Catch of the day: Sustainability initiatives aim to ensure that fishers will continue to earn a livelihood from the sea. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER
Catch of the day: Sustainability initiatives aim to ensure that fishers will continue to earn a livelihood from the sea. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER

The number of environmentally aware and active citizens is growing the world over. A study by the international consumer goods company Unilever found that a third of consumers prefer sustainable brands.

The study asked 20,000 adults from five countries how their concerns about sustainability affected their purchasing choices, and mapped their claims against their real decisions. The study gives the clearest picture yet of what people are actually buying and why.

More than one in five (21%) of those surveyed said they would actively choose brands if they made their sustainability credentials clearer on their packaging and in their marketing.

The survey found that responsible purchasing is greater among consumers in emerging economies than in developed markets: 53% of shoppers in the UK and 78% in the US say they feel better when they buy products that are produced sustainably, but that number rises to 88% in India and 85% in Brazil.

More than one in five (21%) of those surveyed said they would actively choose brands if they made their sustainability credentials clearer on their packaging and in their marketing.

Improving and demonstrating its sustainability credentials has proved beneficial for the South African Deep-Sea Trawling Industry Association. Its members own and operate the trawlers that deliver fresh hake to fish and chips shops in every corner of SA, process and package fish fingers and other popular hake products for supermarkets, and supply an international market with a range of value-added hake products.

Since 2004, the hake produced by these trawlers has been certified as "sustainable and well-managed" by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the world’s leading certification and eco-labelling programme for sustainable, wild-caught seafood.

The programme creates market incentives that reward sustainable fishing practices: when a consumer chooses to buy MSC-labelled fish, the sustainable fishery is rewarded.

For example, the commitment by McDonald’s to only source fish from certified, sustainable fisheries means 13 million consumers in 39 countries in Europe buy MSC-labelled Filet-O-Fish.

SA’s trawl fishery for hake was certified by the MSC in 2004 and in 2008 the deep-sea trawling industry began to see the benefit of the market incentive. The financial crisis led to a decline in demand for South African hake from traditional markets in southern Europe. But, on the strength of the trawl fishery’s MSC certification, the industry created new markets in Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK.

Certification has enabled the deep-sea trawling industry to work with the government to substantially improve the management of the fishery. Environmental gains include the rebuilding of stocks, a reduction in the number of seabirds harmed or killed by trawl gear, and an improvement in the management of by-catch species (fish caught alongside hake in trawl nets, such as kingklip, monk and snoek).

An initiative to increase the number of certified sustainable fisheries is under way. The department of agriculture, forestry & fisheries is working with industry, nongovernmental organisations and stakeholder groups through the Fish for Good project with funding from the Dutch Postcode Lottery. The idea is to use the MSC standard to measure the performance of nine SA fisheries.

These include the longline fishery for yellowfin tuna, the line fishery for albacore tuna, the purse seine fishery for sardine, the artisanal fishery for east coast rock lobster, the commercial fishery for west coast rock lobster, the culture of black mussels, the harvesting of kelp, the fishery for jig-caught squid and the west coast multispecies line fishery.

While some of the nine fisheries are well managed and likely to measure up to the MSC standard, others, such as the commercial fishery for west coast rock lobster and the multi-species linefishery, are under serious pressure, with stocks at a low. The lobster fishery provides a seasonal income for thousands of west coast fishers; improving the sustainability of the fishery will ensure that they can continue to derive a livelihood from the resource well into the future.

Fish for Good has been under way for a year and a process of pre-assessment of all nine fisheries is being conducted to measure performance against the MSC standard. Gaps that are identified go on to a "to do" list so stakeholders can work towards improved sustainability.

After the conclusion of the pre-assessments, five of the nine fisheries will be selected for fishery improvement projects, with the MSC ecolabel as their potential goal.

Economists estimate that under current market conditions, the loss of MSC certification would lead to a considerable decrease in the contribution of the hake trawl industry to SA’s GDP — of 28%-54%.

They conclude that if the industry is to remain competitive, it must increase exports of MSC-certified hake.

Extending MSC certification to other fisheries will allow SA to reap a host of benefits that will translate into economic and social advantages for fishers. For these reasons, the government and fisheries stakeholders must continue to strive to certify more commercial fisheries.

• Brown is a director of Sea Harvest and writes in his capacity as the chairman of the South African Deep-Sea Trawling Industry Association

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