A Sustainable Seafood Supply Chain Requires Responsible Practices at Every Link

The fishing industry is in deep trouble. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), about 33% of global fish stocks are overfished, and the figure increases by the year.

In Malaysia, seafood plays a remarkable role as a means of employment and income generator, and in consumption. It’s a double-edged sword, though – while seafood supports the lives of many people, overfishing and resource depletion; illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing; concerns about food safety; mislabelling and food fraud; inadequate regulations and oversight across the value chain; and unintended consequences of bycatch, push the industry to the brink.

In the last decade, the government has focused on regulations and working with fishers to smoothen the supply chain – which has great potential to encourage change by supporting more responsible fishing and business practices.

The seafood supply chain varies in relation to species and product type. It begins with a producer (the fisher or culturist) and ends up with the buyer (retail outlets, restaurants and food services establishments), who sells to a consumer. It is in fact a network of retailers, distributors, transporters, storage facilities and suppliers.

The more mid-chain players1 you have in the system, the more complex the seafood supply chain is; and this leads to increased risk of losing data and information, as well as increased possibility of seafood fraud. Sometimes fishers/producers bypass the supply chain and the middleman, and sell their products directly to consumers on the beach or door to door within the community. Every single step in the chain competes with other steps.

Retreating from the Brink

What challenges do supply chains face today? As noted, overfishing is one of them. This can result from poor management and enforcement, compounded by illegal fishing and fraud.

In 2017 Malaysia produced approximately 1.5 million tonnes of caught seafood (from about 177 different species).2 Based on the assessment conducted by WWF in 2013, 52% of the assessed fish species in Malaysia are endangered and fall into the red list.3

Purchasing decisions are mostly driven first by price, and then by decisions regarding quality, with little consideration for sustainability. Malaysians are among the top fish consumers in the world – consuming about 57kg of fish per person each year. Population growth, rising incomes and living standards, and a growing recognition of fish as healthy and nutritious food, mean that demand for seafood products is on the increase. The result? A significant collapse in fish stocks in the country, especially on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia.

Trawl fishing is the greatest contributor to total landings in the west coast. It is also massively destructive.

There is a growing number of certification schemes and initiatives that attempt to protect the future of fish stocks and also the natural environments in which seafood is caught. But this is far from enough to stem the problem.

On the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, overfishing is mostly caused by trawl fishing; the method is the greatest contributor to total landings in the west coast, at 50.8%.4 Trawling is massively destructive – the trawl gears drag the net along the sea-bed, catching juvenile fish and destroying their breeding or spawning grounds. A transition to more disciplined practices is badly required.

Furthermore, environmental degradation, mostly due to seawater pollution, affects the survival of fish fry, and therefore fish stocks and marine resources.5

Aquaculture is potentially the solution – the sector has potential for having more efficient supply chains, as aquaculture producers have greater control over fish production processes compared with capture fisheries; and are therefore better able to address consumer concerns related to sustainability and product origin.

Supplying Fake Information

Seafood mislabelling – especially processed seafood products – is a global issue stemming from an overall lack of regulation and enforcement. It’s a slippery slope that could result in health and economic concerns.

As most seafood is caught in the open ocean, it is at times impossible to know how the fish is caught, what species it is and where it originates from. Detecting the link in the supply chain where the deception happens is problematic as well – fish products frequently exchange hands during transportation, and sometimes, the mislabelling may be intentional to get higher prices for low commercial value species.

Apparently, five out of 24 Malaysian fish products are mislabelled.6 The government has begun monitoring the quality of processed foods, meat, agricultural commodities, and fish and dairy products through the Food Safety and Quality Division (FSQD) under the Ministry of Health by DNA barcoding.7

While processing, preservation, storage and transportation methods have improved by leaps and bounds in recent decades, supplying markets distant from where the seafood is caught or produced involves remarkable logistical challenges and cost considerations.

Deep-sea vessels moored off the coast of Teluk Bahang.

Globally, about 20% of seafood spoils before it reaches the end consumer.8 The cold chain at each stage of the supply chain is crucial to ensure the quality of the seafood, but supply chain players are vulnerable to weather and cold chain infrastructure conditions. Building a robust cold chain capable of preserving and protecting seafood products, however, translates to significant investments in facilities and infrastructure.

Low-tech traceability9 is another important issue. There is a lack of records of where, when, how, by whom, and what was caught by each vessel for each trip. This is vital information especially for resource management, and for determining the sustainability and legality of a product.

Even when data and information are recorded at vessel-level, they are often lost at some point further up the supply chain. To track the origins of seafood products and verify information of its journey through each stage in the chain, seafood companies need to have sophisticated traceability systems and data management – which is currently lacking in this industry.

And the degree to which a seafood product is differentiated within a supply chain may be the most informative element to influence the sustainability of that chain. With the growth of sustainable seafood certification programmes such as Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), some products now have an element of differentiation; common brands with the MSC and ASC ecolabels sold by Malaysian retailers are Pacific West, IKEA, John West, Waitrose, Birds Eye, and Rügen Fisch.10

Can managing supply chains be the solution, though? While they are currently a source of problems, the answer is, “Yes, they can be”.

Sustainable fisheries management should start with fishers and culturists; the seafood industry can be sustainable when seafood products are sourced from well-managed fisheries that catch and farm their fish in an environmentally friendly manner.

We can train our fishers and culturists on sustainable practices, and provide them with the necessary business-related support services, such as developing their skills in marketing, processing, price negotiation and logistics to help them to get more value for their products and improve their livelihoods without having to catch more fish.

Engaging key supply chain actors in practices that promote more sustainable fisheries, and supporting shifts in business practices can also incentivise relevant changes in all stages of supply chains. Supply chains are a source of data and information, and can be a means for rewarding fishers to apply more responsible and sustainable fishing practices – for example, through increased market access, new market channels, higher prices and stable partnerships.

To ensure adequate safety, quality and transparency, quality management and systematic controls throughout the supply chain – from the fishing boats and aquaculture farms to the consumers – is required.

New tools can expand data collection, analysis and distribution, giving fisheries stakeholders relevant data for fishing and fisheries management.

Seafood consumers also influence the entire seafood supply chain. Retailers and hoteliers have authority over brand and species selection, and educating them to make more responsible and sustainable seafood purchasing can be very effective.

The discerning consumer, in turn, can do their part by avoiding vulnerable species.

1For example, aggregators, primary processors, traders, wholesalers, dealers, secondary processors, distributors and transporters who transform, package and move the product from the point of production to the final sale.
2Department of Fisheries, Malaysia.
3WWF-Malaysia. 2013. Our Fish Stocks are in the Red: WWF-Malaysia’s New S.O.S Guide Reveals the Hard Truth. Retrieved from http://www.wwf.org.my/?16001/Our-Fish-Stocks-are-in-the-Red--WWF-Malaysias-New-SOS-Guide-Reveals-the-Hard-Truth.
4Department of Fisheries, Malaysia.
5Chan, H. C., Poh, H. H. & Tan, Y. H. (2004). The economic potential of the Penang fisheries sector. Economic briefing to the Penang state government. 6(8): 5-11.
6Hossain, M. M., Uddin, S. M. K., Chowdhury, Z. Z., Sultana, S., Johan, M. R., Rohman, A., ... & Ali, M. E. (2019). Universal mitochondrial 16s rRNA biomarker for mini-barcode to identify fish species in Malaysian fish products. Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, 36(4), 493-506.
7Chin, T. C., Adibah, A., Hariz, Z. D., & Azizah, M. S. (2016). Detection of mislabelled seafood products in Malaysia by DNA barcoding: improving transparency in food market. Food Control. 64:247–256.
8Future of Fish. (2015). Making Sense of Wild Seafood Supply Chains. A report created for The Nature Conservancy. Retrieved from: http://futureoffish.org/sites/default/files/docs/resources/TNC. SeafoodSupplyChainReport.V10.Web_.pdf
9Traceability is the ability to trace fishery products from sea to market.
10WWF. (n.d.). Where Can I Buy Sustainable Seafood? Retrieved from: https://www.saveourseafood.my/consumer/where-to-buy/

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