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Local, fair trade, and organic have become battle cries for a global sustainable-food movement. The fishing industry, too, has responded to this surge of interest in how the food we eat affects the Earth and its waterways by eco-labeling products; passing stricter laws against illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing; and even applying blockchain technology—the approach behind bitcoin—to trace fish supply chains. But these fish-friendly initiatives are running into a wall: consumer apathy.
According to a new study by researchers at Vancouver Island University* and North Carolina’s Duke University, when people choose to buy fish, the factor that they care least about is its perceived sustainability. This is a troubling finding given that the modern fishing industry—and the future of wild-caught fish—is at risk, with a 2012 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations report estimating that up to 85 percent of the world’s wild fish are either overharvested or already depleted.
Yet for grocery shoppers in British Columbia, the most important factors influencing purchasing decisions are the sensory attributes of the fish—its taste, smell, and texture—as well as price. Following, in order of importance, are whether the fish is farmed or wild; if it’s local or non-local; various perceptions about health benefits and risks (including fears of contaminants and food poisoning); and then, at the very bottom of the list, perceived sustainability.
The researchers took demographics into account; consumers’ answers varied depending on their previous knowledge and experience with seafood, as well as their age, gender, culture, and income.
Whether or not consumers care about the sustainability of their fish matters. Without pressure stemming from consumers’ demands, the motivation for the industry to change is limited.
One sticking point for the study, however, is that terms like “sustainability,” “local,” and “farmed” were undefined and hence open to interpretation. And, the scientists say, issues of farmed versus wild or local versus imported—which ranked higher on the list of importance—are linked in many people’s minds to sustainability.
Timothy Fitzgerald, the director of impact at the Environmental Defense Fund’s Fishery Solutions Center, an advocacy organization, says that definitions are inconsistent throughout the fishing industry—in his opinion, this is one of the biggest challenges to creating a sustainable fishing industry.
“The majority of consumers don’t really know what sustainability is,” he says. “It comes across as overly complicated.”
Grant Murray, one of the authors of the study, acknowledges that competing messages may confuse consumers. For example, the study notes that aquaculture—or fish farming—is one way to meet the world’s growing appetite for protein, remove pressure on over fished wild stocks, and provide employment in coastal communities. Yet aquaculture can damage the ecosystem and pose a risk to human health via contaminants in fish feed. Aquaculture also creates issues around the rights of fishers and farm owners.
Additionally, different advocacy groups emphasize different issues, resulting in conflicting answers to the question, “Is farm-raised fish sustainable?”
Tim O’Shea, the founder of CleanFish, an international network of responsible fishery brands, says the fishing industry benefits from this confusion. “[The] seafood industry has been rewarded by … letting the consumer know as little as possible about what they’re eating.”
Perhaps this complexity around what is sustainable turns off potential fish consumers in British Columbia. Or maybe they just don’t care. But for those who do care about the sustainability of the fish they consume, the survey results suggest a change in tack may be in order.
As the researchers noted, sustainable-fish advocates might consider shifting from sustainability-focused messaging to campaigns that highlight other factors driving consumption, such as taste, price, and health. It may be time for a new fish-friendly battle cry.
*Correction: The researchers are at Vancouver Island University, not the University of British Columbia.