… but is it sustainable? A conversational essay about what “sustainability” means to Afishionado

“… but is it sustainable?” I think this is the single most popular question that we encounter at Afishionado; and, to be honest, it’s kind of a tricky one to answer. Not because I don’t believe any one of our products to be fundamentally unsustainable, but because the term “sustainable” seems to mean different things to different people. Definitions are similar in theme, but everyone seems to have their own ideas about what makes something sustainable, whether it be a product or an action. Although these seemingly small differences between definitions appear insignificant, they are usually the make-it-or-break-it factor with respect to purchasing a certain product or being on board with a sourcing decision.

 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, “local” is the term that comes up the most frequently, and is often used interchangeably with “sustainable” by customers. While I do not have a background in agriculture, I imagine that this association between terms likely stems from our collective healthier, more robust knowledge of land-based food, namely fruits, vegetables, and land-animal based proteins (beef, chicken, lamb, etc.). Conceptually, it makes sense that fruits, vegetables, and proteins grown within 100 km would be more sustainable, in essence, than an equivalent from abroad – particularly if your gauge of sustainability is viewed through an environmental lens. However, the seafood industry is fundamentally a different space and beast to deal with.

 

Fisheries (and aquaculture) is one of the largest industries in the world and one of the trickiest industries to manage. There are a multitude of reasons that make fisheries management such a complex field but one of the more obvious reasons is that wild fish move and as easy as it is to draw lines on a map over the water, fish don’t often respect these boundaries. So, while wild fish may have local management plans, populations are usually managed at a global scale. Furthermore, it is worth mentioning here that nearly all wild and farmed fish and shellfish are bought and sold at the global scale. Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to find a good variety of Nova Scotian fish in Nova Scotia? This is because the majority of it is sold to American and Asian markets. The global management of wild fish is particularly evident with large, highly migratory, and high value species like tuna.

 

When it comes to assessing the sustainability of a fishery it’s important take a holistic approach because you need to consider all the aspects of what makes a fishery, “a fishery”. A fishery is not simply the natural resource; the people that make up a fishery (fishers, processors, suppliers, etc.) are as essential to the fishery as the fish itself. Although all fisheries have the same basic concepts, to catch and sell fish, their intricacies vary from place to place. These discrepancies can include something very specific, such as gear type or target species as well as other, more immaterial concepts like customs, traditions, and social norms within the specific fishing community.

 

Sustainability in fisheries and actions to “prove” sustainability can take many forms; anywhere from establishing robust marine protected areas with heavily enforced ‘no-take’ zones, to promoting fisheries that have been certified sustainable by meeting criteria defined by agencies such as the Marine Stewardship Council or Ocean Wise, to implementing private incentive mechanisms to promote sustainable practices in specific fisheries. Because of all of the factors that make up a fishery (the animals, the people, the equipment, the areas, etc.), sustainability in fisheries is not merely a social issue, or an economic issue, or an ecological issue. For a fishery to truly be considered sustainable it is a reconciliation of all three systems working together.

 

Traditionally sustainable fisheries schemes have isolated either the social, environmental, or economic aspects of the fishery. By focusing on a single aspect of what makes a fishery, however, we are blinding ourselves to all of the other contributing factors of the industry and limiting our success at achieving true sustainability.

 

At Afishionado we work hard source from fisheries and the aquaculture sector that encompass and reconcile the three pillars of sustainability (economic, social, and ecological). Sometimes this means that a certain product may be sourced from a surprising geographical area. This is because we believe that socially responsible and ecologically sound practices should be rewarded. Knowing there is a market for sustainable shrimp farming, for example, provides incentive for such an industry to become the norm, rather than the exception. Or – handline caught tuna, though more labour intensive and often from abroad, when viewed through a holistic lens arguably falls into the ‘sustainable’ category by proxy of catch method, and providing an economy to the, often, lower-income communities the industry supports. By incentivizing more sustainable practices at the global scale we hope to play a positive role in the global sustainability conversation and provide evidence that can lead to better policy and decision making.

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