Sustainability in seafood industry

Dr. Sunil Mohamed observes that since the concept of sustainability can no longer be separated from the seafood industry, the Indian marine sector is gearing up for this challenge to establish its hold in global seafood exports.


Image credit: istockphotos

The Food and Agriculture Organization states that between one-third and 40% of all fish produced is now traded internationally. This makes fish and fisheries products one of the most traded food commodities in the world. A careful analysis of data suggests that global average consumption of fish and other seafood has grown from 9.9 kg in the 1960s to 20.5 kilogram in 2019. 10 countries with the highest per capita consumption of fish and seafood include Iceland (91.19 kg), the Maldives (84.58 kg), Portugal (57.19 kg), South Korea (57.05 kg), Japan (46.06 kg), Spain (42.4 kg), China (38.49 kg), France (34.24 kg), Italy (29.82 kg) and Australia (26.12 kg). India’s per capita consumption of fish and seafood is at 6.76 kg.

Further, China has been a major player in this trade in 2020. Some of the other major aquatic products exporting countries are Norway, Vietnam, Chile and India. Of late, countries like Vietnam are importing raw fish, adding value to it and then re-exporting these value added seafood products.

The Indian seafood industry: Time to cast a wider net 

Looking at India, specifically, the nation has the advantage of having a large exclusive economic zone of 2 million square kilometres. Accounting for 7.96% of the total global fish production, India is the second-largest fish and aquaculture-producing country. The country’s seafood industry contributes about 1.24% to the country’s GVA and supports the livelihood of over 28 million people in India.

The total marine exports increased from US$ 3.5 billion in 2011-12 to US$ 5.9 billion in 2020-21 as per MPEDA. This trade is buoyed by rising demand in the US and Europe. It suggests that of late, Southeast Asia has also emerged as an important destination for India’s marine exports. There has also been a commodity-wise change in India’s exports. For example, India’s shrimp exports have risen from a share of 30% in 1990s to 74% in 2020-21. Increase in shrimp exports have been majorly due to the rise in aquaculture. The other commodities of marine exports are frozen fish, frozen cuttle fish, frozen squid, dried items, live fish and chilled items. It is also interesting to note that while the US is the top destination for Indian seafood exports in value terms (US$ 2.45 billion), the Southeast Asian region was one of the top export destinations in 2020-21 in terms of volume (2177 MT). This implies that India is trying to diversify its seafood exports in terms of both the products offered and the markets to which they are exported.

Source: MPEDA (All units are in US$ mn)

5-year trend of India’s marine exports

Product Value exported in 2017-18 Value exported in 2018-19 Value exported in 2019-20 Value exported in 2019-20 Value exported in 2020-21
Frozen shrimp 3,726.38 4,848.19 4,610.59 4,889.12 4,426.19
Frozen fish 672.47 733.17 699.09 513.6 402.31
Frozen cuttle fish 292.73 369.88 282.29 286.4 221.97
Frozen squid 388.64 385.01 359.71 314.23 273.37
Dried items 199.77 163.53 189.58 140.81 156.94
Live items 61.05 45.41 55.89 46.43 32.72
Chilled items 116.02 101.78 89.2 90.34 65.14
Others 320.54 434.58 442.16 397.77 378.3
Total 5,777.61 7,081.55 6,728.5 6,678.69 5,956.93

Source: MPEDA (All units are in US$ mn)

Seafood industry & the question of sustainability

Today, the importance of utilizing fisheries and aquaculture resources responsibly is widely recognized as several fish stocks started collapsing globally in the late ’80s. Almost 90% of global marine fish stocks are now fully exploited or overfished owing to rising populations, higher incomes, and greater awareness of seafood’s health benefits. According to the data computed by the World Bank, the situation is worst in low-­income and middle-­income countries, where weak regulation and enforcement have produced above-­average declines in fish stocks. It notes that illegal fishing constitutes 20% of the global catch. This situation needs to change as fisheries are crucial to global food security and nutrition. This is where the question of sustainability becomes crucial for the industry.

Sustainable fishing is crucial to ensuring sustainable fish stocks, minimizing environmental impact and allowing effective fisheries management by preventing illegal fishing and cutting out destructive fishing practices. In this context, eco-labelling is increasingly being adopted to maintain the productivity and economic value of fisheries, while providing incentives for improved fisheries management and the conservation of marine biodiversity. According to the FAO:

Eco-labels are seals of approval given to products that are deemed to have fewer impacts on the environment than functionally or competitively similar products. The rationale for basic labelling information at the point of sale is that it links fisheries products to their production process. Product claims associated with eco-labelling aim at tapping the growing public demand for environmentally preferable products.

In India, the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) ‘Blue Label Certification’, certifies that their fishery uses sustainable methods of fishing. A fishery  in Ashtamudi lake has obtained this certification. Such an endeavor can boost India’s share of seafood export, which is currently 4% of the global trade.

Sustainability is also linked to traceability. Overseas consumers and processers want to know the source of the product. For example, the EU is demanding catch certificates, in which fishers declare where they caught the fish processors that carry that label export markets. This calls for investment by the Indian seafood sector in the transition to sustainable fisheries. So, India, too, has started embracing this change, since a number of other countries have started demanding this proof. The government has designed Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana (PMMSY) for promoting sustainability and traceability from ‘catch to consumer’

In addition, the government has also introduced initiatives to promote various new techniques for both fresh water and saline water species. For example, RAS is a highly intensive, eco-friendly and water-efficient farming system that can be encouraged for small-scale fish farmers and entrepreneurs to initiate and expand fish production where land and water are scarce. Another such technology is Biofloc, an aquaculture technique that converts toxic materials such as nitrate and ammonia into a proteinaceous feed, thereby addressing critical issues of aquaculture such as high cost of feed & limited availability of tanks. Cage culture has been adopted by fishers in multiple states in India to optimally utilise the
available water resources to enhance fish production. Fixed and floating cages are used for this purpose.  Lastly, incorporation of good catching practices such as hook and line need to be promoted in the country among the fishing community.


Dr. K Sunil Mohamed is Retired Principal Scientist & Head of Division, Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute and Chair, Sustainable Seafood Network of India (SSNI).

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