Ecolabels and certifications have become common in the trade of fish and fish products, encouraging buyers to choose sustainably sourced seafood. However, their effectiveness and costs need further research, and their relationship with public authorities in ensuring sustainable fisheries is a topic of debate. Jordan DiNardo is a PhD student wrapping up her studies at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. After working with SIRF to study the efficacy of seafood ecolabels and rating programs as fisheries management tools, she discusses the outcome and inspiration behind her research.
Q: As a young researcher, tell us what made you interested in working with the Seafood Industry Research Fund on this proposal?
A: “I think during my PhD experience, I’ve come to find that I am most fulfilled when I’m conducting research that helps to improve our fisheries, but really works in that intersection of disciplines where I’m able to collaborate with interdisciplinary folks and leverage new and creative streams of knowledge. Given that SIRF is this nonprofit that works in that intersection of science and business to help advance the seafood industry, I feel like our missions are well aligned. I think that’s what compelled me to reach out to SIRF and want to work with them on this project.”
Q: Based on your research, many respondents appear to be only somewhat concerned about the future of our environment. The seafood industry has a great sustainability story to tell, how should the seafood community prepare to communicate our sustainability story to the public?
A: “I think what first comes to mind when thinking about how we can communicate these sustainability messages is storytelling. Storytelling is such an effective way to communicate, and I think it’s far more effective than regurgitating facts and statistics that just go over our heads. The story we should really highlight is the suppliers, the fishers, who are out on the waters engaging with these fish populations that we rely on as protein. They are the ones that are taking action to improve their practices to make them more sustainable. They also rely on these practices to support their livelihood. The projects that I’ve worked on while getting my PhD, specifically those in which I’ve taken the time to listen to and engage with fishers, have been far more memorable and impactful. I think that’s because it adds this human element, this much more relatable side to it, and it boils down to the why behind everything. That’s a great place to start when it comes to communicating with consumers.”
Q: Based on your research, consumers place a high level of trust in retailers and grocers for reliable information compared to other sustainable seafood networks. How can we enhance our relationship with the supply chain to communicate our sustainability message?
A: “I loved this finding of the survey. One, because it makes sense. Retailers and grocers are consumer-facing in nature. For most consumers, they are the only sustainable seafood network actor, the only stakeholder that they engage with when buying their seafood, as opposed to maybe buying directly from the fishers, so it makes sense that consumers put a lot of trust in retailers and grocers. On the other hand, I love this finding because it also provides a great opportunity for us to better engage with consumers. Given the nature that (retailers and grocers) are so consumer-facing, it’s this direct line to the consumers that we know to focus on. Retailers and grocers are making this great effort to improve the sustainability of their seafood buying guidelines, but we can’t just stop there. These efforts need to be then relayed to the consumers, which relates back to storytelling. Why are we making these improvements to our guidelines? Why are we trying to make more sustainable choices in terms of the tuna cans and the seafood that’s being stalked on the shelves in delis and display cases? I think grocers and retailers can make more of an effort there and furthermore, improve their marketing strategies by finding new avenues to communicate to consumers, not just through signage in the store but maybe by hosting demonstrations and sampling kiosks throughout the stores. They could bring in chefs and fishers and host these educational events around how to approach seafood: how to choose the right fish, how to cook that fish, etc., so you are giving skills to consumers rather than just facts. There’s a lot that can be done there, and it could be really creative too.”
Q: Your research shows three in four people are unlikely to somewhat likely to spend more money on seafood products with sustainable ecolabels. Given consumers’ lack of willingness to pay more for ecolabels, what does this mean for the future of third-party labels?
A: “I feel like ecolabels have been facing this issue from their inception. The success of ecolabels really relies on assumptions, the first one being that consumers are aware of their ecolabel and they use them when they are shopping for seafood, that they understand the why behind why ecolabel products are sold for a bit higher of a price than others that may not have that ecolabel, and then finally they are then willing to pay that price premium given that they are familiar with that ecolabel and know why they are sold at a higher price. I think the future of ecolabels really relies on this trio of assumptions. I know there’s a lot of other factors that come into play like the state of our economy and the limitations around sociodemographic factors, but I think for ecolabels to be more successful, again we have to put more focus and emphasis around educating consumers and effective communication, in hopes that they become more familiar with ecolabels and are aligned with why they exist. Then, hopefully, they will understand the need to then pay a bit more for them.”
Q: Finally, can you share what’s next for you and this research?
A: “I think this study really just scratches the surface. It shines some light on where we need to put more emphasis and effort into. I am obviously really passionate about this work and would love to continue it and help implement some of the recommendations I’ve been suggesting around it. I am wrapping up my PhD at Scripps Institution of Oceanography early next year, so I am looking for opportunities where I can continue this work and leverage my skills to help improve our fisheries and the seafood industry. Hopefully we will continue this work and dig deeper.”
For more information on how to apply for SIRF grants and funding, visit https://sirfonline.org/research/request-research-project/