Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Evolution and future of the sustainable seafood market


The sustainable seafood movement is at a crossroads. Its core strategy, also known as a theory of change, is based on market-oriented initiatives such as third-party certification but does not motivate adequate levels of improved governance and environmental improvements needed in many fisheries, especially in developing countries. Price premiums for certified products are elusive, multiple forms of certification compete in a crowded marketplace and certifiers are increasingly asked to address social as well as ecological goals. This paper traces how the sustainable seafood movement has evolved over time to address new challenges while success remains limited. We conclude by exploring four alternative potential outcomes for the future theory of change, each with different contributions to creating a more sustainable global seafood supply.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    Sutton, M. in Developing and Sustaining World Fisheries Resources (eds Hancock, D. A., Smith, D. C., Grant, A. & Beumer, J. P.) 726–730 (Second World Fisheries Congress Proceedings, CSIRO, 1997).

  2. 2.

    Brownstein, C., Lee, M. & Safina, C. Harnessing consumer power for ocean conservation. Conserv. Practice 4, 39–42 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Costello, C., Gaines, S. D. & Lynham, J. Can catch shares prevent fisheries collapse? Science 321, 1678–1681 (2008).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Worm, B. et al. Rebuilding global fisheries. Science 325, 578–585 (2009).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    Munday, P. L. et al. Replenishment of fish populations is threatened by ocean acidification. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 12930–12934 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Konefal, J. Environmental movements, market-based approaches, and neoliberalization a case study of the sustainable seafood movement. Organ. Environ. 26, 336–352 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Kaiser, M. J. & Edwards-Jones, G. The role of ecolabeling in fisheries management and conservation. Conserv. Biol. 20, 392–398 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Kemmerly, J. D. & Macfarlane, V. The elements of a consumer-based initiative in contributing to positive environmental change: Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. Zoo Biol. 28, 398–411 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Oosterveer, P. & Sonnenfeld, D. A. Food, Globalization and Sustainability (Earthscan, 2012).

  10. 10.

    Vandergeest, P., Ponte, S. & Bush, S. Assembling sustainable territories: space, subjects, objects, and expertise in seafood certification. Environ. Plann. A 47, 1907–1925 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Mason, C. F. An economic model of ecolabeling. Environ. Model. Assess. 11, 131–143 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Gutiérrez, N. L. et al. Eco-label conveys reliable information on fish stock health to seafood consumers. PLoS ONE 7, e43765 (2012).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Gudmundsson, E. & Wessells, C. R. Ecolabeling seafood for sustainable production: implications for fisheries management. Mar. Resour. Econ. 15, 97–113 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Darby, M. R. & Karni, E. Free competition and the optimal amount of fraud. J. Law Econ. 16, 67–88 (1973).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    What is sustainable fishing? Marine Stewardship Council (2018).

  16. 16.

    Theory of change. Aquaculture Stewardship Council (2018).

  17. 17.

    Giddens, A. The Consequences of Modernity (Polity, 1990).

  18. 18.

    Parkes, G. et al. Behind the signs—a global review of fish sustainability information schemes. Rev. Fish. Sci. 18, 344–356 (2010). Review outlining the variation of private sustainable seafood mechanisms, their accuracy and precision, and potential for inconsistency and contradictory advice to consumers.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Samerwong, P., Bush, S. R. & Oosterveer, P. Implications of multiple national certification standards for Thai shrimp aquaculture. Aquaculture 493, 319–327 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Bolton, A. E., Dubik, B. A., Stoll, J. S. & Basurto, X. Describing the diversity of community supported fishery programs in North America. Mar. Pol. 66, 21–29 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Alfnes, F., Chen, X. & Rickertsen, K. Labeling farmed seafood: a review. Aquacult. Econ. Manage. 22, 1–26 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Roheim, C. A. An evaluation of sustainable seafood guides: implications for environmental groups and the seafood industry. Mar. Resour. Econ. 24, 301–310 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Hallstein, E. & Villas-Boas, S. B. Can household consumers save the wild fish? Lessons from a sustainable seafood advisory. J. Environ. Econ. Manage. 66, 52–71 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Lee, J., Gereffi, G. & Beauvais, J. Global value chains and agrifood standards: challenges and possibilities for smallholders in developing countries. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 12326–12331 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Blomquist, J., Bartolino, V. & Waldo, S. Price premiums for providing eco‐labelled seafood: evidence from MSC‐certified cod in Sweden. J. Agr. Econ. 66, 690–704 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Stemle, A., Uchida, H. & Roheim, C. A. Have dockside prices improved after MSC certification? Analysis of multiple fisheries. Fish. Res. 182, 116–123 (2016). Analysis showing the complexity of attributing market signals such as price premiums as incentives for adopting sustainability certification.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Tlusty, M. F. Environmental improvement of seafood through certification and ecolabelling: theory and analysis. Fish Fish. 13, 1–13 (2012). Paper arguing the need to move beyond single threshold modes of assessing sustainability, such as certification, to multiple threshold mechanisms that reward innovation and incremental improvement.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Martin, S. M., Cambridge, T. A., Grieve, C., Nimmo, F. M. & Agnew, D. J. An evaluation of environmental changes within fisheries involved in the Marine Stewardship Council certification scheme. Rev. Fish. Sci. 20, 61–69 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Li, Y. & van’t Veld, K. Green, greener, greenest: Eco-label gradation and competition. J. Environ. Econ. Manage. 72, 164–176 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Fischer, C. & Lyon, T. P. Competing environmental labels. J. Econ. Manage. Strat. 23, 692–716 (2014). Theoretical article analysing the impact of ecolabel competition in the market, where ecolabels have different standards.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Cashore, B., Auld, G., Bernstein, S. & McDermott, C. Can non-state governance ‘ratchet up’ global environmental standards? Lessons from the forest sector. RECIEL 16, 158–172 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Overdevest, C. Comparing forest certification schemes: the case of ratcheting standards in the forest sector. Socio-Econ. Rev. 8, 47–76 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Cashore, B. Legitmacy and the privatization of environmental governance: how non-state market driven (NSMD) governance systems gain rule-making authority. Governance 15, 503–529 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Sampson, G. S. et al. Secure sustainable seafood from developing countries. Science 348, 504–506 (2015). Analysis highlighting the limitations of FIPs to incentivize developing world fisheries to improve their sustainability performance in (partial) response to weak conditionality for access to international retail markets.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Auld, G. Constructing Private Governance: The Rise and Evolution of Forest, Coffee, and Fisheries Certification (Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, 2014).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Bingen, J. & Busch, L. Agricultural Standards: The Shape of the. Global Food And Fiber System (Springer, Dordrecht, 2007).

  37. 37.

    Bonroy, O. & Constantatos, C. On the economics of labels: How their introduction affects the functioning of markets and the welfare of all participants. Am. J. Agr. Econ. 97, 239–259 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Shaked, A. & Sutton, J. Relaxing price competition through product differentiation. Rev. Econ. Stud. 49, 3–13 (1982).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Roheim, C. A. & Zhang, D. Sustainability certification and product substitutability: evidence from the seafood market. Food Pol. (2018).

  40. 40.

    Ponte, S. & Sturgeon, T. Explaining governance in global value chains: A modular theory-building effort. Rev. Int. Polit. Econ. 21, 195–223 (2014). Paper providing a theoretical framework for understanding the configuration of global value chains and their coordination by firm and non-firm actors.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Bush, S. R., Oosterveer, P., Bailey, M. & Mol, A. P. J. Sustainability governance of chains and networks: a review and future outlook. J. Clean. Prod. 107, 8–19 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Bush, S. R. & Roheim, C. A. in The Oxford Handbook of Political Consumerism (eds Bostrom, M., Micheletti, M. & Oosterveer, P.) 22 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2018).

  43. 43.

    Bronnmann, J. & Asche, F. Sustainable seafood from aquaculture and wild fisheries: insights from a discrete choice experiment in Germany. Ecol. Econ. 142, 113–119 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Johnston, R. J. & Roheim, C. A. A battle of taste and environmental convictions for ecolabeled seafood: a contingent ranking experiment. J. Agr. Resour. Econ. 31, 283–300 (2006).

    Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    Johnston, R. J., Wessells, C. R., Donath, H. & Asche, F. Measuring consumer preferences for ecolabeled seafood: an international comparison. J. Agr. Resour. Econ. 26, 20–39 (2001).

    Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Uchida, H., Roheim, C. A., Wakamatsu, H. & Anderson, C. M. Do Japanese consumers care about sustainable fisheries? Evidence from an auction of ecolabelled seafood. Aus. J. Agr. Resour. Econ. 58, 263–280 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    Sogn-Grundvåg, G., Larsen, T. A. & Young, J. A. The value of line-caught and other attributes: an exploration of price premiums for chilled fish in UK supermarkets. Mar. Pol. 38, 41–44 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Sun, C.-H. J., Chiang, F.-S., Owens, M. & Squires, D. Will American consumers pay more for eco-friendly labeled canned tuna? Estimating US consumer demand for canned tuna varieties using scanner data. Mar. Pol. 79, 62–69 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    Wakamatsu, H. The impact of MSC certification on a Japanese certified fishery. Mar. Resour. Econ. 29, 55–67 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    Carlucci, D., Devitiis, B. D., Nardone, G. & Santeramo, F. G. Certification labels versus convenience formats: What drives the market in aquaculture products? Mar. Resour. Econ. 32, 295–310 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. 51.

    Wakamatsu, H., Anderson, C. M., Uchida, H. & Roheim, C. A. Pricing ecolabeled seafood products with heterogeneous preferences: an auction experiment in Japan. Mar. Resour. Econ. 32, 277–294 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. 52.

    de Vos, B. I. & Bush, S. R. Far more than market-based: rethinking the impact of the Dutch Viswijzer (Good Fish Guide) on fisheries’ governance. Sociol. Ruralis 51, 284–303 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. 53.

    Asche, F., Bellemare, M. F., Roheim, C., Smith, M. D. & Tveteras, S. Fair enough? Food security and the international trade of seafood. World Dev. 67, 151–160 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. 54.

    Smith, M. D. et al. Sustainability and global seafood. Science 327, 784–786 (2010).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  55. 55.

    Anderson, J. L. et al. The fishery performance indicators: a management tool for triple bottom line outcomes. PLoS One 10, e0122809 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  56. 56.

    Bush, S. R. et al. Certify sustainable aquaculture? Science 341, 1067–1068 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  57. 57.

    Iles, A. Making the seafood industry more sustainable: creating production chain transparency and accountability. J. Clean. Prod. 15, 577–589 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. 58.

    Fulponi, L. Private voluntary standards in the food system: the perspective of major food retailers in OECD countries. Food Pol. 31, 1–13 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. 59.

    Roheim, C. A., Gardiner, L. & Asche, F. Value of brands and other attributes: hedonic analysis of retail frozen fish in the UK. Mar. Resour. Econ. 22, 239–253 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  60. 60.

    Helyar, S. J. et al. Fish product mislabelling: failings of traceability in the production chain and implications for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. PloS ONE 9, e98691 (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  61. 61.

    Marschke, M. & Vandergeest, P. Slavery scandals: unpacking labour challenges and policy responses within the off-shore fisheries sector. Mar. Pol 68, 39–46 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. 62.

    Vandergeest, P., Tran, O. & Marschke, M. Modern day slavery in Thai fisheries: academic critique, practical action. Crit. Asian Stud. 49, 461–464 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. 63.

    Bitzer, V. & Glasbergen, P. Business–NGO partnerships in global value chains: part of the solution or part of the problem of sustainable change? Curr. Opin. Environ. Sust. 12, 35–40 (2015). Review of business–NGO sustainability partnerships in global value chains outlining their inconclusive impact and need for new modes of private sustainability approaches and mechanisms.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. 64.

    Deighan, L. K. & Jenkins, L. Fishing for recognition: Understanding the use of NGO guidelines in fishery improvement projects. Mar. Pol. 51, 476–485 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. 65.

    Bush, S. R., Toonen, H., Oosterveer, P. & Mol, A. P. J. The ‘devils triangle’ of MSC certification: balancing credibility, accessibility and continuous improvement. Mar. Pol. 37, 288–293 (2013). Paper outlining the challenge of private sustainable seafood mechanisms to maintain credible standards and procedures that stimulate improvement while also remaining accessible to developing world fisheries.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  66. 66.

    Bush, S. R. & Oosterveer, P. Vertically differentiating environmental standards: the case of the Marine Stewardship Council. Sustainability 7, 1861–1883 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  67. 67.

    Mills, M. et al. Understanding characteristics that define the feasibility of conservation actions in a common pool marine resource governance system. Conserv. Lett 6, 418–429 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  68. 68.

    Micheli, F. et al. A system‐wide approach to supporting improvements in seafood production practices and outcomes. Front. Ecol. Environ. 12, 297–305 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  69. 69.

    Jacquet, J. et al. Conserving wild fish in a sea of market-based efforts. Oryx 44, 45–56 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  70. 70.

    The Global Benchmark Tool. Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (2016).

  71. 71.

    Roe, B. & Sheldon, I. Credence good labeling: the efficiency and distributional implications of several policy approaches. Am. J. Agr. Econ. 89, 1020–1033 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  72. 72.

    Samerwong, P., Bush, S. R. & Oosterveer, P. Metagoverning aquaculture standards: a comparison of the GSSI, the ASEAN GAP, and the ISEAL. J. Environ. Dev. 26, 429–451 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  73. 73.

    Uchida, H., Onozaka, Y., Morita, T. & Managi, S. Demand for ecolabeled seafood in the Japanese market: a conjoint analysis of the impact of information and interaction with other labels. Food Pol. 44, 68–76 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  74. 74.

    Boström, M. Regulatory credibility and authority through inclusiveness: standardization organizations in cases of eco-labelling. Organization 13, 345–367 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  75. 75.

    Miller, A. M. & Bush, S. R. Authority without credibility? Competition and conflict between ecolabels in tuna fisheries. J. Clean. Prod. 107, 137–145 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  76. 76.

    Bailey, M., Bush, S. R., Miller, A. & Kochen, M. The role of traceability in transforming seafood governance in the global South. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sust. 18, 25–32 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  77. 77.

    Lewis, S. G. & Boyle, M. The expanding role of traceability in seafood: tools and key initiatives. J. Food Sci. 82, A13–A21 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  78. 78.

    Zilberman, D., Kaplan, S. & Gordon, B. The political economy of labeling. Food Pol. 78, 6–13 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  79. 79.

    Stoll, J. S. & Johnson, T. R. Under the banner of sustainability: the politics and prose of an emerging US federal seafood certification. Mar. Pol. 51, 415–422 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  80. 80.

    Foley, P. & Hébert, K. Alternative regimes of transnational environmental certification: governance, marketization, and place in Alaska’s salmon fisheries. Environ. Plann. A 45, 2734–2751 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  81. 81.

    Kvalvik, I., Noestvold, B. H. & Young, J. A. National or supranational fisheries sustainability certification schemes? A critical analysis of Norwegian and Icelandic responses. Mar. Pol. 46, 137–142 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  82. 82.

    Foley, P. & Havice, E. The rise of territorial eco-certifications: new politics of transnational sustainability governance in the fishery sector. Geoforum 69, 24–33 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  83. 83.

    Nelson, V. & Tallontire, A. Battlefields of ideas: changing narratives and power dynamics in private standards in global agricultural value chains. Agr. Hum. Values 31, 481–497 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  84. 84.

    Rayner, J. Managing Reputational Risk: Curbing Threats, Leveraging Opportunities Vol. 6 (Wiley, Chichester, 2004).

  85. 85.

    Taylor, P. L. In the market by not of it: Fair Trade coffee and Forest Stewardship Council certification as market-based social change. World Dev. 33, 129–147 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  86. 86.

    Pelton, R. E., Li, M., Smith, T. M. & Lyon, T. P. Optimizing eco-efficiency across the procurement portfolio. Environ. Sci. Technol. 50, 5908–5918 (2016).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  87. 87.

    Jacquet, J. & Pauly, D. Funding priorities: big barriers to small-scale fisheries. Conserv. Biol. 22, 832–835 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  88. 88.

    Busch, L. & Bain, C. New! Improved? The transformation of the global agrifood system. Rural Sociol. 69, 321–346 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  89. 89.

    Milder, J. C. et al. An agenda for assessing and improving conservation impacts of sustainability standards in tropical agriculture. Conserv. Biol. 29, 309–320 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  90. 90.

    Kittinger, J. N. et al. Committing to socially responsible seafood. Science 356, 912–913 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  91. 91.

    Glin, L. C., Mol, A. P., Oosterveer, P. & Vodouhe, S. D. Governing the transnational organic cotton network from Benin. Global Netw. 12, 333–354 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


The authors would like to thank those from the global seafood industry who we interviewed for their valuable insights, as well as the participants of a special session at 2015 NAAFE Forum in Ketchikan, Alaska, and participants of the small-scale near-shore fisheries workshop hosted by the UC Davis Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute in June 2016. We thank C. Zou for research assistance. We also thank K. Lee, S. Hogan and M. Levine who provided valuable feedback and insights throughout the project. This work was supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation (grant no. 2015-40719).

Author information




C.A.R., S.R.B., J.N.S., F.A. and H.U. designed the research. C.A.R., S.R.B., J.N.S., F.A. and H.U. performed the research. C.A.R., S.R.B., J.N.S., F.A. and H.U. wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to C. A. Roheim.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Roheim, C.A., Bush, S.R., Asche, F. et al. Evolution and future of the sustainable seafood market. Nat Sustain 1, 392–398 (2018).

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing