Responsible sourcing of seafood

The UK seafood industry plays a leading role in raising procurement standards, as Andy Gray at Seafish, reports

What is it?

There is no single or simple definition for the concepts of ‘responsible’ and ‘sustainable’ sourcing. However, the United Nations have previously defined ‘sustainable development’ as ‘development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

A sustainable fishery is unequivocally one in which fish stocks are being harvested by fishermen in such a way that ecosystem health and the marine environment is sustained at the same time – and target fish populations are judged to be at healthy levels (this can be the case even if they are ‘recovering’ from having been depleted in the past). Importantly however, ‘responsible fishing’ does not necessarily confirm sustainability. Sustainability is the goal, while responsible fishing comprises the behaviours and practices which can help achieve it.

There is no single simple definition for ‘responsible sourcing’ and since in seafood there are many types of fisheries, fish farms and fish species, the range of factors influencing what is ‘responsible’ practice can vary greatly. However, the term does usually imply that, at the very least, the fish is being sourced in a way which complies with minimum management or legal requirements. Although definitions continue to evolve, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries is widely used as the global ‘handbook’ to define ‘responsible’ behaviours in wild fisheries.

Why is it important?

Because fish stocks and the environment are under pressure, we need to apply best practice to conserve and rebuild stocks for the future. Whilst some of Europe’s previous stock management regimes have not worked well, science and understanding are improving and in general everyone in the supply chain is starting to work together to bring about change and improvement. This requires input from everyone in the seafood supply chain – from fishermen adapting their techniques, to retailers and chefs marketing a broader range of seafood to help get consumers to expand their acceptance of less well known species of fish and shellfish.

How can it be achieved?

The key to buying responsibly is to look for transparency and traceability so that you can be confident of the provenance, both of the produce itself and the supply chain that has brought it to market. Consider all the options – direct sale or wholesaler, foodservice supplier, merchant or processor? Once you are sure you properly understand and have evidence of the respective seafood’s provenance you can decide which factors matter to you and your business and make informed and ‘responsible’ choices accordingly.

The UK seafood industry

In general, standards in UK seafood are already high. Our fisheries management regimes are strong and many inshore areas are already managed for environmental protection. There are also high levels of compliance and engagement in responsible fisheries management by fishermen. However, approximately 80% of the seafood consumed in the UK is imported and most major seafood companies have developed efficient processes to identify and audit what is ‘responsible’. Overall, the UK already consumes the highest proportion of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified product of any country in the world.

What values should I choose?

Beware of making claims that can’t be substantiated whenever promoting seafood to your customers. Decide what is important to you and your business but be realistic – for instance, fish and shellfish from ‘local’ small-scale, inshore coastal fisheries often isn’t available during periods of bad weather – meaning you may have to obtain from other sources if your usual local supplies are not available. Do not automatically exclude particular fishing methods – firstly talk to your suppliers and if possible, fishermen. Think ‘product quality’ but expand the concept to cover all environmental aspects regarding sourcing, including for example fishermen’s endeavours in reducing fuel use and discards. Also look for certifications that assure quality and best practice – such as the Responsible Fishing Scheme for fishing vessels or the Marine Stewardship Council sustainability standard. Think about working with such third-party organisations, or at least investigate their core values. And finally, whatever you do when purchasing fish and shellfish, also make sure that your customer-facing staff fully understand the provenance of your seafood – so that they can enthusiastically explain it to your customers and guide them to make good menu choices.

Where can I find reliable information? 

Whilst the internet can be a fantastic resource, take care that the information you use has been properly checked for accuracy – peer reviewed – rather than built on assertions that have no evidence base. Fishermen and local inshore management bodies such as the various Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities can help you understand seasonality, fluctuations in availability and what is good value
and plentiful. In addition, Seafish has a wide range
of resources, information and publications to
help guide your choices, visit:

How can I buy with confidence?

The seafood industry in the UK plays a leading role in raising procurement standards, but to ensure that you get the reassurances you need when sourcing and buying seafood, don’t be afraid to ask questions, look for evidence, get to know suppliers and don’t accept bad attitudes! Train your own staff to your standards; personalise your supply chain and use pictures and publicity material to highlight your position and policies. For absolute confidence endeavour to buy against formal certification schemes such as the Marine Stewardship Council

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