS/MA ’07, senior public relations manager, US Marine Stewardship Council, schools us on overfishing

Jackie Marks

Why is overfishing a problem? It’s simple: if we take more fish out of the ocean than can reproduce, we’re not going to have any more fish left.  

It’s not just the removal of fish—or not removing the fish—that matters. You need to look at the whole ecosystem. What’s happening with the habitat? How is climate change affecting this population? The warming of the water can impact a fishery’s migration process, and it can also affect juveniles and hatching, among other things. 

A country’s economic waters extend three miles from shore—everything beyond that is considered the high seas. Anything in the high seas requires international governance, including fisheries, which can become complicated, as some fish species are highly migratory. 

Tuna, for example, can travel for hundreds of miles, covering large geographic areas, so managing the species involves many different bodies. For instance, yellowfin tuna stocks from the Indian Ocean are overfished. This stock is managed by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, a regional fisheries management organization (RFMO). Any country with a stake in a fishery can belong to an RFMO, and trying to reach consensus among all members can cause management decisions to be delayed. 

Ensuring that fisheries and seafood are available for generations to come is among the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) key goals. We set the gold standard for sustainability. MSC has instituted scientific measures that a fishery can be assessed against to be considered sustainable. It’s a transparent process that involves stakeholder engagement and independent data. 

We look at three primary principles. First, the product must come from a stock of fish that is healthy and can be productive in the future. Second, we make sure that there isn’t lasting damage to the marine environment where the fish is being fished. Finally, we ensure that regulatory management is responsive to any environmental or policy changes in the area. 
Beyond that there are 28 other key performance indicators that a fishery must meet to be considered sustainable. Every year fisheries are audited to make sure they’re still conforming to the standards. About 300 fisheries around the world are certified, from Iceland to Argentina. 

Consumers will find a little blue fish label on wild-capture seafood products that have met our standards. In addition to frozen, fresh, and canned seafood, the label can be found on pet food and fish oil products. It’s an easy way for consumers to know that the products they’re buying support sustainable fisheries and a healthy ocean. For example, McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich is certified; it’s Alaska pollock. Chicken of the Sea also offers MSC-certified products. 

Anytime you go into a store or certain restaurants and see the blue fish label—which can be found on more than 25,000 products around the world—you can feel confident about buying seafood that’s good for you and good for the ocean.