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Why Seafood Matters

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For centuries, cod was so abundant off the coast of Newfoundland that a scoop through the waves with a basket would land a decent catch. Fishing was one of the last industries to be modernized during the industrial revolution, but when it did, it soon caught up.

By 1992, Grand Banks cod was at one percent of its original biomass. The stock had collapsed, and the only sensible response was the introduction of a moratorium on cod fishing which sank Canada's largest northeastern industry overnight, taking the region's major source of income with it.

In 1997, while this crisis unfolded, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) was founded through a partnership between the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Unilever, which recognized its role as a force for good in pushing businesses in a more sustainable direction.

We were tasked to develop a market-based solution to an environmental problem at a time when the concept of social enterprise was still emerging. We brought together a broad coalition of stakeholders around the table to develop consensus and strike the right balance between sustainability and the bottom line for the industry, that otherwise kept its doors firmly shut to outsiders.

We founded our standard on the gold standard, the ecosystem-based management (ESBM), on three principles: the status of the target stock; impact on the ecosystem; management effectiveness.

But our standards weren't written on the back of an envelope -- there was a lot of blood, sweat and tears on the way to get to the stage where our first fishery, West Australia Rock Lobster, entered assessment in 1999 and was certified a year later.

We now have 208 certified fisheries and a further 98 in assessment in 35 countries and cover 8.8 percent of the world's wild capture fish stocks.

Although most North Atlantic cod is still off the menu, we are now beginning to see the impact of that moratorium. But it has taken 22 years for cod stocks to show signs of recovery and it will be a while before certain stocks earn MSC certification.

We also continue to be the only ecolabel with global reach, retailers and consumers can trust. Walmart, Whole Foods, Carrefour, ALDI, Lidl, Sainsbury's, Waitrose and Aeon in Asia, are just a handful of retailers that stock MSC certified fish with the blue ecolabel.

Even with all that hard work, the state of our oceans and the seafood it produces (valued at $217 billion in 2011) matters more than ever.

Seafood is the largest-traded food commodity in the world and is a key part of global food security. In the developing world, economic value is even more pronounced. Fishery net exports of developing countries have shown a continuing rising trend, growing to $34.5 billion in 2011. That figure is significantly higher than for other agricultural commodities such as rice, coffee and tea.

Pressing issues of governance and sustainability will be the focus of next week's Economist World Ocean Summit in San Francisco.

Keynotes from US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and HRH the Prince of Wales, will show how seriously we need to take the state of our world's oceans. Maria Damanaki, the EU commissioner for maritime affairs and fisheries, and Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN environment program, should be able to explain how they plan to deliver.

Hopefully, it will be more than a talking shop, and action will follow. As the agenda points out: "The challenges of creating and executing these approaches are enormous, requiring political consensus and commitment, clear legal mandates, cutting-edge science, and an engaged and inclusive civil society where all stakeholders are consulted and share ownership of the process."

They're right. We need a sea change to help consumers make an informed decision and transform the market so that all fish is sustainably sourced. Without our work to date, fisheries around the world would certainly be in worse shape. In future, as we work towards our vision, we need everyone on board.

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