Thai consumers could trigger sustainable seafood market

opinion August 08, 2014 01:00

By Pariphan Uawithya
Special to

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Makro, Tesco Lotus and Tops supermarket chains recently became the first retailers in Thailand to stop selling parrotfish, after receiving an overwhelming number of petitions from environmentalists and concerned consumers.

It is remarkable how an online campaign calling on Thai and international retailers to stop selling parrotfish drew huge consumer and media attention, gained public momentum, and achieved results in a matter of days. One of the retailers, Makro, even posted a message on its website reaffirming their commitment to environmental protection. 
It is evident that consumer pressure can quickly and effectively shape corporate behaviour to become more responsible towards the environment that we all depend on. This most recent call to action indicates a growing interest and awareness among Thai consumers in a do-no-harm policy for the environment and the need to protect our coastal ecosystem. 
Each Thai consumes an average 33 kilograms of seafood per year, almost twice the global average. While demand for seafood continues to grow, supply from domestic waters is decreasing at a rate of 1.7 per cent per year. Of the total marine catch, 60 per cent is caught in Thai waters and the rest from waters outside the Thai Exclusive Economic Zone. The colourful parrotfish plays a unique role in maintaining the health of coral reefs by grazing reef crust, eating algae that threaten growth and beauty of coral reefs, and producing coral reef sand. When parrotfish are overfished, and polluted wastewater is released into our ocean, algae overgrow and threaten both coral reefs and the health of our marine ecosystem.  
Retail grocers are one of the main sources of consumer seafood purchases in urban areas and thus have a strong connection to the health of Thai waters and oceans. While removing parrotfish from the shelves is a step in the right direction, retailers could go to the next level by creating sustainable seafood purchasing policies, requiring their suppliers to deliver seafood products that are caught sustainably, and placing sustainable-sourced seafood products in their stores. There are already efforts underway in the US and Europe, where retailers source and sell sustainable seafood products in their stores. How did it happen? Consumers demanded it and retailers seized the business opportunity.  
On the other hand, banning the sale of parrotfish will affect the income level of fishers who catch and sell it. The state of our coastal fisheries is so severe that fishing folk are often forced either to catch parrotfish to make ends meet, as fishery stocks are declining due to unregulated overfishing, or fish in protected areas and coral reefs. Independent fishers represent 90 per cent of the world’s fishers and catch half of the world’s fish, but because their operations are small, they are unable to tap into new market opportunities and benefit from the price premiums that certified sustainable seafood can command. A long-term solution to this problem is to support fishery improvement efforts that restore the marine and coastal ecosystem, allowing fish stocks to bounce back to sustainable levels while providing livelihood support to fishers so that they can afford to adjust their catch practices. To drive more significant change now, establishing industry-wide – not just company-wide – sustainability commitments are important. 
In Thailand, there are some positive changes that offer hope for dwindling coastal fisheries. Just last year, two start-up sustainable and safe seafood stores opened to fill this market demand. These sustainable seafood entrepreneurs buy fish from coastal fishers at premium price in exchange for improved fishery practices, such as replacement of the routinely used formalin, a chemical preservative that causes many health risks, with cold-storage as the means for preventing spoilage. The entrepreneurs sell their fish to restaurant owners, urban consumers, hotel operators, and others who demand safe and sustainable local seafood. Already, some aquatic species in the fishery areas are reportedly bouncing back after applying improved fisheries management practices. In addition, fishers are able to earn a better income while consumers are able to purchase safe, formalin-free seafood products and have more access to information about seafood that they consume. 
These early success stories are grounded on the work of NGOs and researchers, committed local authorities, strong advocates, and fisher groups who organise themselves to negotiate with larger commercial interests, emerging sustainable seafood entrepreneurs, and rising domestic demand for safe and sustainable seafood. Through funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, we are also exploring solutions to replace unsustainable fishing practices with innovative approaches that build the resilience of coastal fisheries, while improving the economic and social conditions of the poor and vulnerable people whose well-being depends on it. 
If consumers make their voices heard, and retailers listen, there is a high potential to grow the sustainable seafood market in Thailand. At the policy-level, governments must also promote ecosystems that incentivise lasting partnerships between small-scale fisher communities and the rest of the industry in order to promote sustainable management. With so much attention on the industry now, collective action can help build a future in which profits derived from fish are more equitably and responsibly earned and shared.  In doing so, you not only improve the state of the ocean, one of our most precious natural resources, but also enhance the sustainability and profitability of fisheries.
Pariphan Uawithya is a senior programme associate of The Rockefeller Foundation, Asia.