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Wild-Caught Seafood

Overview

Oceans cover well over two-thirds of the planet's surface and are home to a world where at least a million known species of plants and animals depend on each other for survival. Small marine organisms are food for larval and juvenile fish that in turn are consumed by larger fish that eventually fall victim to top predators. Humans have relied on this entire food chain for sustenance for a long time.

But now more than 85 percent of the world's fisheries have been pushed to or beyond their biological limits. Pollution, poorly planned development, and the effects of climate change have also contributed to the degradation of the underwater environment.

WWF believes that conserving marine habitats and promoting sustainable fishing methods are as important to people as they are to wildlife. We support marine conservation in places such as the Coral Triangle, the Arctic, and Coastal East Africa and also on the high seas. We help to protect a long list of species that are of crucial importance to the entire marine ecosystem and those communities that depend on it for their livelihoods and food security.

Preserving healthy fish populations and securing sustainable fisheries is only possible by working collaboratively with the private sector. WWF works with the companies along the entire value chain, from the world’s oceans to your plate, to protect our seafood supply and to make sure that the interconnected network of underwater species will thrive into the future.

85%

More than 85 percent of the world's fisheries have been pushed to or beyond their biological limits.

A Struggle Against Illegal Fishing

Antonio Bustos’ family has been fishing Chile’s coastal waters for more than four generations. Artisanal fishers like him used to be able to earn a good living, but increased competition for dwindling fish stocks have made it harder to stay afloat. Some have decided to ignore the quotas that are meant to let fish populations rebound.

Salmon for sale at the market in Puerto Montt, in southern Chile.

Why It Matters

  • The world’s oceans produce 70% of our oxygen, influence weather systems, support economies and feed people. Three billion people now depend on fish as a primary protein source, and over four billion more rely on it to supplement other protein sources. Yet scientists are now reporting that the health of the oceans may be in even worse condition than originally thought. A recent study by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean cites a combination of factors threatening a new mass extinction event in the oceans similar to earlier extinctions recorded in prehistoric data.

Impacts

Wild caught seafood impacts

Thresher shark caught in a fishing net.

Bycatch

Bycatch occurs when fishermen hook or trap sea life other than their targeted catch. This is among the most problematic aspects of modern fishing. It occurs at every level of underwater life, from the ocean surface where it threatens seabirds, sea mammals, sharks and other marine life, to the ocean floor where bottom trawling damages vulnerable deep-water ecosystems. The 27 million metric tons of bycatch that are swept away and discarded annually include many fish species, but also small whales, dolphins and porpoises that are caught in fishing nets, and endangered loggerhead turtles caught on longlines. Billions of corals, sponges, and starfish in reef ecosystems are among the scores of other species affected.

Destructive Fishing Methods

Wild caught seafood

Some fishing practices­—like bottom trawling—are extremely destructive to delicate marine habitats—particularly vital fish breeding grounds like coral reefs and seagrass meadows. For instance, industrial trawlers once avoided coral reefs and other rocky regions of the ocean floor because of snags and tears to nets. But in the 1980s, these trawlers were fitted with larger rubber tires and rollers that allow the nets to pass easily over any rough surface. As a result, scars up to two and a half miles long have been found in the reefs of the north-east Atlantic Ocean. When covered with marine life, these seabed areas provide habitat for juvenile fish and other species. Like removing forest, removing this cover decreases the area available for marine species to live and thrive in.

Many marine resources—like tuna, sharks, shrimp and reef fish—are taken from the waters globally at unsustainable rates. This is regrettable as it has been demonstrated that seafood can be harvested sustainably as long as the proper management and regulatory measures are put in place. However, the open access nature of fisheries, combined with lax oversight and a search for quick profits, has led several fisheries stocks around the world to decrease to a fraction of their historical levels. The fish are caught faster than they can reproduce, but should be left in the water to ensure there are enough to in future years.

Poor Fisheries Management

A lack of management oversight, government regulations, and traceability of fishing activities has long been a problem in the fishing industry. Current rules and regulations are not strong enough to limit fishing capacity to a sustainable level. This is particularly the case for the high seas, where there are few international fishing regulations, and those that exist are not always implemented or enforced. Many fisheries management bodies are not able to adequately incorporate scientific advice on fish quotas, and customs agencies and retailers cannot always ensure that the fish entering their country is caught legally and in a sustainable way.

What WWF Is Doing

Wild caught seafood, what WWF is doing

Reducing Impacts

WWF has identified four priority commodities—tuna, whitefish, fishmeal/oil, and tropical shrimp–that play a crucial role in the global seafood chain. These species also happen to live in important ecoregions we seek to protect. They represent the largest categories of wild caught seafood by commercial value and traded volume, offering strong potential to transform fisheries markets into sustainable businesses. We work at all levels and across all channels – from expanding marine protected areas to reducing overfishing to attain better fishery management and increasing the supply of sustainably caught seafood through fishery improvement projects– to make these species healthy again.

 

Creating and Expanding Marine Protected Areas

Coastal communities rely on fishing for their sustenance and livelihoods. Without protected areas for marine life and critical habitats, many marine species will not survive. WWF collaborates with communities, scientists and governments to create flexible zones that designate different types of protected areas. These protected areas include the world's largest and most intact tropical rain forests, diverse freshwater systems, varied coral reefs, and productive fishing grounds. All of these places are also home to many endangered species.

Making Fisheries Sustainable

WWF worked hard to help found the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) in 1997, and we’re proud that it is the world's leading certification and eco-labeling organization. The MSC rewards sustainable fishing, and harnesses consumer and retailer purchasing power to promote environmentally responsible practices. Fisheries that are already MSC-certified or under full assessment represent over 11 percent of the annual global wild catch harvest.

Nearly 15,000 seafood products with over $3 billion in annual sales bear the MSC eco-label. To increase the supply of MSC-certified seafood, WWF partners with other non-governmental organizations to pre-assess fisheries as to readiness for certification, and to provide fishery improvement projects to help fisheries achieve certification. See a complete list of our fishery improvement projects, including a summary of progress and activities to date.

Advancing Conservation and Sustainable Use

WWF promotes science-based initiatives for long-term conservation and sustainable use of seafood or fish stocks. The International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF), a global coalition of scientists, the tuna industry, and WWF, promotes science-based initiatives for the long-term conservation and sustainable use of tuna stocks. WWF encourages its retail partners to ask its canned tuna suppliers to join and actively engage in the ISSF in order to move toward exclusively sourcing from sustainable, MSC-certified tuna fisheries.

Improving Fishing Practices

WWF facilitates fishing gear and technique improvements to help fishermen reduce bycatch while still allowing them to sustainably catch enough fish to sustain their livelihoods. These modifications can be simple and inexpensive, with the best innovations often coming from fishers themselves. To inspire and reward practical, innovative fishing gear designs that reduce bycatch, WWF created the International Smart Gear Competition. Applicants submit ideas for modified fishing gears and procedures that increase selectivity for target fish species and reduce bycatch for other species. The top ideas are then rewarded with monetary prizes which are used to further develop the technique and/or commercialize it to other fisheries.

Promoting Responsible Procurement and Trade

WWF helps retailers worldwide to source from fisheries that are MSC-certified through our Major Buyer initiative. WWF recommends that our partner companies work with their suppliers to source from MSC-certified fisheries and obtain MSC chain of custody certification. By achieving certification, these companies can display the MSC ecolabel on products, providing customers with the best environmental choice in seafood. To increase the supply of certified seafood, Major Buyer partners also support the advancement of their source fisheries toward MSC certification, often through Fishery Improvement Projects. By working with retailers with considerable influence, we can transform the global seafood market and ensure the continuity and quality of the fishing industry as a whole.

Advocating for Governmental Fishing Policy

WWF constructively advocates with governments and regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) for stricter regulations and best practices for fisheries management. Further, we collaborate with governments worldwide to fill capacity gaps that prevent progress. We also actively engage with governments that want to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies that lead to overfishing.

Working with the World Bank

WWF works with the World Bank and others in support of the Global Partnership for Oceans, announced in February of 2012. This initiative brings science, advocacy, the private sector, and international public institutions together to address the threats to the health, productivity and resilience of the world’s oceans. This partnership builds off past collaborations with the World Bank on the Sub-Saharan Fisheries Partnership and issues such as rights based management, which provides more economic incentives to participants in a fishery to ensure its long-term sustainability. In October 2013 a unique panel of business, government, conservation and academic leaders, convened by the Global Partnership for Oceans, agreed a global strategy for aligning ocean health and human well-being (PDF). The Blue Ribbon Panel, which includes 21 global experts from 16 countries, identified five guiding principles to ensure effective investment in the world’s oceans to support sustainable livelihoods, social equity and food security.

Fisheries for People and Nature

Mismanagement of fisheries that produce the world’s seafood can have significant impacts on ocean health, and the people it supports. WWF is working towards better solutions for the world’s oceans that are fair to those relying on it for income and food, while also protecting its future. Rights-Based Management (RBM) can transform global fisheries performance and has proven to achieve balance between economic, ecological and social needs around the world.

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