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Traceable and Sustainable: When it comes to seafood, can you have one without the other?

by Julia Whitney  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. | 13 March 2019


Photo credit: APEC

“Illegal fishing takes money out of the hands of those playing by the rules. It takes food out of people’s mouths. It undermines governments’ efforts to achieve sustainable fisheries,”
- Patrick Moran, Lead Shepherd for APEC’s Oceans and Fisheries Working Group.

People across the world are getting hooked on sustainable seafood. While the vast majority of seafood remains conventionally sourced (seen in grey in Figure 1), we are seeing an upward trend   in certified products.

Rarely when thinking about sustainable seafood do our first thoughts consider the presence of illegal, unregulated or unreported (IUU) fishing.

IUU is when a fishing activity occurs either as an expressly illegal activity or, at a minimum, an activity undertaken with little regard for applicable regulations (see Figure 2). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that IUU fishing represents up to USD$23 billion annually.

Sustainable seafood, which traditionally focuses on the biological and conservation aspects of fisheries and fish farms, is not a possibility as long as IUU fishing continues to take place. IUU fishing directly undermines government efforts to manage fish stocks.   

Earlier this month, representatives of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) gathered together in Chile for the 2019 APEC First Senior Officials’ Meeting (SOM 1) and related meetings. During this time, members of the Ocean and Fisheries Working Group committed to helping its economies (terminology used by APEC to represent member countries) prepare the tools to achieve goals in reigning in IUU fishing.

In the meantime, those who buy and sell seafood should remain vigilant on whether or not their supply chains contain IUU seafood. Traceability is a key aspect of this and is increasingly being recognized as a vital component to sustainable seafood certification standards.

The Global Seafood Sustainability Initiative (GSSI) Benchmark Tool aligns itself to the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, the FAO Guidelines for Ecolabelling of Fish and Fishery Products from Marine/Inland Capture Fisheries and the FAO Technical Guidelines for Aquaculture Certification, the most robust frameworks for responsible seafood. The Benchmark Tool considers a number of factors before giving public recognition to various certification standards, one of which being chain of custody (traceable to  source).

Schemes that have been recognized under the benchmark include Alaska RFM Program, Iceland RFM Certification Programme, Marine Stewardship Council, Global Aquaculture Alliance’s Best Aquaculture Practices, GLOBALG.A.P. Aquaculture Certification System, Aquaculture Stewardship Council, Audubon G.U.L.F. RFM Certification Program and BIM Certified Quality Aquaculture (CQA) Scheme.

Where certification and chain of custody is not yet possible, international guidelines are available to assess the likelihood or risk of IUU fishing. For example, low risk sources will have full clarity and certainty on:

  • Who supplied the product,
  • Where the product comes from, and
  • That it can be traced back to a legal source.


Given the nature and complexity of seafood supply chains, gaining full answers to such issues is far more complicated than one may think. However, increasingly tools are being developed to reduce the amount of heavy work needed.

For example, the Hong Kong Sustainable Seafood Coalition (HKSSC) is an industry-led coalition that aims to advance the sustainable seafood market in Hong Kong, by promoting responsible purchasing and consumption of fish and seafood. Its vision is for all seafood imported into Hong Kong to be legal, traceable and biologically sustainable.

The HKSSC Codes of Conduct and Guidance Document have recently been launched, giving guidance to Members on how to assess the risk of their seafood sources. Two important tools being developed to assist Members on the traceability, transparency and legality of their fish sources include: a marketplace database - an online catalogue of sustainable seafood sources as a business-to-business tool enabling buyers to easily find sources using any common name, and a supplier questionnaire.

During the next four months, the HKSSC technical advisor, Jacqui Dixon, and the Steering Committee member, Teng Hoi Conservation, will host a series of webinars to guide Members through this process. If you are a buyer or seller of seafood in Hong Kong that is interested in learning more, please contact the Secretariat, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The HKSSC thanks the Sustainable Seafood Coalition in the UK for their support and permission to adapt their Voluntary Codes of Conduct for the Hong Kong market.

Further reading and resources: