Aquaculture Fisheries

Why do restaurants join sustainable seafood labelling programs?

Paper: Dolmage, KM, Macfarlane, V, Alley, J (2016). Understanding sustainable seafood consumption: an examination of the Ocean Wise (OW) initiative in British Columbia. Ecology and Society 21(2):26. doi:

Ocean Wise Logo

Have you ever been paralyzed with indecision at a grocery store or restaurant because you’re not sure if the seafood you are about to buy or order is sustainable? You’re not alone, food businesses such as restaurants, markets and other foodservice providers struggle with the same dilemma. Thankfully, resources exist that are designed to help both consumers and businesses make the right choice. Eco-labels such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise conduct scientific assessments of fisheries and aquaculture operations. The information is then synthesized to produce a recommendation. For example, Ocean Wise provides a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ recommendation that can empower consumers with information to purchase sustainable seafood options. Ocean Wise also works with their member restaurants to review seafood supply in terms of sustainability. The restaurant manager or restauranteur then commits to replacing unsustainable items with ocean-friendly ones in the future. In return, the restaurant can display the Ocean Wise logo, sending a signal to the conscious consumer.

Dolmage et al., wanted to identify the motivating factors that cause restauranteurs to join the program. By doing so, Ocean Wise and other eco-labels can inform the growth of their programs, leading to a greater ability to harness consumer demand and encourage positive change in seafood production. To do so, interviews were conducted with randomly selected Ocean Wise members, previous Ocean Wise members and non-Ocean Wise restaurants in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The majority of members joined because they shared Ocean Wise’s general vision of supporting sustainable seafood and affecting consumer-driven change. Other members joined in response to consumer demand which is not surprising as Vancouver has a reputation of being an environmentally friendly city. Ocean Wise members had a statistically significantly higher knowledge of fishing practices and sustainable products than nonmembers and participated in a higher number of green activities such as recycling, composting, sourcing local products, using environmentally friendly cleaning products, and reducing energy use than non-members. Surprisingly, generally positive attitudes towards the environment were not a motivating factor for restaurants to join Ocean Wise. Instead, other factors such as specific knowledge of seafood and personal experiences such as the observation of shrinking fish sizes over time were better predictors of members (when we catch big fish, only the smaller ones survive to produce the next generation). There were minimal financial barriers identified to participating in Ocean Wise, and 44% of members felt they benefited financially from participating in the program. Despite the $250 membership fee and higher prices of more sustainable options, members were able to recoup these costs by charging about 19% or about $3 more for sustainable items. Furthermore, 79% of members valued the image generated by their participation as well as the publicity received from Ocean Wise. One downside that most members identified was the difficulty in finding certain sustainable products, especially prawns.  In terms of positive impact, while 83% of Ocean Wise members believed that their membership was having at least a small impact, they believed that the collective impact of all Ocean Wise restaurants would have a positive influence on fish stocks.

Fish Market (Credit: Jim, Flickr, CC-BY-SA)
Fish Market (Credit: Jim, Flickr, CC-BY-SA)

So how can this information help Ocean Wise and perhaps other eco-labels grow? Eco-labels need to continue to be a reliable source of scientific information that restauranteurs and consumers trust. An unexpected result of research was finding the Ocean Wise logo displayed in nonmember restaurants. While this proves that there is perceived value in the program, it could also compromise the integrity of the program, so options for monitoring logo use should be considered. Eco-labels should also continue to publicize their members but also consider highlighting additional green activities undertaken to strengthen competitive advantage with discerning environmental consumers. To recruit more members, effort could be spent on providing education on fishing practices to nonmembers, as that was one of the main predicting factors of membership. They should also emphasize the collective impact of the program.  For example the BC groundfish trawl fishery established a habitat quota in response to market demand. Fortunately, Ocean Wise is starting to track data to assess the quantitative impacts of the program such as how many unsustainable seafood items have been removed from menus. Finally, eco-labels should provide more support for sourcing alternative sustainable options.

While it is unlikely that consumer-based tools such as eco-labeling alone will be a cure-all for decreasing trends of seafood populations, they do have an important role to play alongside management changes and other conservation initiatives. This study can help inform the growth and strength of eco-labels so they can make the biggest positive impact possible!

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