Nine of world’s largest fishing companies sign agreement to fish sustainably

The Guardian reports, 9th June 2017: Nine of the world’s biggest fishing companies have signed up to protect the world’s oceans, pledging to help stamp out illegal activities, including the use of slave labour, and prevent over-fishing.

The initiative is part of the UN Ocean Conference in New York, the first conference of its kind at which member states are discussing how to meet the sustainable development goal on ocean health.

Goal 14 [Note: See Marinet Comment below] of the roster requires countries to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources”. However, little has yet been done to set out concrete commitments on meeting this target. The UN is hoping countries, companies and organisations will set out voluntary plans this week to work on issues such as pollution, over-fishing, the destruction of coastal habitats, and acidification.

The Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship (SeaBOS) initiative, supported by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, marks the first time that companies from Asia, Europe and the US have come together aiming to end unsustainable practices. Although the fishing industry is highly fragmented at the local level, with millions of small boats and subsistence fishermen, about 11 to 16% of the global catch goes to just 13 companies, who are thought to control about 40% of the most valuable and biggest species.

Henrik Osterblöm, deputy science director at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, which brought the initiative together, said: “Sustainable marine ecosystems will be essential to feed a growing population, but the oceans are at risk. Seafood makes up 20% of the global intake of animal protein.”

The nine fishing companies signed up to SeaBOS have a combined annual revenue of about $30bn (£23bn), making up more than one-third of that of the top 100 seafood companies. They pledged to eliminate from their supply chains any fish that could have come from piracy or other illegal sources. As much as half the world’s fish catch is thought to involve “black” or illegal fishing, where vessels trespass into other national waters, use illegal gear, catch more than their quota or target endangered species or fish for which they have no quota. These fish are often “laundered” to find their way into legal fish markets.

Slavery has also been a serious problem in fisheries, as spotlighted by the Guardian’s investigation into slavery in the Thai prawn fishing industry, which found worker exploitation and the deprivation of people’s rights was widespread in parts of Asia’s fishing grounds. The new declaration binds SeaBOS members to develop and enforce a code of conduct for their operations and those of their suppliers.

The companies said: “We will also work towards full traceability and transparency throughout our supply chains. We also pledge to work actively together with governments to improve existing regulations for fisheries, for aquaculture, and for the ocean.”

Fish farms have also been a cause of concern to ocean experts, with the heavy use of medicines and disinfectants causing marine pollution, and the use of millions of tonnes of fishmeal from ground-up wild fish to provide food for the farmed fish – as much as five tonnes of wild fish for every tonne of farmed.

These factors undermine the claims of the fish farming industry to provide a sustainable source of fish, protecting wild populations. The

SeaBOS signatories pledged: “We [will] make efficient use of aquaculture and use fish feed resources from sustainably harvested stocks. We will actively use and apply existing certification standards and prevent harmful discharges and habitat destruction. We call on the whole industry to do the same.”

SeaBOS comprises: the two biggest seafood companies by revenue, Maruha Nichiro and Nippon Suisan Kaisha; two of the biggest tuna specialists, Thai Union Group and Dongwon Industries; the two biggest companies selling feed to fish farms, Nutreco (parent company of Skretting) and Cargill Aqua Nutrition; and the two biggest farmed salmon companies, Marine Harvest and the Cermaq subsidiary of Mitsubishi; and the Japanese tuna purse seine company Kyokuyo.

Most of these are not household names to consumers, but their products are found all over the world. The group aims to sign up more companies, and to lobby governments to enforce better regulations, and to review its progress in a year.


Source: The Guardian, 9th June 2017. For the full details, see


Marinet observes: An optimist would say, this is really good news. A pessimist would say, can you really believe a word of it. However, what would a realist say?

The reality, as the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has recorded, is that world fish stocks are very much under pressure from over-exploitation. Of the 600 marine stocks
monitored by the FAO, the present position is:
3% are underexploited
20% are moderately exploited
52% are fully exploited
17% are overexploited
7% are depleted
1% are recovering from depletion

This means 25% are over-exploited, 50% fully exploited, and 25% in a reasonably sound and natural condition. However it must be remembered that this is just the 600 stocks that are monitored. There are vastly many more stocks than 600, but scientists (the FAO) do not monitor these. What condition are they in? If we extrapolate, fish stocks throughout the world are under severe pressure. We know this because, as Prof. Boris Worm, Dalhousie University, Canada reports:
“Analyses of global catch data (covering all species and regions) lead to more pessimistic conclusions as catches peaked during the mid-1990s and have since declined 9% below that level [9,20]. This occurred despite increasing fishing effort over the same time period.” Therefore it is clear that over-fishing is taking place on a widespread basis.

Who are the culprits? It is unlikely to be the small-boat artisan fisherman, the type of fisherman that predominates in much of the world. They do not have the capacity to fish at these levels. Therefore the most likely culprit is the large fishing companies with their “super vessels”, capable of fishing with sophisticated sonar detection, massive nets, and the ability to stay at sea for extended periods due to refrigerated onboard storage.

Presently the United Nations is endeavouring to address issues of sustainability, on all fronts, through its Sustainable Development Agenda. In 2015, countries adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. For the sea and its oceans, this is Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG14), and we reproduce its targets at the foot of this commentary. However, how realistic is this UN Agenda?

SDG14 has ten goals, and one of these is:
By 2020, effectively regulate harvesting and end overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and destructive fishing practices and implement science-based management plans, in order to restore fish stocks in the shortest time feasible, at least to levels that can produce maximum sustainable yield as determined by their biological characteristics.

This effectively mirrors a principal feature of the recent reform of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy which states that all fish stocks must be sustainably fished by 2015, and by 2020 at the latest. The trouble is, reality does not accord with the aspiration. The EU fishing levels set by EU Member Countries for 2017 exceeded scientific advice in nearly 60% of cases in the NE Atlantic, and in the case of the Mediterranean the figure is 90%. Additionally, these figures are only for stocks that are officially monitored. Many stocks in the NE Atlantic remain unmonitored and yet are continuously fished, so their condition is unknown.

The reality therefore is that laws — the CFP is a legally binding regulation — are broken not just by fishermen (illegal, unreported fishing) but also by governments themselves (setting fishing levels which are effectively illegal). Why do governments do this, flouting the very laws they have placed on the statute book? It is because fishing companies lobby them to do so and, being sympathetic or weak willed, governments accede — and perhaps more importantly, there is virtually no way a person or organisation can prosecute a government and bring this situation to account, the cost being financially ruinous to anyone who tries.

It is large fishing companies that are driving the present situation, aided by government. In the UK small boat fishermen — who fish sustainably — make up four-fifths of the UK fishing fleet. Yet the small boats get, at best, only 6% of the fishing quotas which the EU allocates annually to the UK. The lion’s share of the quotas goes to large vessels which, in the UK, are often foreign owned.

Therefore the reality — based on the evidence — that exists in the capture of wild fish (the conventional idea of fishing) and centred on the UK/EU experience — and from which one can extrapolate to the wider global condition — is that over-fishing and illegality remain endemic, and that governments and large fishing companies are to blame.

However, what is the reality with regard to aquaculture — fish farming? The most recent report of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reports:
“Aquaculture, probably the fastest growing food-producing sector in the world, now accounts for 50 percent of the world’s fish supply for human consumption (FAO, 2015b). This is because some 21.7 million tonnes of capture fisheries production were not destined for human consumption in 2012
(FAO, 2014).”

Apart from the fact that wild fish are clearly being caught as an animal feedstock and for other industrial uses, it is now clear that aquaculture is supplying a significant proportion of fish eaten by humans and, amongst the large fish companies which have signed the recent commitment under UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG14 — additional details below) there are large companies involved in aquaculture — notably, Marine Harvest with respect to the UK and NE Atlantic.

Marine Harvest runs many of the salmon fish farms in Scotland. Fish farming is strongly supported by government, but widely criticised for its environmental impact. It is a form of intensive, industrial farming where very high concentrations of fish live in a confined space, and thus disease and parasites are a constant problem. In the UK this reality has been recently reported upon, as it has been in North America.

Dominant amongst these problems is the use of pesticides to control sea lice which, whilst controlling the problem within the fish farm, cause extensive pollution in the surrounding area and adjacent fisheries. Salmon and Trout Conservation UK reported in April of this year on Marine Harvest’s activities in Scotland:

“Newly published data in the 2016 Annual Report from Marine Harvest, the world’s largest salmon farming company, shows that its Scottish salmon farms lag very far behind its operations elsewhere in the world in controlling the devastating sea lice parasite.

“The Report includes a graph indicating that 69% of Marine Harvest sites in Scotland were above the industry’s Code of Good Practice trigger levels for treatment of sea lice in 2016. The highest figure elsewhere was in Canada where just 13% of sites were above the national trigger level for chemical treatment.

“The graph, as published in the Marine Harvest Annual Review, confirms that the situation in Scotland is deteriorating year on year. No other Marine Harvest operation shows such a trend.”

This adverse state of affairs is not limited. A recent report has accused the Scottish government of colluding to conceal pesticide pollution arising from fish farms. Once again, it is probably reasonable to extrapolate that what is happening in the UK and the NE Atlantic reflects the reality elsewhere in the world. In short, the situation is not good.

So, what is one to make of a statement (see news report above) by the nine largest fishing companies that in the context of compliance with UN SDG14:
“We will also work towards full traceability and transparency throughout our supply chains. We also pledge to work actively together with governments to improve existing regulations for fisheries, for aquaculture, and for the ocean.”

An optimist will believe it. A pessimist will frown in disbelief. And the realist — they will probably say, what does the evidence tell us?

So assuming you are such a realist, what has the evidence said to you?

Finally, a concluding thought from Marinet — what if the governance of all the seas and oceans were to be based on the UN Law of the Sea where the default position is one where all human activity at sea has to be licensed — fishing, energy, mining, shipping — and that these licences will only be issued if the activity can genuinely prove no adverse impact on the ecosystem (the ecosystem approachecosystem approach An ecosystem-based approach to management represents a new and more strategic way of thinking. It puts the emphasis on a management regime that maintains the health of ecosystems alongside appropriate human use of the marine environment, for the benefit of current and future generations. This requires setting clear environmental objectives both at the general and specific level, basing management of the marine environment on the principles of sustainable development, conservation of biodiversity, robust science, the precautionary principle and stakeholder involvement. Ref, DEFRA, Safeguarding Our Seas, section 1.17 (2002) to marine management), and that these licences will supply the revenue required to fund genuine regulation and, specifically, enforcement which is largely non-existent at the international level — what is the value of a law, any law, if there is no body to enforce it?

An impossible vision? No, it is not — so learn more here.


Note: If you want to assist Marinet with its work, you can join us — visit

We reproduce below UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG14) and associated UN commentary:

Goal 14 targets

  • By 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution
  • By 2020, sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems to avoid significant adverse impacts, including by strengthening their resilience, and take action for their restoration in order to achieve healthy and productive oceans
  • Minimize and address the impacts of ocean acidification, including through enhanced scientific co-operation at all levels
  • By 2020, effectively regulate harvesting and end overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and destructive fishing practices and implement science-based management plans, in order to restore fish stocks in the shortest time feasible, at least to levels that can produce maximum sustainable yield as determined by their biological characteristics
  • By 2020, conserve at least 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, consistent with national and international law and based on the best available scientific information
  • By 2020, prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and refrain from introducing new such subsidies, recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of the World Trade Organization fisheries subsidies negotiation
  • By 2030, increase the economic benefits to Small Island developing States and least developed countries from the sustainable use of marine resources, including through sustainable management of fisheries, aquaculture and tourism
  • Increase scientific knowledge, develop research capacity and transfer marine technology, taking into account the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission Criteria and Guidelines on the Transfer of Marine Technology, in order to improve ocean health and to enhance the contribution of marine biodiversitybiodiversity Biological diversity in an environment as indicated by numbers of different species of plants and animals. to the development of developing countries, in particular small island developing States and least developed countries
  • Provide access for small-scale artisanal fishers to marine resources and markets
  • Enhance the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources by implementing international law as reflected in UNCLOSUNCLOS The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, also called the Law of the Sea Convention or the Law of the Sea treaty., which provides the legal framework for the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources, as recalled in paragraph 158 of The Future We Want

Facts and figures

  • Oceans cover three quarters of the Earth’s surface, contain 97 per cent of the Earth’s water, and represent 99 per cent of the living space on the planet by volume
  • Over three billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods
  • Globally, the market value of marine and coastal resources and industries is estimated at $3 trillion per year or about 5 per cent of global GDP
  • Oceans contain nearly 200,000 identified species, but actual numbers may lie in the millions
  • Oceans absorb about 30 per cent of carbon dioxide produced by humans, buffering the impacts of global warming
  • Oceans serve as the world’s largest source of protein, with more than 3 billion people depending on the oceans as their primary source of protein
  • Marine fisheries directly or indirectly employ over 200 million people
  • Subsidies for fishing are contributing to the rapid depletion of many fish species and are preventing efforts to save and restore global fisheries and related jobs, causing ocean fisheries to generate US$ 50 billion less per year than they could
  • As much as 40 per cent of the world oceans are heavily affected by human activities, including pollution, depleted fisheries, and loss of coastal habitats

Progress of goal 14

  • Oceans, along with coastal and marine resources, play an essential role in human well-being and social and economic development worldwide. They are particularly crucial for people living in coastal communities, who represented 37 per cent of the global population in 2010. Oceans provide livelihoods and tourism benefits, as well as subsistence and income. They also help regulate the global ecosystem by absorbing heat and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and protecting coastal areas from flooding and erosion. In fact, coastal and marine resources contribute an estimated $28 trillion to the global economy each year through ecosystem services. However, those resources are extremely vulnerable to environmental degradation, overfishing, climate change and pollution. The sustainable use and preservation of marine and coastal ecosystems and their biological diversity is essential to achieving the 2030 Agenda, in particular for small island developing States.
  • Pollution of both land and seas is a threat in many coastal regions. In addition, since river basins, marine ecosystems and the atmosphere are all part of hydrological systems, the effects of such pollution are often felt far from their source. In many coastal communities, pollution and eutrophicationeutrophic Water (freshwater or saline) is said to be eutrophic when all normal life in it has died due to oxygen starvation. The process is usually caused by excess nutrients present in the water which causes an explosion in algal species (known as an algal bloom). As this algal bloom dies the decaying plant material (algae) falls to the bed of the watercourse where it is consumed by bacteria. This abundance of decaying material in turn causes a population explosion in the bacteria. However, bacteria (unlike plants) consume oxygen and the population explosion of bacteria strips all the dissolved oxygen out of the water with the result that all other aquatic species who are reliant on the dissolved oxygen for breathing (e.g. fish, larvae, insects) are asphyxiated and die. When this process occurs, a body of water is said to eutrophic. A body of water that is partially eutrophic is where this process (oxygen starvation) has fallen short and/or not yet reached its fullest extent., which is the presence of excessive nutrients in water, frequently owing to runoff from the land, causing dense plant growth and the death of animal life, are driving detrimental changes. The five large marine ecosystems most at risk from coastal eutrophication, according to a global comparative assessment undertaken in 2016 as part of the Transboundary Water Assessment Programme, are the Bay of Bengal, the East China Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, the North Brazil Shelf and the South China Sea.
  • Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the ocean has absorbed about one third of the carbon dioxide released by human activities, thereby mitigating the full impact of climate change. However, this comes at a steep ecological price, as dissolved carbon dioxide in seawater lowers the pH level of oceans, thereby increasing acidity and changing the biogeochemical carbonate balance. Concerns about ocean acidification, first expressed in the early 1980s, have now been confirmed, and the extent of its impact on marine ecosystems is being investigated.
  • Fisheries contribute significantly to global food security, livelihoods and the economy. However, if not sustainably managed, fishing can damage fish habitats. Ultimately, overfishing impairs the functioning of ecosystems and reduces biodiversity, with negative repercussions for sustainable social and economic development. In order to achieve a healthy balance, fish stocks must be maintained within biologically sustainable limits, at or above the abundance level that can produce maximum sustainable yields. Based on an analysis of assessed stocks, the percentage of world marine fish stocks within biologically sustainable levels declined from 90 per cent in 1974 to 69 per cent in 2013. Fortunately, the downward trend has slowed and appears to have stabilized since 2008.
  • Biodiverse marine sites require safeguarding to ensure sustainable long-term use of their precious natural resources. Globally, in 2014, 8.4 per cent of the marine environment under national jurisdiction (up to 200 nautical miles from shore) and 0.25 per cent of the marine environment beyond national jurisdiction were under protection. From 2000 to 2016, the share of marine sites around the world that are designated as key biodiversity areas and are completely covered by protected areas increased from 15 per cent to 19 per cent.


Source: Report of the Secretary-General, “Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals”, E/2016/75


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