“We need more coordination in civil society” – Interview with Simon Bush

Concern for the sustainability of seafood has increased globally. Different forms of governance have arisen from this concern, from market-based approaches to social movements.

Simon Bush of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, co-author of the recently published book “Governing Sustainable Seafood,” was invited to Slow Fish 2019 to share his thoughts on fisheries and aquaculture certification. He talked about the challenges that await civil society organizations working towards a more sustainable approach to marine ecosystems, and the importance of coordination among different actors with similar goals.

At Slow Fish, you discussed the certification of sustainable seafood. What benefits and limitations does certification bring?

Simon Bush.

One part of my research focuses on market-based approaches such as ecolabeling. Here we look at things like the cost of certification, which is a well-known limitation, especially for the small-scale sector. The process of applying for certification requires skills that small-scale fishers do not always have. We also look at the relationship of certification systems with governments that also limit the access for small scale fisheries. For instance, government rules and management arrangements for fisheries are simply not in place. Certification plays an important role therefore in advocating government to put such rules and management systems in place.

Do you see that change happening globally?

Absolutely. I have been working for nearly 20 years in Southeast Asia. In terms of fisheries management, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has barely scratched the surface there1, but harvest control has been declared an objective. This has inspired a community-based organizations to try to figure out what harvest control is, and what would happen if there were indications that, for example, tuna stocks were falling below a certain level. By engaging with these questions, organizations have had to discuss the possibility of additional support with their governments, which would allow them to recognize when and where stocks are declining, and then formulate a response. That may have nothing to do with the small-scale sector, but there has to be some recognition of responsibility. The fisheries which should be stopping or reducing their fishing effort need to be identified. Organizations are increasingly aware of this fact, and that awareness is growing in a number of places around the world.

Ben Tre floating market in Vietnam, site of the first MSC certified fishery in Southeast Asia. Photo: innervietnam.com

What percentage of seafood products are actually certified as sustainable?

For aquaculture specifically the last estimate was made in 2016. It showed that somewhere around 6% of global products are certified. That is probably now 6.5% or 7%. Under current market conditions and potential demand for certified products, this could reach 12.5% to 15%. Fisheries is currently around 15- 20%, depending on which certification schemes are taken into account. Overall this means that between 80 and 90%% of seafood is not going to be certified in the long term.

What could be done to increase these numbers?

First, we need to ask ourselves if we even want to increase those numbers. We should recognize the strengths of certification for aquaculture and fisheries, but we should also acknowledge that they are not a useful tool for all fisheries or aquaculture. We have to ask what role other organizations should play in promoting sustainable and viable local fishing communities and artisanal fisheries. I think Slow Fish plays that role to quite a large extent. That being said, I don’t think there is enough engagement between organizations or movements like Slow Fish and a lot of other networks and organizations. There has to be greater coordination between these similar organizations because ultimately, they are all aiming for the same thing: viable fisheries. That means ensuring there are enough fish in the sea, and that local fishing communities are able to make a living. That is a common goal. It’s important to ask what different organizations can contribute towards achieving that goal.

A WWF ranking of seafood eco-labels. Source: WWF.

Part of your research is focused on the governance of sustainable seafood and NGOs. What are your observations on civil society movements?

Our work has shown that at a macro level there is a division between different organizations. Many of these organizations compete with each other, arguing that their idea of sustainability is superior. This is a self-defeating position for a broad and highly diversified social movement. I actually disagree with those who say we need to harmonize our definitions and criteria for sustainability. We instead need meaningful exchange between the proponents of these different conceptions of sustainability, because there is not absolute measure of sustainability. Some claims focus on environment, others on social justice.

You see this debate more within seafood than in any other food sector. There’s a huge number of NGOs focusing on different aspects of fisheries and fishing communities, and a significant number of standards and rating agencies. Sometimes it seems that everyone is running in a different direction. But at the same time, we have to recognize how complex the bigger picture is. There are many different values associated with the food we eat. So are we more concerned with the well-being of the fish, the fishers, the oceans or the environment in general? They are fundamentally different things.

I think Slow Fish is in a good position in this regard, as it has a more holistic approach. A lot of environmental organizations see themselves as being only that: an environmental organization. They do not see themselves as being fundamentally social organizations too. But you can’t tell fish what to do; you have to engage with people. We should think less about tools like certification, traceability, and all the different variations of sustainable seafood, and start to see the sustainable seafood movement as a fomenter of social change. If we can bring people together with different flows of finance, new information, and coordinate all of that globally, then we will be able to achieve more widespread and meaningful change.

by Indre Anskaityte


1 The first MSC certified fishery in Southeast Asia was Ben Tre clam fishery in Vietnam, which received certification in 2015.

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