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Meet a scientist: the sustainable-seafood guru

© CI/Mark Erdmann

Editor’s note: A recent survey found that 81 percent of Americans could not name a living scientist. No, not a single one. At Conservation International (CI), we have lots of scientists you should know. Here’s one.

Jack Kittinger is senior director of the global fisheries and aquaculture program for Conservation International’s Center for Oceans, focusing on sustainability in the seafood sector.

Human Nature spoke with Kittinger about his aquatic upbringing, and the uncertain future of the seafood we eat.

Question: What made you want to work in the seafood industry?

Answer: I grew up in the coastal Carolinas on the East coast of the U.S. and I was very lucky that I had a highly “aquatic” upbringing. I actually learned how to drive a boat before a car, and grew up surfing, swimming, diving and fishing on the coast. So you could say the ocean has always been in my blood. I went to school for marine biology and found that a lot of colleagues also connected to the ocean because of their proximity to it growing up. People work to protect the places they care about.

My mission is to protect special places like the one where I grew up, so I joined Conservation International eight years ago to do just that. It’s incredible to work at an organization where everyone treats their work as a vocation rather than merely a profession. I firmly believe we need healthy oceans to survive, and every day I’m becoming more excited about the progress we are making in this sector.

Q: What does that progress look like?

A: The vast majority of major buyers in the American and European markets have made commitments to sustainability in their purchasing of seafood. The sector is getting serious about social responsibility and human rights. And where we have invested in better governance, fisheries are recovering.

Q: What are the top 3 issues in the seafood world at the moment?

A: Seafood is the last thing on Earth that we still hunt on a global level — everything else we cultivate or grow — so we must manage wild populations sustainably, or we simply won’t have enough food. Three billion people rely on fish for their primary animal protein source, so that puts the responsibility on everyone in the conservation sector to ensure we sustainably manage it. But we are overfishing about half of all fisheries in the world.

Another environmental concern is unsustainable aquaculture, which you might know as fish farming. In a lot of developing countries, people are destroying mangroves — which absorb massive amounts of carbon and are vital to fighting climate change — to grow shrimp or other seafood species. We have to ensure both wild-caught and farmed seafood is sustainably produced.

While the environmental concern is major, what’s increasingly come to light over the past five years is how people are treated in the seafood sector. Because of the pioneering work of journalists and researchers, we now know that the seafood sector has a poor track record when it comes to human rights — it’s even worse than mining. We have to ensure that there are social safeguards put in place that keep fishers free from abuse and ensure they can support themselves and their families.

Q: How do you make sure you’re eating seafood that is sustainably and responsibly sourced?

A: The easiest way is to ask the restaurant or grocery store where it sources its fish from and whether it is certified sustainable. All consumers are part of the solution and doing this gives us the opportunity to vote with our money. If we choose to only buy things that are produced with people and the planet in mind — meaning sustainably and responsibly sourced — we can shift market demand. You can also research different retailers’ commitments to sustainability on the internet — there are quite a few that have made commitments and are working to sell seafood that is produced in the right ways. Lastly, purchase as close as you can to the source — meaning local fish and seafood from local fishers.

Q: How is climate change impacting seafood?

A: As the oceans heat up and become more acidic and the currents change, the fish are moving. Seafood is much different than our other food sources such as livestock, because it’s mobile and always shifting. Climate change is causing this shift to happen more often and permanently. This has a major impact not just on the local fishing communities who can’t catch enough fish to eat or support their families, but on the economies of countries as well, particularly small island nations. For example, the Pacific Islands produce most of the world’s tuna, and their economies rely on the revenue that the tuna fisheries bring in. But, because of climate change, the tuna populations are shifting to the east — and outside the waters of the Pacific Islands — so the Pacific Islands are going to start losing the backbone of their economies. Climate change is a social justice issue for these countries, who depend on it fully but have contributed almost nothing to the problem of global warming.

Because of the climate crisis, we are going to deal with new realities in terms of who owns fish, how they reproduce and where they live. We’ve already seen adaptations to climate change among the aquaculture community — for example, in the Pacific Northwest, oyster farmers have had to change how they are growing and harvesting oysters in response to more acidic waters.

This isn’t a future threat. Climate change is happening now, and countries are witnessing these changes in real time — and it’s going to have a huge impact on how we feed ourselves.

Jack Kittinger is senior director of the blue production program for Conservation International’s Center for Oceans. Olivia DeSmit is a former staff writer for Conservation International.

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Human rights abuses in the seafood industry occur every day. To learn about some of the heroes fighting to bring justice and freedom to enslaved fishers, check out the new film “Ghost Fleet” here.

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