Overfishing: A food security issue

Overfishing: A food security issue

Overfishing is one of the greatest sustainability challenges facing the world today. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that over a quarter of the world’s fish stocks are overfished or depleted and over half are being fished at capacity. Pressure on this valuable renewable resource is increasing. Today one billion people depend upon seafood as their only or main source of animal protein.

By 2050 the global population is predicted to increase from about 6.2 billion to 9 billion people. More people, increased affluence, and higher per capita demand for seafood will only increase this pressure further. Consequently, the need to ensure global fisheries are managed on a sustainable basis has never been greater. Livelihoods, food security, and the ability of both this and future generations to enjoy sustainable and renewable seafood choices will be dependent upon achieving this outcome.

Despite all the doom and gloom written about the global fishing industry, there is much to celebrate as well. Many fisheries around the world are operating sustainably. Others are making improvements to the way they fish that I believe, could one day lead to more stable harvests and perhaps also, in some instances, higher overall catch rates.


The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) was established to provide a mechanism to identify and reward existing good practices and most importantly to create the financial and economic incentives for other fisheries to improve their performance. We do this by working in partnership with the conservation community and industry — from harvest, through processing, to retail and foodservice.

The MSC concept has been proven. There is a clear business case for credible, third party and stakeholder-engaged certification and labelling, and most importantly, there is a proven and growing ecological case. The programme has also scaled-up: over 230 fisheries are now engaged at some stage in the assessment process, landing over 7 million tonnes of seafood (12 per cent of global capture production for direct human consumption); 103 fisheries are certified and many are using their MSC certification to not only maintain existing markets but to win access to new markets and in some instances, secure price premiums.

There are numerous examples of positive and lasting change being catalysed by engagement in the fishery assessment process, including significant reductions in by-catch, more precautionary approaches to quota negotiations and the implementation of voluntary closures and other measures.

Through the leadership of key players in the industry and the efforts of the broader conservation community perhaps the most dramatic development over recent years has been the growth in demand for certified and MSC eco-labelled sustainable seafood choices. There are now over 8,000 individual MSC labelled products available in over 70 countries around the world serving a market worth over 2 billion dollars annually.

This increased demand, growing consumer recognition and support creates incentives for more fisheries to enter into assessment and, where necessary, improve their performance to ensure they can meet MSC’s standard for environmentally responsible and sustainable fisheries management. In a nutshell, this is MSC’s theory of change that we hope will contribute to ensuring seafood supplies are safeguarded for both this and future generations.

There is — of course — no silver bullet to the global challenge of overfishing. Sound public policy and the eradication of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing are also vital in the journey toward a sustainable future for our fisheries. However, all of the evidence shows that robust and credible certification and eco-labelling schemes deliver real change and are a vital tool in helping to make fisheries sustainable.

Independent certifiers accredited by an independent body carry out MSC assessments. Those certifiers examine the stock of the fishery’s target species, its environmental impact and the quality of its management. These three principles are broken down into 31 detailed criteria to produce a scientifically robust certification decision that is independent of MSC and our diverse stakeholders. No other fishery assessment programme offers the same level of transparency or as many opportunities for stakeholder engagement in assessments.

We know that some recent certifications have courted controversy. But behind the controversies there is evidence of real environmental benefit occurring — many of them driven by fisheries’ desire to attain and keep their MSC certificates. Stocks rebounding in Alaska pollock, New Zealand hoki, and British Columbia salmon are evidence of strong fishery management.