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Beyond the catch: Crafting a sustainable future for the fishing industry

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By Samuele Tini

· 6 min read

Fisheries and aquaculture are critical for providing many communities with food, nutrition, and jobs (FAO, 2022b).

The global demand is expected to rise in the next decade, and it is projected to grow 15% "reaching 182 million tonnes" (FAOa, 2002). The sector, which comprises aquaculture and wild catches, is critical for achieving food security for a growing population, especially in the global south. It also has a vital social aspect, both in the cultural aspects and labour practices. However, over the years, the fishing industry, the focus of our article, has been under the spotlight for overfishing,  depletion of biodiversity (Planque et al.,2010), and a wide array of social problems. How can these conflicting issues be resolved? Is it possible to implement sustainable fishing?

Some scholars (Stafford, 2019) call for a complete ban, allowing just some residual coastal activities. Certifications like Fair Trade or the Marine Stewardship Council (Robinson et al., 2021) try to address the broader stakeholders' requirements for sustainably managed fisheries.

To understand the practical realities and how businesses cope with a changing environment, I sat with a fellow Warwick Business School alumnus, Dennis Izotov, to discuss that and understand a practitioner's perspective. He is the Operations Manager of the Argos Froyanes Limited, a British-Norwegian partnership.'

Coming from a fishing community in the Soviet Arctic, he has an extensive experience in the sector. "Back in the 70s and 80s, overfishing was a problem. It was about meeting quotas, with little concern for the environmental costs", recalls Denis. Overfishing and the overexploitation of marine environments have been driven by the need to maximize returns in the short term over the long-term sustainability of the sector. "We fish for tomorrow is the slogan of the company" and,  slogan aside, the last decade has seen a solid effort to reduce this exploitation." More than a third (35.4 percent) of global stocks were overfished in 2019, up from 34.2 percent in 2017 and 10 percent in 1974. However, the rate of decline has recently slowed", data from UN Statistic division demonstrate. Nonetheless, the threat remains real, from climate change to increased pollution levels.

The fishing industry has profound implications for societies. In fact, "in some cases, it's not about money; it's about having food on the table", and the analysis is critical in the Global South. The sector employs nearly 60 million people worldwide (FAO, 2022a) and is a lifeline for many coastal communities. The collapse of the once thriving communities around Newfoundland is a reminder of the risks of having a profit-first approach.

However, there are signs of hope. Certifications and rigorous quotas have supported a more sustainable use of marine resources. Some fishermen rightly argue Denis may not like quotas, but they are necessary for the long-term sustainability of the sector and must be based on scientific research and collaboration. Examples of sustainable managed areas are proven, like Barents Sea cod and haddock, different mussels and oyster stocks, Cornish Hake fishery in the UK, and  Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish. The history of the toothfish or Chilean seabass shows how strict control and cooperation between states and the sector has brought precise results. Due to its high value, the fish was targeted heavily by the poachers in the past. In the '90 the illegal catches were about four times higher than the legal ones. International cooperation and national enforcement have taken this under control over the years and allowed operators to successfully initiate sustainability assessments for the fisheries, and piracy has dropped to almost zero. It is true, recalls Denis, that some episodes are still reminding us that we still have a long way to go, from the chases of Sea Shepherd to the international outrage for Chinese vessels in the Galapagos (Collyns, 2020). Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing is a menace to the sustainability of our oceans, and there is also a global index to showcase the risk

However, more and more businesses are committed to sustainability. A strong ally on that is certifications, like the Marine Stewardship Council. They are not the silver bullet for the sector but they play an important role. As discussed in previous articles, no certification is perfect, and even the MSC has received some criticism (Cristian et al., 2013). However, they are increasingly important to consumers, producers, and even regulators, and play an essential role in the social license to operate (Robinson et al., 2021).

The MSC certification has reached the third round of standards changes and is going beyond the traditional ecological dimensions of fish stocks and environmental, social, and labour issues. It is a rigorous process, and provides "a framework for responsible fishery management". As per many other certifications, consumer awareness is critical to drive demand and increase reach.

Some of the thorny issues in the sector are the role of subsidies and the need for decarbonization. Subsidies, which in principle are intended to support local fisheries, can distort market dynamics and encourage harmful practices. Denis criticizes the misuse of subsidies: "They give an unfair competitive advantage and can lead to more overfishing."  

On the issue of decarbonization, Denis recognizes that there are more than 4 million vessels worldwide. The fishing industry has relatively lower margins and higher risks than the freight sector, and it needs help attracting investors and capital. The key to decarbonization is to ensure the affordability of the technology and reliability and efficiency.

The effort toward sustainability can be achieved only with a transparent collaboration between state actors, businesses, and consumers. Denis argues that we must focus on integrated management practices that consider ecological, economic, and social dimensions of sustainability. He stresses the need for stronger international governance frameworks to manage the high seas, where no single nation has jurisdiction, and enforce the recent proposed High Seas Treaty.

The sector's role is critical for food security, biodiversity, and the economy. However, a tight balance is needed to craft a sustainable future. The recent FAO's Blue transformation (FAO, 2022c) can be a strategic document for this future. A practitioner's case helps realize the complexity of achieving sustainability, balancing the numerous tradeoffs and the temptations of short-termism.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.


Christian, C., Ainley, D., Bailey, M., Dayton, P., Hocevar, J., LeVine, M., Nikoloyuk, J., Nouvian, C., Velarde, E., Werner, R. and Jacquet, J.,(2013) A review of formal objections to Marine Stewardship Council fisheries certifications. Biological Conservation, 161, 10-17.

Collins, D. (2020) Chinese fishing armada plundered waters around Galápagos; data shows [online]

FAO (2022a)  The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture [online]

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FAO (2022c), Blue Transformation

Planque, B., Fromentin, J.-M., Cury, P., Drinkwater, K. F., Jennings, S., Perry, R. I., & Kifani, S. (2010). How does fishing alter marine populations and ecosystems' sensitivity to climate? Journal of Marine Systems, 79(3-4), 403–417.

Robinson, L. M., Van Putten, I., Cavve, B. S., Longo, C., Watson, M., Bellchambers, L., Fisher, E., & Boschetti, F.. (2021). Understanding societal approval of the fishing industry and the influence of third‐party sustainability certification. Fish and Fisheries, 22(6), 1213–1226

Stafford, R. (2019) Sustainability: A flawed concept for fisheries management? Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene 

UNSD [online],of%20decline%20has%20recently%20slowed

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About the author

Samuele Tini is the host of the Sustainability Journey, he sparks crucial conversations with leading changemakers, tackling the most pressing challenges of our time. He champions ethical and sustainable practices through his involvement in the B Corp movement as a B Leader, board member at B Academics, and Chair of Membership. Committed to impact, Samuele has led transformative projects across Africa, empowering entrepreneurs and fostering environmental conservation. He is a published author and holds an MBA from Warwick Business School in the UK.

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