Oceans cover almost three-quarters of the planet, hold 97 percent of its water, produce more than half of the oxygen in the atmosphere, and absorb the most carbon. We evolved from the oceans and they are crucial for life on planet earth.

The marine environment is also where we work, trade, recreate, and obtain food. About 40 percent of humanity lives within 100 kilometers of the coast and ocean-based businesses—from fisheries to tourism to energy generation and shipping—contribute more than US$500 billion to the global economy.

With increasing pressures and the degradation of many parts of the marine environment, including reduced fish and other species’ populations, there is a growing awareness that more holistic approaches are needed to manage our impacts on the marine realm.1

Since the famous, tumultuous, and catastrophic crash of the Newfoundland cod fishery and its eventual closure in 1992, much progress has been made in developing and applying economic incentives to improve fisheries management.2 The most successful of these is the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), with 11 percent of the total wild marine fisheries harvest certified or under assessment. However, the MSC cannot deliver everything a sustainable fishery requires, including habitat and social sustainability.3 It simply wasn’t designed to do so.

This article describes academic and practical research applying ecosystem services to marine fisheries, including how this can empower the seafood sector to better manage fisheries and the habitats that they depend upon, better understand the relevant social context, fill knowledge gaps to complement certification, and communicate more transparently. The seafood sector is a broad description for those involved in the production of seafood, whether farmed or wild harvest, and includes the large and small fishing and seafood industries, fishers and fish farmers, processing and logistics along the supply chain, as well as government and nongovernment organizations and science providers. There is a core of practitioners across this broad community who are increasingly working together to improve seafood sustainability. This work is bringing together the three worlds of marine and coastal ecosystem services, corporate transparency, and sustainable seafood.

Ecosystem Services in Seafood—A Visual Journey

Ecosystem service tools can be powerful for primary industries and contribute to building ecological, social, economic, and corporate resilience. This interdisciplinary systems analysis work links marine conservation, sustainable seafood, sustainable business, and academia and as such is complex. A series of illustrative infographics have been developed to depict the core concepts and interlinkages and to guide future development.


Annette Ellis
Infographic 1. Three worlds coming together: Using ecosystem service review and analysis can address ecological, economic, social, and cultural perspectives. Being a best-practice business tool, it empowers businesses ownership and responsibility for their impacts and dependencies on nature and the environment. It is an opportunity for corporate, science, public, and NGO entities to work together toward clear and achievable outcomes.

Why is a New Approach Required?

Marine fisheries are in crisis internationally given overfishing, climate change, and pollution. Management systems, such as New Zealand’s Quota Management System, manage key aspects such as sustainable harvest levels, but they can also be fragmented, as well as receive insufficient attention to manage ocean health. Globally, marine fisheries are simply not prioritized on state and international governmental agendas.

Fortunately, there is growing awareness and acceptance of the need for ecosystem approaches (EA), including in the Aichi Convention on Biological Diversity Targets (2011–2020) and in key jurisdictions such as under the European Common Fisheries Policy and the US Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Over the last 20 years, a number of nongovernmental and private sector initiatives have incorporated EA aspects with initial success, including the MSC and multi-stakeholder fisheries improvement projects. While this work has driven many improvements, it still needs to be underpinned by ecosystem-based legal, regulatory, and management reform.

Furthermore, while the marine environment has multiple users and influences, the costs associated with those uses and their impacts are largely opaque and usually inequitably shared—making it difficult to identify those causing the impact, to hold them accountable, and to adjust management accordingly.4 In fisheries, the costs of improvements falls largely on the fishers and are not often evenly distributed over the supply chain or consumers. Although few, there are an increasing number of examples of consumers willing to pay a premium for MSC-certified seafood and of fisheries reaping greater rewards. However, other than in a few exceptional cases, such as the American Albacore fishery, these benefits rarely reach the fishers themselves.5


Annette Ellis
Infographic 2. Seafood ecosystem service assessment: Applying ecosystem services in seafood requires starting with as clear an understanding as possible of the qualitative and quantitative values of an ecosystem (social, cultural, ecological, and economic). In many cases this will require a full marine ecosystem service review and, where data is strong enough, valuation (using the most appropriate valuation approach). Once this has occurred, goals can be set and ways to achieve those goals identified. These can include fisheries improvement projects (FIPs), certification such as through the Aquaculture and Marine Stewardship Councils, or other measures such as marine spatial planning and habitat restoration.

A Time for Change

There is a willingness, especially within the seafood supply chain, to more directly support specific management measures to implement ecosystem approaches. Facets of the seafood supply chain are investing in fisheries improvement projects (FIPs), often through supporting fisheries towards the MSC.6 However, the sheer number of fisheries needing improvement means that this must be significantly scaled up. Industry empowerment also needs to be scaled up such that the seafood sector front foots improvement and is no longer driven there by NGO scrutiny, public campaigning, or the courts.6

The question is, who pays and how and can that investment occur through payment for ecosystem service (PES) frameworks? Academic and practical research conducted over the last four years has explored whether private sector supply chain investment could be deemed payment for ecosystem services in a marine context, what the methods could be to apply this in practice, whether this can contribute to rebuilding fisheries, and the challenges and opportunities of doing so. Case studies such as the New Zealand p?ua (abalone) industry, as well as international science and policy leaders in this space provide promising prospects for success.


Annette Ellis
Infographic 3. Bridging next generation sustainable seafood: Sustainability is a journey for all involved. Starting with getting ones’ house in order, becoming more proactive, collaborative, accountable, and transparent to include all environmental services, providers, and buyers, and returning rewards in improved staff morale, shareholder satisfaction, economic and environmental efficiency, and social licence to operate.

A Model for Success

Ecosystem services link ecosystem processes and human well-being in terms of the direct and indirect benefits people obtain from ecosystems. Efforts such as the 2010 International Year of Biodiversity and The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) have helped to socialize ecosystem services and foster their uptake in business.7 While some detractors have criticized this as utilitarian, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that ecosystem services support both conservation efforts and sustainable use.8

For terrestrial ecosystems, such as in Namibia and Ecuador, PES has delivered both conservation and improved livelihoods. In fact, terrestrial PES models have evolved to the point of being highly context specific, returning benefits to local communities, improving environmental and ecological outcomes, and enabling meaningful collaboration across public, private, and community entities.9,10 On the coast and in the fluid marine environment, it is these context-specific responses that are required to foster ownership of local problem solving and solutions across multiple sectors (recreational, commercial, customary fishers, tourism, wildlife conservation, etc.). PES models can enable this.


Annette Ellis
Infographic 4. Reconciling who pays for restoring marine fisheries: With ecosystem service analysis a seafood company, fishery, or product supply chain (group of companies linked by mutual interest in a species or place) can understand their relative impacts and dependencies on natural capital, biodiversity, and ecosystem services and can guide fairer sharing of restoration costs.

Payment for Ecosystem Services in the Marine Environment

PES conditions include voluntary transactions whereby a well-defined environmental service or a use that is likely to secure that service is being ‘bought’ by an environmental services buyer from an environmental services provider.11 This transaction is conditional and occurs only if the provider secures the promised ecosystem service. This holds promise for fisheries given that it focuses on using positive incentives and conditionality to influence behavior—fisheries management is after all about managing behavior, not fish! Both certification and eco-labelling have been identified as having potential PES mechanisms as there is a preferential market for more sustainable products.12 However, fisheries incentive analysis shows that this needs further development in practice and that specific PES conditions could strengthen fisheries improvement.13

Marine and coastal ecosystem service (MCES) analysis and quantification is a relatively young field being tested in specific sites such as the Meso-American Reef, Jamaica, and the Bird’s Head in Indonesia. In addition, the proposed global TEEB Oceans and Coasts will assess how to effectively apply ecosystem services.14 Market interest is growing in harnessing MCES including carbon sequestration, fish nurseries, water purification, and marine biodiversity, as well as developing payment approaches for this uncaptured value to finance conservation and sustainable management.15 However, reinforcing the need for accountability is this caution: “…there are no good measures or accountability systems for most marine ecosystem services, so ecosystem service characterization, quantification, and modelling will be central to these efforts.”16

MCES measurement frameworks are being developed to support accountable marine PES and include the condition of the ecosystem (supply metrics), the amount of ocean resources actually used or enjoyed by people (service metrics), and peoples’ preference for that level of service (value metrics).17 In addition, a Stanford University group has developed 30 indicators for seafood system sustainability assessments (see Infographic 5),18 which can guide best practices in seafood business corporate environmental reporting, especially if using the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) G4 or Integrated Reporting frameworks.19,20This could improve the information available to the C-suite executive and board level management and their advisers (bankers, auditors, insurers, investors, etc.).21 This research has enabled understanding of how these elements could fit together to strengthen a seafood company’s understanding of its impact and dependencies on natural capital, biodiversity, and ecosystem services (i.e. what are the material issues?), use a consistent set of seafood sector-specific metrics to track management to address those impacts and dependencies, and report transparently. Although gradually increasing, currently only a handful of large seafood businesses (excluding retail and restaurants) are reporting using GRI G4, yet none have consistent metrics, nor current guidance on how to apply the materiality analysis required under the G4 specifically to seafood.22


Annette Ellis
Infographic 5. R&D on tracking and metrics system is needed: These thirty indicators could significantly strengthen seafood company corporate reporting in both the GRI G4 and Integrated Reporting Frameworks.21 With refinement, it will become possible to calculate and weigh criteria to score across ecological, socioeconomic, and governance—of increasing interest to future employees, c-suite advisers, finance analysts, stock exchanges, investors, and insurers.

A Progression in Fisheries Management

While internationally fisheries policy and management improvements, such as the 1995 United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries (2003), have been increasingly well received, there is much debate on the status of fishery and ecosystem health overall.23 To counter the decline of marine fisheries, many experts have called for ecosystem approaches.24 Agreement also exists about the significantly increased wealth potential of rebuilt marine fisheries, the significant cost of recovering them, and the need for collaboration. According to Sumaila and colleagues (2012), it’s a worthwhile investment, with research showing that restoration can increase productivity four-fold and decrease variability by 21 percent on average. Economically, estimates are that a fishery rebuilding investment of about US$203 billion would result in benefits surpassing costs after 12 years.25

Interdisciplinary tools, including certification, marine spatial planning, bycatch reduction, and fisheries and habitat restoration projects are already being used by the seafood sector and could be expanded to embed fishery and ecosystem sustainability throughout supply chains, and so share the costs more equitably (see Infographic 4). Given the significant impact and dependence of the seafood sector on the marine environment, the question can be asked whether adapted PES models could guide investment, improve fisheries, and strengthen corporate accountability? These could operate alongside other sustainable fisheries financial initiatives including adapting the UN Principles for Responsible Investment to fisheries (UNEP 2009) and others.26-29

The First Global Ecosystem Service Review of a Commercial Seafood

In 2014, the largest M?ori-owned seafood company, Aotearoa Fisheries Limited (AFL), and Terra Moana Limited conducted a Qualitative Ecosystem Service Review of New Zealand p?ua under the auspices of the New Zealand Sustainable Business Council Business and Biodiversity project.30,31 It is believed to be the first application of the Corporate ESR methodology to a commercial seafood.32


Annette Ellis
Infographic 6. Ecosystem Service Review of New Zealand abalone (p?ua): The AFL ESR found that, among other threats to p?ua, sedimentation in the Marlborough Sounds was a severe impact and affected kelp habitat, and that in other locations where coastal native forest remained intact, there are more productive p?ua fisheries.

P?ua, the M?ori name for abalone, is one of the most valuable AFL products. Traditionally, AFL canned the prime p?ua meat, sold the trimmings to the nutraceutical sector and the shell to the ornamental and jewelry trade. This is changing, however, with increasing interest in live export by key Asian markets that are also being undermined by cheaper farmed products. Along with increasing pressures on all inshore New Zealand fisheries, AFL embarked on a sustainability journey to ensure that their fishing and business practices were aligned with community values and more deeply expressive of Kaitiakitanga, Maori for guardianship.33

The ESR offered AFL an opportunity to holistically evaluate both its dependence and impact on natural capital, biodiversity, and ecosystem services relevant to p?ua and to identify any business risks and opportunities. AFL’s p?ua ESR is a first for the New Zealand seafood industry, and potentially internationally, and represents a steep change in fisheries management and industry empowerment. As Allyn Glaysher, the AFL Sustainability Director said, “We had never done anything of this nature in AFL. To be perfectly honest, it was a ‘leap of faith,’ an opportunity presented to us. We have been surprised at the amount of information we’ve got out of it and what it might mean going forward.”

The review identified priority short-term actions: information needs (e.g. the effects of rising sea temperatures and changing acidity associated with climate change on p?ua), internal changes, public policy engagement, and collaborative ecosystem restoration. Into the future, PES schemes linking ecosystem service buyers and providers across the terrestrial–marine interface, or the coastal zone, could support ecological restoration, such as for kelp in the Marlborough Sounds of New Zealand to recover p?ua (see Infographic 6). This would also enable related species to recover, including the blue cod, popular with recreational fishers who could also participate in the PES scheme.

Onto the Sustainable Seafood Map


Devin Harvey
Katherine Short speaking at the SeaWeb Seafood Summit in New Orleans in February 2015. Joining her on the panel, from left to right were Annabelle Bladon, Allyn Glaysher, and Nia Evans.

This work was recently presented at the SeaWeb Seafood Summit in New Orleans in February 2015, in a program titled, “Putting Ecosystem Services on the Sustainable Seafood Map.”34,35 The Summit is the premier gathering of sustainable seafood leaders from across the seafood industry, retail, and support services including investment advisers, nongovernment and government organizations, science, and academia.

A panel demonstrated how natural capital and ecosystem services have great potential to strengthen sustainable seafood efforts in both the developed and developing world. The global context was introduced, explaining current sustainable seafood gaps and how ecosystem service and natural capital approaches might fill them. Dr. Tundi Agardy described the basic science and policy of why ecosystem service perspectives can strengthen fisheries management, while Allyn Glaysher of the AFL described the aforementioned Sustainability Journey and ESR. Annabelle Bladon, a PhD candidate at Imperial College London, explained her research into using PES, and specifically conservation trust funds, to enable fairer and more accountable financial support to the Bangladesh hilsa fishermen during the no-fishing season.36 Nia Evans, the Sustainability Manager at Sanford, introduced the company’s corporate report. Basing its report on the GRI materiality analysis framework drives the company to consider its risks and dependencies on natural capital and ecosystem services, or as Sanford calls them, its enablers.

Discussion following the panel included concerns expressed by a Louisiana fisherman about the information costs for ecosystem approaches. From the audience, Fiorenza Micheli, David and Lucile Packard Professor of Marine Science at Stanford University, responded, pointing to the efficiency opportunities from ecosystem approaches for both the seafood sector having their own information, and through more integrated management.

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Katherine Short
Tony Craig from Terra Moana Ltd presents the Pacific North West watershed, forestry, and salmon ecosystem services model at the SeaWeb Seafood Summit in New Orleans in February 2015.

The following day, Terra Moana Ltd and Future of Fish,37 an entrepreneur lab for sustainable seafood, co-hosted an exploratory workshop to further understand the challenges and breakthroughs associated with applying natural capital and ecosystem services to foster sustainable seafood globally. Key informants included Mike Kraft, Sustainability Director for Bumblebee Tuna, Thomas Kraft, Managing Director of Norpac (a fresh tuna company), Micheli, who introduced the 30 indicators developed to enable seafood system-wide assessment and reporting (see Infographic 5), and Trip O’Shea of EKO Asset Management, a New York-based impact investment firm. Workshop participants included major seafood buyers from the U.S. and United Kingdom, impact investment advisers, social and marine scientists, nongovernment organizations, and other global seafood sector representatives, including from indigenous interests. Three conceptual pitches for why a company should use natural capital and ecosystem services arose, including very relevant fisheries improvement scenarios relating to pole and line tuna and baitfish, tropical reef ecosystems and local tourism, and Pacific Northwest watersheds, sustainable timber production, and salmon.

Feedback and interest in subsequent activity to develop these ideas was generous, and the resulting discussion among participants made clear the following points:

  1. Interdisciplinary work is hard;
  2. We each had whole or parts of solutions to each other’s challenges;
  3. The immature science and lack of accountable financing are the greatest challenges;
  4. There is a need to establish a collaborative consortium to provide a foundation upon which the opportunities of ecosystem services and PES can support seafood sustainability to go to scale, and that;
  5. Learning from terrestrial experience shows ecosystem service approaches can address critical challenges in fisheries, including the following:
    • appropriate rights-based management frameworks, especially in indigenous and developing country contexts, through mechanisms such as conservation trust funds, and
    • accountability and producing quality outcomes for people, the supply chain, investors and, more importantly, nature.

Initiatives to progress the integration of the three spheres of ecosystem services, sustainable seafood, and corporate transparency for seafood will continue to be explored. AFL, Sanford, Terra Moana Ltd., and Future of Fish are working through options for progressing this work both internationally and in New Zealand, including with the New Zealand Sustainable Business Council.

Using ecosystem services offers a way to express multiple values about the natural world and so better share the responsibilities and costs for restoring the planet.


Katherine Short

Katherine Short is a thought leader in marine fisheries conservation and sustainability globally, having worked deeply through WWF with the Marine Stewardship Council and ecosystem-based management of...

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