The Ocean Is Being Destroyed, Can Labelling Help?
It took only 20 years of intensive fishing for the entire Western Atlantic halibut stocks to collapse back in the early 1800s, and nearly 200 years later, they have yet to recover. It was the same situation with Atlantic bluefin tuna: the species received relatively little interest until the 1930s, but by the 1970s, we had depleted 20% of their entire population. For a modern day example, we can look at fish fillets and fish sticks. Originally, they were made mostly of cod, a species we fished until they are almost depleted. We then moved on to haddock, then redfish, and finally Pacific pollock. It’s the same story every time: species are overfished until there’s barely any left, we move on to a different species, and do it again. When the demand for a particular species suddenly arises, so do industrial fisheries, and with them comes overfishing, the collapse of an exceeding amount of fish populations, and the destruction of ocean habitat.
Human consumption of fish has doubled in the last 30 years. In order to keep up, fisheries have exploited over half of the world’s fish stock and have decimated the ocean’s ecosystems while doing it. Now that we have expended the upper levels of the food web, fisheries are beginning to turn their eyes to fish at lower trophic levels. The market’s change in taste correlates with the changes in the ocean’s ecosystems. The growing prevalence of bottom trawlers during the 1980s decimated seafloor ecosystems. In response to this, there has been a push to combine traditional and untraditional methods to try to fish in moderation.
Social marketing is defined as the application of marketing to the resolution of social problems. This study looked at the history of seafood awareness campaigns, and their impact (or lack thereof) around the world.
In the 1970s, there was a shift in perspectives in marketing, and its impact in changing social behavior began to become emphasized. However, results weren’t terribly successful. Government programs, like ‘Keep America Beautiful,’ and nonprofit organizations, like ‘Save the Whales,’ were the most prominent at the time. As fish stocks decreased and concern for ocean ecosystems increased, more nonprofit organizations began to launch social marketing campaigns supporting labeling products based on their ecological impact or calling for the boycott of certain products. Labeling was intended to educate the consumer about the impact of certain products they bought and to decrease purchasing of particularly damaging products. Companies were also be pressured to use more ecologically conscious practices as consumers were more likely to purchase fish with an eco-friendly label. Even aquariums and nonprofit organizations have launched campaigns in order to educate the consumer about what types of fish are most ecologically impactful.
The biggest issue that social campaigns have are the characteristics of the market itself. Asia consumes over two-thirds of all seafood, yet it’s a market that generally doesn’t discriminate between ecologically impactful products, so it’s a region that isn’t typically targeted by campaigns. Future expansion in demand is projected to be in high in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, where consumers generally won’t purchase based on reducing ecological impact. This means labels will only be appealing to a small market, thus becoming less impactful. Meanwhile, unless ecological criteria are mandatory, fisheries will only meet these standards if financially beneficial. Since small fishing operations make up the majority of fishing worldwide, if there is no pressure for them to engage in proper fishing practices, it isn’t a terribly effective strategy. In America, it was found that the the key factor encouraging consumers to purchase eco-labeled fish products was the fact they were involved in an environmental organization. American consumers were also less likely to purchase eco-labeled products if they were frozen.
There is a significant lack of traceability in seafood products, which companies also take advantage of. Tilapia has been marketed as low ecological impact as it has a vegetarian diet and is farm raised. However, the Whitefish Association of Ecuador now sells South Pacific hake, an ocean-caught fish using damaging techniques, labeled as tilapia. Even in the U.S., DNA tests show that 75% of fish sold under the label of “Red snapper” are not biologically Red snapper. If the label isn’t reliable, conscientious consumers are deceived and are not making the impact they are trying to. Lack of traceability and mislabeling of fish also hurts the environmental regulations. Illegally caught fish, like the toothfish, are smuggled in with other frozen seafood, or under the umbrella term “frozen fish fillets”.
The push for eco-labeling has had the unforeseen impact of causing seafood companies to misrepresent their seafood products. Even though the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has no guidelines, Nile-perch fillets are being sold under a self-given label stating they follow their criteria. One study found that more than 50% of environmental advertising is deceptive or misleading. In order to sell less desirable species, they could be relabeled to be an entirely new species to increase profit. The Rock crab, once discarded, is now being sold under the label “peekytoe crab”. Changing labels only serves to deceive the consumer and hinder seafood advocacy groups.
After distributing over one million advocacy cards, the Monterey Bay Aquarium conducted a study that showed that there was no significant decrease in the market and fishing pressures for targeted species.Does this mean advocacy is failing to make change? The same study found that there was genuine desire for change among consumers. The main concerns with fisheries were not necessarily the species they catch, but the fish caught by accident and discarded as waste and the destruction of the environment. Campaigns that focus solely on the species being fished have too narrow of a view and aren’t as productive.
The Marine Stewardship Council has made great strides, having 40 certified fisheries and labeled over 300 seafood products. Even the behemoth of Wal-Mart has even agreed to source all of its wild-caught fish from their certified fisheries. With the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations standardized guidelines is now establishing a uniform standard for ecologically considerate fishing practices. Social campaigns are also having success, shown by the fact tilapia (one of the most eco-friendly fish) has moved from the 9th most consumed fish in 2003 to the 6th in 2004. Nonprofit organizations are discovering and acting to close loopholes in the environmental legislature. Consumer awareness campaigns are succeeding and consumers are becoming more aware of the impact of the seafood they purchase. While progress may be slow, maybe a change in direction should be considered. For now, people are beginning to care and trying to make a difference.