Seafood accounts for 17 percent of the global population’s intake of animal protein, provides essential nutrients, vitamins and fatty acids central to a healthy diet, and has grown from 10kg per capita in 1960 to more than 19kg per capita in 2012.

Capture fisheries and aquaculture supplied the world with approximately 158 million tons of fish in 2012. While wild capture fisheries plateaued at around 90 million tons per year, aquaculture production has grown significantly.

Fish are one of the most traded food commodities, and in 2012, trade in wild caught fish was valued at nearly US$130 billion. Fish are not only an essential protein source for developing nations but, at 54% of global exports by value, they are an important source of income for developing economies. The value of aquaculture products, at US$144 billion overtook wild capture fisheries in 2012, and are predicted to grow to US$195 billion by 2019.

Sustainability Challenges

Of the commercially important marine fish stocks monitored by the FAO, 10% are considered under-fished, 61% are considered fully fished, and 29% are over-fished. A number of scientific reports have indicated that the decline in wild capture fisheries is set to continue. The most alarming of these predicted the collapse of commercial important fisheries by 2048.

With rapid growth there are major sustainability concerns with aquaculture as its footprint is set to more than double by 2030. Concerns include environmental destruction, disease, and social and economic sustainability. An FAO survey revealed that 55% of nations felt essential management measures are in place and are adequately or well implemented. The remaining 45% either did not have management measures in place or they were not well implemented. The majority of nations didn’t have or had poorly implemented supporting mechanisms and enhancing measures.

Price pressure from the market can also lead to unsustainable practices. In aquaculture high stocking densities can result in disease that can be acute and result in the collapse of industries, or chronic resulting in continued mortality rates of up to 30-40% in some industries. To combat this farms sometimes use a cocktail of antibiotics. Reports claim that feeds used in aquaculture and other agriculture industries account for 70% of the world’s total antibiotic use. Publications linking aquaculture to increased antibiotic resistance have increased 8-fold between 1991 and 2013.

Legal Challenges

Seafood can be caught by “flag of convenience” vessels whereby the owners register the vessel in a separate jurisdiction to avoid regulations. It can then be transferred at sea and be bought and sold multiple times by multiple collectors and middlemen from the time of landing to the point of consumption. Illegal, Unreported or Unregulated fishing operations (IUU), also know as pirate fishing is estimated to be between 11 and 26 million tons of seafood, which is 12~28% of the global catch (Agnew, 2009). This could mean that up to 1,800 pounds of seafood is stolen from the seas every second of every day. The reported rates of IUU fishing varies between regions and fisheries, but can be as high as 40% for some fisheries. The monetary value of IUU fishing is estimated to be between US$10 and US$23 billion a year. The 2009 endorsed Port States Measures Agreement of the FAO, designed to stop pirate fishing vessels from visiting ports of member nations, has yet to be ratified by 25 countries – the number needed to bring the agreement into effect.

The International Labour Organization estimates 21 million people are held as slaves or as bonded labour that can be bought and sold for as little as US$400. Most are in Asia Pacific and a significant number are in fisheries or aquaculture. Victims, who can spend months or years on board vessels, describe long hours of work, very low pay, dangerous working conditions, illness, injury, psychological and sexual abuse, and deaths at sea. In addition to forced and bonded labour of adults, it is recognised that approximately 60% of all children engaged in labour are active in the agriculture sector including fisheries and aquaculture where they are engaged in catching, reparing nets, or processing fish – often in ways hazardous to their health (FAO-ILO, 2013).

Safety Challenges

Seafood supply chains are often convoluted, opaque and fragmented making traceability difficult. In addition governments have limited resources and are struggling to monitor and ensure compliance at their borders. In U.S. the Food & Drug Administration inspects less than 1% of seafood shipments, and 0.1% are actually tested. Of those tested up to 51% are rejected as many shipments are either spoiled, found to contain banned drugs, or contain physical abnormalities such as dirt, insect fragments or rodent hair.  

Food safety recalls have been on the rise, often attributable to a lack of monitoring and exacerbated by increasingly convoluted and opaque supply chains (ref). Common seafood safety concerns include shellfish poisoning and scombroid poisoning. Shellfish contaminated with dinoflagellate algae, diatoms or cyanobacteria that produce harmful toxins, some a 1,000 times more potent than cyanide, and can be fatal in as little as 2 hours (ADPH, 2012). Scombroid poisoning can occur when fish (most notably tuna of the Scombridae family) are not promptly and continuously refrigerated and bacteria metabolize naturally occurring histamine into scombrotoxin. Illness typically begins minutes to hours after ingestion causing nausea, vomiting and in rare cases, death (DHS, 2005; SMH, 2014).

One critical factor adversely affecting the safety of seafood is that chilled (fresh) seafood that is trucked and/or air-freighted is often left in ambient conditions during shipment and can spend many hours under direct sunlight. As shown in the diagram on the right, the average temperatures inside styrofoam boxes carrying chilled tuna was over the maximum allowable temperature of 4 degrees Celcius (Tuna) and was left in temperatures over 25 degrees Ceilcius for almost six hours (Ambient), and therefore at significant risk of causing scombroid poisoning.


Losses from absent or inadequate cold chain management, along with discards at sea and waste, can add up to 60% of seafood caught, handled, processed, transported, and consumed. In developing nations losses occur mostly due to deterioration during fresh fish and seafood distribution due to the absence of a cold chain, whereas in developed nations rates as high as 30% of purchased fish and seafood is wasted by consumer households.


A number of investigations in the US and EU using DNA checks of seafood sold at supermarkets and restaurants have revealed chronic mislabeling, either unintentional, or intentional in the case of fraud. Escolar or Patagonian Toothfish, for example, are fraudulently sold as Black Cod. Patagonian Toothfish can come from illegal, unreported or unregulated sources, and Escolar carries a toxin that causes keriorrhea, a condition that causes cramps, nausea, vomiting, headaches, and excretions of yellow-orange drops of oil 30 minutes to 36 hours after consumption (EFSA, 2004).


The ability to follow a product from production through to the point of retail –  traceability - is a crucial and fundamental component of sustainable supply chains and the chain of custody certification (UNEP, 2009). However as international trade in seafood continues to grow, the increasing globalization of the supply chain, coupled with the high cost of processing in developed nations, has resulted in the outsourcing of processing to Asia (e.g. China, Vietnam and Thailand) (Paquotte & Lem, 2008). Thus product caught in one country can be exported to another for processing before it is re-imported in a processed form to the country of origin making traceability more complicated and/or more costly. As a result supply chains are more fragmented and countries like the United States imports up to 90% of the seafood it consumes – increasingly from China and the ASEAN group of nations.

Non-profit organizations, such as the Marine and Aquaculture Stewardship Councils (MSC/ASC), provide fishers and farmers with a sustainability certification and the right to use their ecolabel should they pass the independent assessments of conformity assessment bodies. The high cost of getting certified and difficulty in meeting the criteria, especially fishers and farmers in the developing world, is further complicated by fragmented supply chains as the ecolabel cannot be used if any intermediary does not have a Chain of Custody certification or if retailers are not registered and paying royalties. 

Fragmented supply chains limit the flow of information and subsequently 3rd party service providers and buyers often have to grapple with not knowing what they will have to trade, when they are going to get it, the quality of the product, how much they will have of it, and from whom. Each link in the chain is therefore reactive rather than pro-active, and with a perishable like seafood, quality and shelf life is further reduced and wastage increased as cost is added as product passes through every additional link in the supply chain.


Inequity in the distribution of wealth generated by the sale of seafood is also a concern. Small scale fishers and farmers in the developing world can receive less than 5% of the net profit share from the sale in developed markets of the seafood they catch or farm. In the Mekong Delta pangasius farmers with a pond area of less than 0.5ha make up 89% of all farms yet receive only 11% of the income and 4.8% of the profit from the export value chains (Loc et. al. (2010).


Unlike many items that are transacted upon, seafood does not have standards for quality and performance that are defined and easily enumerated. Contrastingly, standards have defined screw types, qualities and measurable conformance parameters since 1841. Even the same seafood species may have different common names and its quality may vary between individuals, by season, by the type of feed it has eaten, the harvest method, and post-harvest handling conditions. Quality grading, if done at all, is mostly subjective and can be time consuming, invasive, destructive, unrepresentative. Further, as it is perishable, the quality of seafood is not static. 

The Main Points

Governments have failed to manage, regulate, monitor or enforce compliance.  The global seafood market has grown bigger and faster than governments have been able to come together to collaborate on regulation, management, monitoring and enforcing compliance. Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated (IUU) fishing accounts for up to 28% of global catch. 

Our fisheries are at breaking point

The global seafood industry, armed with advanced technology such as sonar and fishing vessels with helicopter pads are pushing many seafood stocks to the brink of collapse. Indeed one third are considered unsustainably fished. Yet up to 60% of seafood is discarded, lost or waste through supply chains.

A perfect storm is brewing

The importance of seafood as a source of protein and income has double in the last 50 years. One in ten people on the planet rely on seafood for their livelihoods. Geopolitical tensions, food security concerns, human trafficking, and the potential impact of climate change are creating a powder keg environment.

Some Main Causes...

Data Paucity

Governments and industry both lack data. Governments often do not know who is fishing where, how often and for how long, what they are catching, its biology, any environmental impacts, the supply chains the species are distributed through, and on to which markets. The seafood industry similarly does not know how much product is being landed, how much product is in stock, and how much product the market is demanding. As a result governments struggle to form fishery management plans and the seafood industry struggles to manage their businesses profitablity, sustainably and legally. 

Opaque Supply Chains

Seafood supply chains are possibly the most fragmented, opaque, adversarial, and unaligned of all food supply chains. With what little data there is within a supply chain it is closely guarded by middlemen for the fear of being cut out of a transaction. Therefore many deliberately obfuscate and act as barriers to traceability. With limited to no visibility, 3rd party supply chain service providers are reactive to the requests of intermediaries and unable to optimize supply chain performance thus increasing costs, wastes and food safety risks and reducing product qualities and shelf life. 

Financial Supply Chain

Fishers often rely on the product's first receiver for funds to buy fuel, ice, boxes etc. to go fishing. In turn the first receiver may have to sell to another intermediary who pays up front as he cannot afford to meet the credit terms of the penultimate buyer. Thus cash flow issues, credit worthiness (or the lack thereof) and other financial supply chain issues only reinforce the physical supply chains grip.