Overfishing and environmental degradation are threatening fish stocks worldwide. With nearly 40 % of all seafood traded internationally, consumers are often far from the ecosystems supplying the fish they buy. To prevent local fishery declines from adding up to large-scale ecological collapses and to promote governance for sustainable development, signals from local ecosystems need to carry through long, complicated food production chains all the way to the consumer. Eco-labelling and eco-certification can guide consumers in some countries to more sustainable seafood products, but price, the most influential factor for many customers at the fish counter, seldom does.

In an article in the journal Fish and Fisheries, Beatrice Crona together with GEDB and SRC colleagues identify factors weakening signals through the value chain. They also present a method to test these mechanisms and propose how the problem can be addressed. 

Consumers can make a difference
Rising prices can change shopping habits and reduce demand for, and pressure on, threatened products and stocks. It can also indicate declining supplies and thereby raise awareness of problems in marine ecosystems. However, despite publicity about failing stocks and ecosystems, the consistent availability of fish at affordable prices sends contradictory signals to consumers. 

There are several reasons for this. Dwindling catches can be masked by changes in fi shing practices such as increased effort, technological advances and fi shing deeper or further from shore. Global trade also allows companies to substitute supplies among different regions and among species. Moreover, supply chain structures can exert a downward pressure on fi sh retail prices, decreasing fi shers’ earnings rather than increasing consumer prices. Aquaculture adds to the picture as a supplier of substitutable products that may reduce global market prices.

Strategies to strengthen signals
Beatrice Crona and co-authors suggest strategies to address these weakened signals. One way is introducing schemes that track and trace seafood from source to retail in order to guide consumers, along with promoting sustainability certifi cation schemes such as the Marine Stewardship Council. Public awareness can also be raised by targeting public and political actors directly with publicity campaigns or by other ‘nonmarket’ means. In addition, the central role of some market actors can be turned in favour of sustainability. For instance by requiring entire value chains to support and demand sustainable practices or by agreeing with other key actors to reduce competition for fish and to promote sustainable fi shing. The authors underscore that these strategies in isolation are not enough, and that they should be used in complementary ways.

Citation: Crona, B., T. Daw, W. Swartz, A. Norström, M. Nyström, M. Thyresson, C. Folke, J. Sundberg H. Österblom, L. Deutsch, and M. Troell. 2015. Masked, diluted, drowned out: Global seafood trade weakens signals from marine ecosystems. Fish and Fisheries