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Sustainable certifications in global seafood trade


is one of the most important important commodities in terms of value traded globally. In 2014, the value of the economy was estimated at US$140 billion (Rabobank, 2015), with both the primary and secondary sectors supporting an estimated 10 to 12 per cent of the world’s population (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [FAO], (2014b).

Sustainable certifications in global seafood trade
Sustainable certifications in global seafood trade

The two main systems of production for seafood products are wild fish harvesting and aquaculture. Strategic development of the seafood economy, therefore, represents a major opportunity for securing more sustainable livelihoods.

Fisheries trade is a major economic driver in many developing nations, accounting, in some instances, for more than half of the total value of traded commodities (FAO, 2014). The global fisheries market is also volatile and therefore difficult to predict. Demand and supply factors, along with cost of production and transportation, as well as the value and supply of substitutes like meat and feed all influence fish prices and overall trade values. Fish prices have increased over the past decade (FAO,1998). The aggregate FAO Fish Price Index reached a record high in October 2013 (FAO, 2014).

Aquaculture is contributing to a growing share of international trade in fishery commodities for high-value species such as salmon, sea bass, sea bream, shrimp and prawns, bivalves and other molluscs, as well as low-value species such as tilapia, catfish (including pangasius) and carp (FAO, 2014). Developing countries typically have a fi sh trade surplus. Approximately 30 per cent of their total fish production is exported to the United States, Japan and the European Union (FAO, 2014) and is mostly made up of high-value species like shrimp and prawns, lobster, and tuna (Pérez-Ramírez, Phillips, Lluch-Belda, & Lluch-Cota, 2012).

1Most traded fish commodities of the world

Shrimp is one of the largest seafood commodities in value terms, representing approximately US$19 billion or 15 per cent of the total value of internationally traded fishery products in 2012. Primarily produced in developing regions, most shrimp is destined for international markets (FAO, 2014).

Salmon production, which has been growing over the past decade due to the expansion of aquaculture production in northern Europe and North and South America, accounted for US$18 billion, a 14 per cent share of total global trade in 2012 (FAO, 2014; Terazono, 2016), and recently surpassed shrimp in value terms. Norway is the predominant producer and exporter of Atlantic salmon, followed by Chile (FAO, 2014).

Groundfish species such as cod, hake, pollock, tilapia and pangasius accounted for US$13 billion or 10 per cent of the total value of internationally traded fishery products in 2012. Cod remains the most expensive groundfish species. Pangasius, an important source of low-priced traded fish, is relatively new on the international market and is produced mainly in Vietnam for international markets. The main suppliers of tilapia are Asian and Central American countries, and supply is mostly destined for U.S. markets.

Tilapia production is expanding in Asia, South America and Africa (FAO, 2014).

Tuna accounted for US$10 billion or 8 per cent of total fi sh export value in 2012 (FAO, 2014).

Tuna markets have shown volatility over the past three years owing to fluctuations in catch levels, sustainability issues and the introduction of eco-labels. Japan is the predominant importer of sashimi-grade tuna, and canned tuna is destined primarily for American, European and, increasingly, Asian markets.

Fish meal (usually made from small pelagic fish) accounted for US$4 billion or 3 per cent of world fish trade in 2012 (FAO, 2014). Peru is the world’s largest producer of fish meal, having rights to the largest fishery producing the highest-yielding species in the world, the Peruvian anchoveta. Peruvian fish meal export to China is one of the largest trades in seafood and accounts for approximately US$500 billion a year (Rabobank, 2015), serving largely to support the Chinese aquaculture industry.

Per capita fish consumption in developing regions is increasing, although developed regions still have higher levels of consumption. Despite this, however, the share of developing countries’ animal protein intake contributed by fish remains significantly higher than that of their more developed counterparts.

2Eco-labelling in seafood sector

Wild Catch

Eco-labelling in the seafood sector has evolved considerably from its humble roots of single issue tuna labels in the 1970s. With the growth in consumer awareness of sustainability issues, retailers and manufacturers serving developed country markets have increasingly recognized value in affiliation with one or another sustainability standard.

Standard compliant seafood production has grown consistently and dramatically as a percentage of global seafood production over the past decade. By 2015, certified production had reached 23 million metric tons, accounting for 14 per cent of global seafood production, up from 0.5 million metric tons (or 0.5 per cent of global) in 2003.

From 2008 to 2015, certified seafood production grew at an annual rate of 30 per cent, over 10 times faster than total seafood production. Eighty per cent of certified seafood comes from certified wild catch production, reflecting the longer history of certification in wild catch markets but also the primacy of sustainability challenges in wild catch production due to issues related to stock management, which, to date, has been the primary driver behind seafood certification.

Two initiatives, FOS (Friend of the Sea) and the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council), dominate certification for wild catch markets, each accounting for 10 per cent of total wild catch seafood. As a consequence, these two initiatives also lead as a portion of global seafood production (including aquaculture) with FOS accounting for 6.2 per cent and the MSC accounting for 5.7 per cent of total seafood production (although of all the standards covered, only FOS and Naturland operate in both wild catch and aquaculture).

GLOBALG.A.P., the leading aquaculture certification scheme, by contrast, accounted for 3.0 per cent of the global aquaculture market and 1.3 per cent of the global seafood market (2015). As of 2015, certified seafood made up more than 14 per cent of global seafood production. MSC- and FOS certified production accounted for virtually all certified wild catch and for 80 per cent of global certified seafood. Six aquaculture certifications accounted for 20 per cent of certified seafood in 2015.

Historically, wild catch fisheries have provided the vast majority of seafood products available on global markets. At the international level, two certification systems, FOS and the MSC, compete for global market share, with each initiative accounting for roughly 50 per cent of total certified wild catch, respectively, by 2015. These two initiatives alone certified 18.6 million metric tons of wild catch seafood, accounting for 20 per cent of total wild catch production and 80 per cent of the total certified seafood market.

Total certified wild catch production has been growing at an annual rate of 36 per cent (2003–2015), significantly outpacing the relative stagnant growth across global wild catch markets over the same period. Although wild catch fisheries are present in most countries and 57 countries had some level of production certified under a sustainability standard in 2015, 70 per cent of certifi ed wild catch production was sourced from five countries, with Peru and the United States accounting for 50 per cent of total certifi ed wild catch.

China, on the other hand, which accounts for 17 per cent of the global wild catch supply, is notably absent from the list of suppliers of certified wild catch production, with the exception of 60,000 metric tons of MSC certified yesso scallops, certified in 2015.

Majority of MSC-certified production being sourced from developed countries and the majority of FOS-certified production being sourced from developing countries.

Certified wild catch accounted for 20 per cent of global wild catch in 2015, with FOS and MSC certifying nearly equal portions of total certified production.

Certified wild catch is growing substantially faster than conventional wild catch production. FOS has grown five times as fast as MSC over the last seven years. By 2015 the total production volumes of the two initiatives converged at just over 9 million
metric tons, growing at a rate of around 6 per cent per annum (2014–2015).

The largest single source of certified wild catch is anchoveta, primarily destined for fish meal markets. Cod, tuna and salmon are the main certified wild catch species destined for retail markets. Overall certified wild catch production is concentrated in fewer species than global production as a whole, with the top five species groups accounting for 74 per cent of total certified wild catch. In 2015, the MSC certified just over 9 million metric tons.

The MSC has experienced rapid and consistent growth over the past seven years, with an annual average growth rate of 18 per cent and a reported retail value of US$4.5 billion in 2015 (MSC, 2014).

FOS now operates as one of the most diversified seafood labelling initiatives certifying both aquaculture and wild catch fisheries. FOS production has grown at a rate of 91 per cent per annum between 2008 and 2015, reaching 9.3 million metric tons of FOS-certified wild catch seafood in 2015 (5.7 per cent of global; 10.1 per cent of total wild catch) and making it the single largest source of certified wild catch on the global market.

FOS has certified the entire production of Peruvian and Chilean anchovies, which at a combined total of about 6 million metric tons of production per year accounts for about half of the world’s fish meal production (Eurofi sh,2012). As a result, Peruvian fi sh meal exported to China, which at half a million metric tons per year (Rabobank, 2015) represents one of the largest trade flows in the entire seafood industry, is now almost entirely FOS certified.

3Status of sustainable seafood in retailers/ hotel industry space

Global demand for sustainable seafood is driven almost entirely by Japan, North America and Europe. Manufacturers and retailers serving these markets have driven demand through corporate commitments to sustainable sourcing. Five countries account for two-thirds of certified seafood production.

Certified seafood production is highly concentrated among a limited number of countries: Peru (25 per cent), the United States (15 per cent), Norway (11 per cent), Chile (8 percent) and Russia (6 per cent). Although North America and Europe account for 63 per cent of certified seafood destined for retail markets, Latin America represents an important source of certified seafood overall. Asia, which accounts for 69 per cent of global seafood production, only accounts for 11 per cent of certified production.

The fact that the use of certification has reached mainstream status and has seen its most significant growth through the choice-editing practices of large manufacturers and retailers suggests that certification may even be becoming a prerequisite to market entry in some markets.

There are major giant retailers as well as food service/HoReCa segment companies who are following sustainable initiatives of seafood procurement around the globe; few among them are Loblaws from Canada, Aeon from japan, IKEA, Aramark from US, McDonald, Walmart US, Sam’s Club, Asda’s from UK, Waitrose Supermarket UK, Cold Storage, Despar (Spar Italy), Great Food Hall, City Super etc.


With an estimated retail value of US$12.9 billion in 2013, certified seafood products have potentially significant economic and sustainability impacts. The special capabilities of voluntary standards in managing credible traceability and conformity assessment protocols, combined with their ability to promote efficient implementation by leveraging market forces, gives them a special and invaluable role in promoting and verifying policy objectives in a cost-effective manner.