What’s for dinner on your menu tonight? More so than ever before, it is becoming safe to assume there will be some fish or shellfish landing on your plate, as seafood consumption is on the rise. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that global per capita seafood consumption was 19.2 kg in 2012, compared to 9.9 kg in the 1960s.1 While lauded for simply being delicious, seafood is also celebrated for its nutritional value, as it is a prime source for omega-3 fatty acids while being low in saturated fat. Means to preserve and transport fish produce have improved considerably, so whether it is fresh, frozen, cured, or canned, today’s menus often include options for high quality seafood dishes.

Yet despite these benefits, seafood still leaves a bad taste in the mouths of some consumers due to ever-increasing reports of ecological and socio-economic challenges associated with the seafood industry. According to FAO estimates, in 2011 28.8 percent of fish stocks were being exploited at unsustainable levels.1 This over-exploitation threatens global (sea)food security, because in some (largely developing) countries, fish accounts for upward of 25 percent of animal protein intake.1 Moreover, fishing methods can be destructive for vulnerable species and habitats, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing practices hamper effective resource management.

While these concerns are becoming more widely publicized, the sustainable seafood movement is nonetheless about exactly that—seafood. Through the joint efforts of environmental organizations and companies, fish is framed as food rather than wildlife. The aim is to promote sustainable consumption practices instead of fish conservation measures, and to reach out to a wide-ranging audience of consumers rather than aspiring ‘environmentalists,’ thus “bridg[ing] the gap between the conservation community and the seafood industry and build[ing] a larger market for ocean-friendly seafood.”2 As a result, consumers are provided with ever-increasing amounts of information to help them pick the ‘right’ dish that could contribute to fishery management.

There are many possibilities for linking sustainability to seafood, ranging from one-way communication, like on-package labelling, to interactive and personalized messages through social media channels. On-package labelling is one of the most widely researched and publicly discussed tools.3-7 In Europe, and increasingly in other parts of the world, the most recognized of these labels is the “blue tick” of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). This conveys the message that the specific product has been assessed against the MSC’s environmental standards, and therefore comes from a sustainable fishery.8 To further emphasize engagement with sustainability, some retailers also have in-store promotions that provide consumers with information on factors such as the product’s origin and details about the fishing methods used. Consumer guides offer another informational tool for seafood consumers, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. These guides are available as wallet cards, and increasingly as apps, which fits in perfectly with the daily routines of many consumers who not only carry their wallet but also a mobile device.5,9 The guides inform consumers about the best choices, good alternatives, and what to avoid.7

While the tools mentioned above play critical roles in the active promotion of the sustainable seafood movement’s agenda, messages are also increasingly communicated to consumers through information disbursement on websites and in television, and through social media channels like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. For example, consumer guides are often supported by websites where recipes can be accessed, like the “delicious, ocean-friendly seafood recipes created by the best chefs in the country” linked to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.10 This combination of guides and recipes further illustrates the sustainable seafood movement’s reliance on consumption and food-oriented discourses to bring across its environmentalist message.11 The emphasis on food opens the door to more educational opportunities, since campaigning is not just about sustainability issues, whether environmental, social, ethical, and/or regarding animal welfare. It can—and is—complemented  by messages about healthy, easy, cheap, and good food.12,13 In particular, celebrity personalities have engaged with the movement to ask individuals across segments of society to (further) accept particular practices, actors, structures, and commodities as integral to living a sustainable and healthy life.11 Navigating the different communication channels, celebrity chefs are playing starring roles, standing up to become new and powerful sustainability advocates.4,11 Their capacity to present audiences with aspirational food dishes coupled with their celebrity status attracts a broad range of people that are open to absorbing their messages.

The MSC ‘blue tick’ appears on seafood that meets the MSC’s global standard for sustainability.

Celebrity chefs are not a new phenomenon. There have been television broadcasts featuring chefs since the 1950s. These chefs often also published cookbooks, reinforcing the messages they convey on television: that anyone can learn to cook, and that it can be fun, too. Although television and books are often referred to as “old media,” these modes of mass communication are still prevalent, evidenced by the immense sales of cookbooks, especially around the holiday season. Cooking shows on television likewise are tremendously popular, with shows like MasterChef airing in about 50 countries on six continents and featuring celebrity chefs on the judging panels. In spite of this wave of success of televised cooking competitions, chefs are most widely recognized for their individual television shows (often bearing their name in the title), especially in cultures dominated by the Anglo-American model of celebrity communication.14

In books, competitions, and individual shows, the “you can do it!” message is frequently endorsed. This style of writing, speaking, and acting invokes the feeling of a personal coach whose friendly advice and step-by-step instructions encourage and educate; two key ingredients of environmental campaigning. Online (“new”) media provides supporting learning material aimed to further promote, teach, and improve the art of cooking, and at the same time allows for considering background information on the quality and sustainability of ingredients. Moreover, since blogs, videos, and opportunities to ask questions via Facebook and Twitter complement old, mainly one directional modes of mass communication, messages about what to eat (and how to cook it) are self-selected and easily redirected. Jamie Oliver is probably the most famous example,15 being not just a celebrated television personality but also having an omnipresence online with more than 6.32 million followers on Twitter, 6.3 million likes on Facebook, his own YouTube (FoodTube) channel (about 2.9 million subscribers and more than 298 million views), and communicating via his own website(s), Google+ hangouts, and Instagram, among other social media accounts. This outreach shows that, like celebrity chefs, the audience is an indispensable node in today’s food network.13

Still, the power of celebrity chefs lies not just in their communications capacity to harness the strength of the global food network to relay sustainability messages. Additionally, their strength and potential lies in a relational dimension.12,15,16 From the early days of television shows, chefs invited relatives and (celebrity) friends, broadcasting homely images of cooking and chatting. This reflects a key message that cooking is not just about preparing food—it is about caring for loved ones. Over the years this notion seems to have been applied more broadly. Chefs with philanthropic sympathies use their celebrity status and, again, their access to multiple channels of communication to raise awareness (and equally important, donations) for a broad range of societal issues. The South African chef Reuben Riffel for instance is a prominent figure in the fight against malnutrition and hunger in his country. By linking the care for family and friends to that for others, chefs are taking steps toward promoting ethical and cultural values to a broad audience that may or may not directly relate to the message being promoted.

This has placed celebrity chefs in a prime position to tackle controversial issues around environmental degradation, such as those connected to the sustainable seafood movement like collapsing fish stocks, harm to non-target species (bycatch), and habitat destruction. As mentioned above, on their own, these issues have not garnered great public interest, but through the voice of celebrity chefs framing these issues in the context of food and aspirational living, audiences may be more receptive. A famous example of a chef-led marine conservation campaign is the “Chefs-for-Seals” movement, launched by the Humane Society of the United States.17 The Chefs-for-Seals campaign brought together restaurants, grocery stores, and celebrity chefs, including Mario Batali and Cat Cora, in a boycott of Canadian seafood, with the goal of ending an annual seal hunt held in the country. Another example is the “Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass” campaign spearheaded by the National Environmental Trust in the U.S. in the early 2000s, which saw celebrity chefs publicly boycotting this product and taking it off of their menus.18

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s seafood watch site (www.seafoodwatch.org) helps consumers to make “ocean-friendly” choices regarding seafood.

Celebrity chefs are not just advocates for NGO campaigns; they are also taking the lead and organizing their own campaigns. An example of this is U.K. chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who in 2010 launched a campaign called “Fish Fight” to end the practice of discarding unwanted/unsellable fish in European fisheries. By centering the campaign on the use of multi-directional communications tools (television, newspapers, websites, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) Fish Fight attracted enormous attention. It was also supported by a range of European celebrities, including other chefs, actors, and sportsmen, as well as some large retailers. More than 870,000 people from 195 countries signed a petition calling for an E.U. Common Fisheries Policy report and a ban on discarding catch. In 2013, the E.U. banned discarding, and while causality cannot be established, it is reported that Fish Fight was a contributing factor behind this decision.19 Further, according to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s website, the campaign did more than get a petition signed: Fish Fight produced its own seafood guide (now available as an app), downloadable recipes, and joint actions with retailers, claiming it resulted in increased sales of undervalued fish by 150 percent in some U.K. supermarkets.20

However, compared to the focus on the health and well-being of human communities, environmental concerns are more complex, and efforts to address these are often widely criticized. The Chefs-for-Seals campaign became the topic of a fierce debate, kindled by a tweet from U.S. celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain drawing attention to the effects of the boycott on the livelihoods of indigenous people in the Arctic.21 Fish Fight was criticized for providing misinformation, and not understanding the intricacies of the discards issue in Europe and the impacts that a wholesale ban would have on already vulnerable fishing communities.22 Moreover, if the audience is treated as consumers rather than environmentalists, what can be expected of their interest in distinguishing between contrasting messages? This might be even more problematic if consumers follow the advice of various chefs, some of whom promote sustainable seafood, while others do quite the opposite.

These controversies once again show that balancing environmental and socio-economic concerns in sustainability is not straightforward. Following mass-media, celebrity-driven campaigns comes with a note of caution, as promoting complex issues through “sound byte” conservation can create controversy, and ultimately confusion, rather than the progress intended. Celebrity chefs promoting sustainability are predominantly a Western phenomenon, whereas concerns about (sea)food security and harmful fishing practices are global challenges. It is therefore not surprising that most chefs focus on the non-contested issue of helping their nation’s future generations, preferring to convey positive messages around cooking and caring, rather raising their heads above the parapet to promote a fight, ban, or boycott.

At the same time, celebrity chefs are in a key position to promote sustainability messages to those who want fish on their dinner plates. Both Fearnley-Whittingstall and Bourdain provide valuable examples of the power of celebrity chefs to use their unique skills and positions to convey this information to a wide audience. It would be a missed opportunity to disregard their particular ways of feeding the hunger for celebrity following with messages about sustainability challenges in fisheries into their own (food) networks. Social media is here to stay, spreading all over the world, and it is not just open to celebrity chefs. Their audiences are as capable (and needed) to post, respond to, and redirect messages. The conservation community can play an important role as “food critics,” safeguarding and strengthening the connection between sustainability and seafood. Activists, scientists, politicians, aquaria, labelling organizations, and the like can comment, check and contest (mis-)information from an environmental point of view. Such continuous interaction, which is at the core of social media communications, ensures that the next tweet, blog post, or news item is about healthy, easy-to-cook, affordable, and sustainable seafood dishes.


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  19. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall wins his Fish Fight: discarding dead fish may be banned. The Telegraph [online] (2011). http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/8350443/Hugh-Fearnley-Whittingstall-wins-his-Fish-Fight-discarding-dead-fish-may-be-banned.html.
  20. The Fish Fight Story. Fishfight.net [online] (2014). http://www.fishfight.net/story.html.
  21. Chef fires back at Anthony Bourdain over seal hunt boycott. CBC News [online] (2013). http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/chef-fires-back-at-anthony-bourdain-over-seal-hunt-boycott-1.2303147.
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Hilde M. Toonen

Hilde is a post-doctoral research fellow and lecturer, based at the Environmental Policy group, Wageningen University (the Netherlands). She holds a PhD in environmental sociology/anthropology. Her expertise...


Alice M.M. Miller

Alice is the Social Research and Programmes Director at the International Pole and Line Foundation (IPNLF). She holds a PhD from the University of Wageningen, which looked at “Governance Innovations...

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