Jun 19th, 2018

Plenty of Fish in the Sea: Corporate Responsibility for Ocean Stewardship

Caption: Underwater photograph of fish swimming taken off the Carribean Island of Bonaire. Photo Credit: AP Images

By Dr. Darian McBain

This article first was published in Harvard International Review, Spring 2018| Vol XXXIX| No. 2 and republished with permission.

In the autumn of 2016, an initiative came together on a stunningly beauti­ful island in the Maldives. Surrounded by ocean, the Stockholm Resilience Cen­tre (SRC) finally succeeded in bringing together eight of the largest businesses in the seafood industry to talk about ocean sustainability. The local dolphins and manta rays reminded the participants of the humility and importance of ocean protection. There was a newly bleached coral reef to remind them of the pres­sures placed by climate change on the ocean. There was the vital tuna indus­try, providing livelihoods to those living in the Maldives as well as nourishment to people living throughout the world. Corporate responsibility, a company’s response to managing and improving the social and environmental impacts of its business beyond minimum regulatory requirements, has been around for long enough to suppose that everything has been covered. But perhaps our largest imperative remains: collaboration for the future of our oceans, and engaging business to be the leading stewards for change.

According to a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organiza­tion, global per capita fish consumption rose in 2016 to above 20 kilograms a year for the first time. And between 1992 and 2002, global consumption of sea­food increased by 21 percent. Seafood, particularly nutritious and sustainably sourced seafood, is on many food trend watch lists for 2018. However, despite the increase in demand, levels of fish catches in the wild have remained stable since the mid-1990s, close to 90 million tons annually.

The challenge is clear: how can in­dustry, governments, NGOs, and other stakeholders come together to meet the protein needs of the global population in a way that it is sustainable and protects our oceans for future generations?

From Sweden to the Maldives

The SRC has achieved a remarkable accomplishment, moving from aca­demic speculation to corporate engage­ment. Based on the ecological concept of keystone species (those which play a crucial role in maintaining the structure and function of the ecosystem in which they exist), the researchers from the SRC looked at the key corporate entities that have a significant influence on the sus­tainability of the oceans through their activities, policy influence, and supply chains. Their research covered com­panies that produce seafood from the ocean (referred to as wild caught or wild capture seafood) as well as those that use ocean inputs to feed aquaculture. It was one of the first times that the impact of feed was also considered as a key input for seafood, as wild caught fish are still a significant ingredient in producing feed for aquaculture and farmed species, such as salmon or shrimp.

The 2015 paper, published by the SRC’s Österblom and his colleagues, set up the concept of keystone actors in the marine environment. They found that 13 seafood-producing companies ac­counted for around 15% of global wild catches, but for some key commercially saleable species they controlled up to 40% of wild caught stocks. Rather than leaving it as an excellent theory, the SRC decided to take it further. These corpo­rations were not theoretical; they were real. And so, they set about bringing the CEOs of these organizations together. And in 2016 they succeeded. 

Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship

In the Maldives in October 2016, with the meeting space and costs generously donated by the Soneva island group un­der their corporate responsibility pro­gram, eight of the companies met. They represented corporations headquartered in Norway, the Netherlands, the US, and Asia (Thailand, South Korea, and Ja­pan). The species they traded in varied from salmon to tuna to aquafeed. Bring­ing them all together, along with the SRC and advisors, was Her Royal Highness the Crown Princess of Sweden. Crown Princess Victoria, a passionate defender of the oceans, is also one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) ambassadors. SDG 14, Life Be­low Water, represents the United Na­tions’ focus on protecting and conserving the oceans for all: for the environment, for people, and for the economy. With this, you had together three pillars for an important collaboration—business, science, and diplomacy.

The setting was relaxed, and with a no shoes/no news policy, the meetings on the island progressed from the bare­foot to the practical. Never let it be said that the environment cannot shape an outcome: without these executives in casual clothes and away from the usual stresses of the boardroom, surrounded by the beauty of the ocean and the abili­ty to interact with it on a personal rather than commercial or theoretical level, the outcomes may not have been the same. The imperatives would not have been as evident. At the end of the meeting, eight global companies had agreed to sign up to the Seafood Business for Ocean Stew­ardship (SeaBOS) Initiative. The com­panies represented by the signatories are important to note, for both their willing­ness to participate and their willingness to show leadership in an industry where leadership for sustainability had perhaps been lacking—Maruha Nichiro Corpo­ration, Thai Union, Dongwon Indus­tries, Cargill Aqua Nutrition, Nippon Suisan Kaisha, Marine Harvest ASA, Nutreco, and Cermaq.

The SeaBOS Initiative has ten key commitments, covering transparency and traceability: reducing Illegal, Un­regulated and Unreported (IUU) fish­ing; engaging in science-based efforts to improve fishery and aquaculture man­agement; applying concerted efforts to eradicate modern slavery from seafood supply chains; reducing the use of anti­biotics in aquaculture; efforts to reduce ocean plastics; reducing greenhouse gas emissions from operations; supporting the growth of sustainable aquaculture; sharing technologies and collaborating for sustainable fisheries and aquaculture; and finally to support novel initiatives for innovation for ocean stewardship. The SeaBOS group has since met again in Sweden in 2017, gained two more mem­bers, and has presented the initiative at the 2017 UN Ocean Conference in New York. A summary of the initiative to date can be found in the PNAS article on ocean stewardship by Österblom et al in 2017. No one can disagree with ocean stewardship, but are businesses—and not just the seafood businesses involved, but also the retailers and restaurants at one end and the fishers and farms at the oth­er end—ready to collaborate to achieve a common good?

A fishing boat making its way back to the port off Patong Beach, Thailand. Photo Credit: AP Images

A fishing boat making its way back to the port off Patong Beach, Thailand. Photo Credit: AP Images

Ocean Decline: A Tragedy of the Commons

The decline in health of the world’s oceans is an example of the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the com­mons was first conceptualized by Wil­liam Forster Lloyd in economic terms, describing the exploitation by individ­uals of a shared resource for their own benefit rather than the common good by looking at stock grazing on shared or common land in England (known as the commons). The concept was later popu­larized in environmental terms by Gar­rett Hardin in 1968 in Science, in which the commons referred to shared and un­regulated resources like the atmosphere, oceans, or fish stocks.

Oceans help regulate the Earth’s temperature and humidity and act as a massive carbon sink. They provide food for billions, and livelihoods for millions of people around the world. Research from oceans benefits our life with data collected from the depths of the Mari­ana Trench (deeper than Mount Everest is high) to the sparkling surfaces, and its species give us thoughts on our own hu­manity (think of whales and dolphins). The oceans provide us with sport, recre­ation and contemplation. And yet most are not governed. Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), the areas of coast ocean surrounding land, extend 200 nauti­cal miles (or 370.4 kilometers) from the coast, and allow the sovereign state to have rights regarding use of marine re­sources or exploration as defined under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Then there are territori­al seas, where the EEZ grants full sover­eignty over the waters. However, surface waters, beyond territorial waters extend­ing a mere 12 nautical miles from the coast, are international waters. With re­spect to seafood traded in international markets, a large proportion comes from international waters. And although there are some governing bodies for interna­tional waters and oceans, such as Re­gional Fisheries Management Organiza­tions, there is relatively light regulation of the oceans when it comes to fishing.

Peak Seafood

The Food and Agriculture Organiza­tion (FAO) periodically publish a report on the State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture, providing fascinating in­sight into the importance of oceans and fisheries to world. In the 2016 report, they estimated that the peak of wild capture fish from the ocean was reached in 2014 (peak seafood), with aquacul­ture now providing over half of fish for human consumption. In 2014, global human consumption of fish was 146.3 million tonnes, and an additional 20.9 million tonnes for non-food uses includ­ing 78 percent for fishmeal and fish oil. The statistics have changed little since then, indicating that as the global popu­lation grows, humans will be reliant on a mix of wild capture fish and aquaculture to meet the growing protein demands.

Millions of people rely on fishing and aquaculture for their livelihoods as well. It is estimated that over 56.6 million peo­ple globally are engaged in the primary production of fish (either wild caught or aquaculture), and many of those are ar­tisanal or small-scale fishers operating in coastal and inland waters. The workers are based primarily in Asia (84%), Africa (10%), and Latin America and the Ca­ribbean (4%). Fish provides more than 3.1 billion people globally with almost 20% of their average per capita ani­mal protein intake, so the oceans, from a production perspective, are clearly an important asset to manage wisely and sustainably. These statistics are based on a global population of 7.3 billion people. As we move towards a global popula­tion above 9 billion people in 2050, the imperative for available and sustainable protein will become even greater, and thus the importance of collaboration for sustainable ocean outcomes.

The Imperative for Collaboration

Unlike some of the land-based pro­tein industries, the seafood industry had not previously had many sustainability initiatives taking a landscape (or in this case seascape) based approach. Two of the most well-loved and consumed fish brought together two of the most sig­nificant industry initiatives – the Glob­al Salmon Initiative (GSI) focusing on farmed salmon and the Internation­al Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) focusing on tuna stock sustain­ability. These initiatives are collabora­tions between business and NGOs (and science, in the case of ISSF) to support the development of these industries to be future ready. The FAO Code of Con­duct for Responsible Fisheries provides guidance applicable across fisheries for their sustainable management, and has informed certification schemes such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The MSC, along with other seafood cer­tification and ecolabel schemes such as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and the Global Aquaculture Alli­ance’s Best Aquaculture Practice (BAP), form a basis for a market based approach to approximating seafood sustainability. More recently, the Global Seafood Sus­tainability Initiative (GSSI) has brought a rigor to seafood certification through benchmarking the different schemes available around the world.

A different approach to ocean man­agement for fisheries is shown by the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) fisheries. The PNA member states are the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiriba­ti, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Pap­ua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu, meaning that the PNA provides conservation measures for over 25% of the world’s tuna supply. Through collab­oration, they have implemented many conservation measures throughout the oceans covered by the countries and place an emphasis on the processing of tuna within the PNA region to support livelihoods. Interestingly, many of these countries are also likely to be highly im­pacted by climate change.

Case Study: Thai Union Changing Seafood for Good

Corporations are taking responsibility for ocean health, from seafood manufac­turers to shipping companies to plastic manufacturers. As the largest seafood producer in the world, Thai Union was honored to participate in the SeaBOS initiative. Thai Union owns brands around the world such as Chicken of the Sea, John West, Petit Navire, and King Oscar. It co-manufactures seafood prod­ucts from tuna to sardines to shrimp for many other companies under their own labels, and is a significant producer of pet food. Thai Union is the fish in the tuna sandwich so to speak—it neither owns the boats that fish nor the retailers that sell. But its responsibility for sus­tainable business practices is clear. Rec­ognizing the need to face its critics, for issues ranging from catch methods and fish stock sustainability to human rights, in 2016 Thai Union launched its sus­tainability strategy: SeaChange. Recog­nizing that seafood sustainability is com­plex, SeaChange has four pillars—Safe and Legal Labor, Responsible Sourcing, Responsible Operations, and People & Communities. Through aligning their sustainability strategy with three key UN Sustainable Development Goals—Zero Hunger, Decent Work and Economic Growth, and Life Below Water—a ro­bust and now well recognized program was born.

With a corporate mission to be leading agents of change in the seafood industry and a strong sense of commit­ment to corporate responsibility from the top, the SeaChange strategy has be­gun make genuine change on the ground (and water). With initiatives ranging from eliminating recruitment fees for migrant workers in Thailand, to digital traceability and worker voice at sea on vessels, to fishery improvement projects to promote sustainable tuna fish stock management, others are starting to no­tice. After years of campaigning against Thai Union and its brands, in July 2017 Greenpeace and Thai Union signed an agreement for sustainable, socially re­sponsible seafood. The agreement was unusual in that it was global, and recog­nized Thai Union’s efforts to date as well as potential to bring about change in the seafood industry. The agreement builds upon SeaChange, including efforts to support best practice fisheries, improve other fisheries, reduce illegal and unethi­cal practices in global supply chains, and bring more responsibly-caught tuna to key markets.

“This marks huge progress for our oceans and marine life, and for the rights of people working in the seafood indus­try,” said Greenpeace International Ex­ecutive Director Bunny McDiarmid. “If Thai Union implements these reforms, it will pressure other industry players to show the same level of ambition and drive much needed change. Now is the time for other companies to step up, and show similar leadership.”

As highlighted by Greenpeace, ocean sustainability must be about more than the fish: it must be about people too.

Throwing a Lifeline

The seafood industry has been identi­fied as one of those industries where hu­man rights violations have been able to emerge out of sight of consumer or reg­ulator eyes. Not only have Greenpeace and other NGOs advocated on the issue of human rights at sea, but media expo­sures by The Guardian, the New York Times, the Associated Press and others have also drawn attention to the issues. Forced labor, human trafficking, extreme working conditions, underage labor, and document retention have all been identi­fied as contributing to the mix of illegal and unsafe labor at sea, as well as the lack of strong regulation or enforcement of codes. Again, corporate responsi­bility seems to be the way towards a solution. Several Codes of Conduct for Vessels have been developed, including those developed by the UK Responsible Fishing Scheme, the Organization of Producers for Spain (OPAGAC), compa­nies such as Thai Union, and the Sea­food Task Force. The Codes take some of the lessons learned from social com­pliance in production and processing on land, and apply to them to the challeng­es of working at sea. The International Labor Organization (ILO) C188 Work in Fishing Convention entered into force on 16 November 2017, bringing with it standards to help ensure decent work for the 38 million people estimated to be working in often hazardous conditions in wild capture fisheries.

However, these issues are not just con­tained to the seafood industry, and regu­lations around the world are impacting the management of human rights at sea and in the seafood industry. As men­tioned previously in the Thai Union case study, there is a groundswell of support to eliminate the recruitment fees that exist in industries around the world, as well as helping people to migrate safely and legally. The Bali Process, set up in 2002 to address people smuggling, hu­man trafficking, and related transnation­al crime, has more than 48 members and brings together governments and inter­national agencies to address these issues primarily in the most affected countries throughout Asia and including the US and Australia. In 2017 businesses were asked to join in this process for the first time. Companies such as Walmart, Adi­das, Thai Union, Fortescue Metals, and JD.com joined forces to discuss how to stop modern slavery and how business and government could work together. This focus will most definitely impact the seafood industry, given that 80 per­cent of the world’s seafood workers are from Asia. Other regulations, such as the US Trade Facilitation and Enforce­ment Act of 2016 and the UK Modern Slavery Act of 2015, are also starting to impact how businesses operate and their transparency on management of human rights within their own operations and supply chains.


The oceans are a precious resource and need to be managed wisely. Sustain­able management of fisheries is an inte­gral part of managing oceans. Fishing is a practice almost as old as mankind itself, and at a commercial scale began when there were literally plenty of fish in the sea. But times are changing. Fish stocks around the world are under threat. An­thropocentric pressures, such as climate change and pollutants, have for many years been known. New and emerging is­sues, such as ocean plastics and the even more troublesome issue of microplastics, are starting to impact ocean health. To save the seas, ocean corporate responsi­bility needs three Cs: Commitment (to action for common good), Clarity (in de­sired outcomes) and Collaboration (with science, with regulators, and with civil society). Ocean sustainability is no lon­ger a fringe issue of environmental cam­paigns. Scientists have been publishing research on the decline of ocean health for years. The Economist will run its 5th World Ocean Summit in 2018, bringing with it discussions on how the capital and private sector can invest in ocean sustainability. By contrast, the UN ran its first Ocean Summit in New York in 2017. The private sector has recognized the risks and opportunities perhaps far ahead of governments. SeaBOS is now well underway in directly influencing the strategic direction and operational ac­tivities of participating companies, and represents a novel and exciting opportu­nity for change. With business working together with science, governance, and regulation, we perhaps have some hope for a sustainable ocean future.

Dr. Darian McBain is the Global Director of Sustainable Development at Thai Union, the largest seafood producer in the world. Her previous work includes serving as the Sustainable Procurement Lead for the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, advising the United Nations, working in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund, and heading her own strategy and sustainability consultancy. She holds a PhD on social indicators for global supply chain analysis from the University of Sydney, where she serves as an Adjunct Senior Lecturer of Integrated Sustainability Analysis.