Senter for vitenskapsteori

Ethical seafood? - Fisheries and Aquaculture at the Crossroads (ESea)

Dette prosjektet hadde som mål å bidra til spørsmålet rundt den etiske statusen til globalt fiskeri og havbruk, og tok sitt utgangspunkt i spørsmålet om hvor etisk sjømaten vår er, og hva det vil si å hevde at den er etisk.

Stockfish hanging from lines
Matthias Kaiser


Informasjon om prosjektet på engelsk:

Project summary

Conceptually it is based on the separation of the concept of ethics from the concept of sustainability, in the sense that even if all questions of sustainability could be answered satisfactorily, the question of ethics would still remain. The two concepts are construed as partially but not totally overlapping. In other words, even if, for instance, the catching of minke whales might be construed as sustainable, the ethical issues surrounding the consumption of them would still remain. It would also include the possibility that even if a production of a certain seafood, for instance tiger shrimps, could be constructed as non-sustainable in its present form, the consumption of it might still be ethical in the short term, given some further conditions.

– The projects is based on the conviction that the ethics of seafood is vitally important both for the future development of the industries, and for the long-term perspectives of consumer acceptance.

It is furthermore based on the insight that increased consumption of seafood is positively contributing to public health for large parts of the global population, and, furthermore, has the potential to counter-balance the serious negative effects for global climate change following the current increase in meat production and consumption. It may also pose a necessity in light of the expected population growth.

– The research of the project combines three strands of activities:

  • First, the culmination of previous research activities of the PI and associated researchers, dating as far back as the mid-1990’s, focusing mainly but not exclusively on aquaculture.
  • Second, the project involves the coordination and utilization of on-going research at the SVT.
  • Third, the project will work for the development of new research activities, extended network collaborations, and additional research strands from other disciplines, which can strengthen the core activity.

– Given the guiding problems of the project, the dissemination activities will be directed to a varied audience, from the general public, to the industry, NGOs and regulatory agencies, to the scientific community.

Read more about the project's background, objectives, structure, networks, funding sources and project events below.


Seafood is en vogue – and arguably it is healthy. Modern consumers think of seafood as a healthy supplement to a traditional meat-based diet. Supermarkets offer frozen seafood of great variety and some even fresh seafood. Good restaurants the world over have a variety of seafood on offer, even if they are not located in a coastal area.

Typically, a consumer will associate tough fishermen and shouting fishmongers as suppliers of this food, perhaps singing shanties and drying the fish in the sun. Yet, we know, or we should know, that the realities are very different.

The fish stocks in our oceans are largely at the brink of being overfished, some species are threatened with extinction. Fishery fleets in the rich parts of the world are trawling the seabed with heavy machinery, destroying coral reefs and processing the catch while on sea. Some fish, which is on offer, has travelled the world, before it ends up in our restaurants or shops, and has undergone a multiplying of monetary value on its journey along the value chain.

But a large part of the seafood derives not from fisheries, but from aquaculture. Some of it has grown in intensive farms, been fed with industrialized feed which contributes further to the depletion of ocean resources, and lived a life restrained from natural drives and movement.

A picture of heavily polluted waters may come to mind. All of these factors may plant a gnawing doubt in our minds: Is it actually ethical to eat seafood? Are we instrumental in the destruction of our planet, in the exploitation of the poor global South, or adding toxins to our body?

The question how ethical the production and consumption of seafood is, is arguably a very complex one, but that does not provide an excuse for the scholarly community to avoid answering it. We need to explore and hopefully answer the question of the ethical status of seafood. We need to provide tools to assess the ethical qualities of the diverse products of seafood consumption, and we need to point out possibilities of improvement. This project attempts to contribute to these tasks.

Objectives and intended output

The overall objective of the ESea-project is a scholarly contribution to answering the following question:

To what extent and under which conditions can the production, trade and consumption of seafood be regarded as ethical?

In order to approach this objective, a number of sub-objectives have to be pursued. We shall here only list the main sub-objectives (though they in turn may contain several partial objectives):

Given the current tools and indicators for assessing sustainability, what is the sustainability status of major species and value-chains from fisheries and aquaculture?

While production, trade and consumption patterns vary significantly across countries and cultures, are there any approaches to governance along the value-chain, which can serve as best-practice models?

While market- and consumer-realities as well as preferences vary significantly across countries and culture, are there any trends towards larger niche markets or even more principled attitudes for ethical consumption?

What is the function and (documented) effect of ethical guidelines, labelling and certification schemes or other soft-law instruments in the seafood market?

Given that ethical values and ethical principles tend to vary at least to a certain extent within different cultures, what is the opportunity space for ethical global governance in fisheries and aquaculture?

Are there insights in theoretical and practical ethics / philosophy (e.g. relating to ethical values, principles and norms), and insights from the STS field, including public understanding of science and post-normal science, which may be instrumental in shaping public attitudes?

Given the limit of global fishery productions and the increased growth of the aquaculture sector, are there realistic and sustainable models of the interaction between the two sectors?

Given the power differentials along the value-chains both in fisheries and aquaculture, who are the most promising drivers towards ethical seafood?

The ESea-project will address these objectives in different stages and through different means and research efforts. The results of the work shall be the basis for a number of varied outputs, addressing different questions and being directed at different audiences. We shall list the main intended outcomes of the project:

The book: ESea will culminate in a book publication in English with a recognized international publishing company. The book will address all objectives of the project. Preliminary negotiations with a major publisher are under way.

The TV documentary: ESea, in collaboration with UniVisjon (UiB)  will produce  a 50-minute TV documentary in English, outlining issues of ethics and sustainability in global aquaculture trade, with a focus on Asian-European trade. The documentary shall raise issues in a balanced way, thus partially countering partisan productions from NGOs, and contribute to consumer awareness. The production is scheduled for spring 2014, and is already ¾ financed.

International workshops and a final symposium: ESea shall conduct two scientific workshops, one on fisheries and one on aquaculture. The workshops shall be organized jointly with prospective partners from the Fisheries department of the University of Vancouver (Pitcher and Lam). Funding for the workshops shall be applied for through the North-America program of the Norwegian Research Council. The final international symposium needs to be funded at a later stage.

Conference sessions: ESea shall stage special thematic sessions at the Conferences of the European Society for Agricultural and Food Ethics (EurSafe) and the Asian-Pacific Society for Agricultural and Food Ethics (APSafe). The PI is President of the EurSafe and main European contact point for APSafe. Thematic sessions at relevant conferences of the World Aquaculture Society and the European Aquaculture Society shall be considered later.

Scientific articles: ESea shall produce a number of scientific articles (3-8, depending on future funding), published in international peer-reviewed journals.  The journals shall have both a scientific and a social science / philosophy profile.

Contributions in newspapers, magazines and other popular press: ESea shall contribute short pieces in the national and international press, related to seafood, aquaculture and fisheries. Articles will be written in Norwegian, English, German and Spanish.

The Website: ESea shall have an operational website starting in 2014, and disseminating project activities and results. Part of this may include shorter video pieces for YouTube.

Social media: ESea shall maintain an active address on Facebook and Twitter, addressing in particular a younger audience.

Structure, networks and funding sources

The ESea project will mobilize resources and activities through – roughly – three supplementary research lines.

Furthermore, it will draw on a core activity which is already existing and established, and additional activities which so far are to be established and financed. While the core activities will realize some of the major objectives mentioned above, additional activities will be needed in order to guarantee comprehensive coverage of the objectives and outcomes.

The three research lines are these:

Culmination and harvesting of earlier research:

There is already considerable previous research, which potentially contributes to addressing the ESea objectives. The PI in particular has a long track record relating to these objectives. Here we shall mention the following activities:

(i) Back in 1993 the PI was the principal writer of a NENT report on aquaculture: “Oppdrettslaks – en studie i norsk teknologiutvikling”;

(ii) Due to the success of this report, two international symposia were held in Oslo with the PI in the organizing committee, resulting in two book publications (H. Reinertsen & H. Haaland (eds.), Sustainable Fish Farming, Rotterdam 1995; Svennevig, N., Reinertsen, H. & New, M. (eds.), Sustainable Aquaculture: Food for the Future?, Rotterdam 1999), and the often quoted Holmenkollen Guidelines for Sustainable Industrial Fish Farming;

(iii) the PI was then the first philosopher to present a keynote address at the World Aquaculture Society (Nice, 2000) and co-author of a keynote address at the European Aquaculture Society;

(iv) invited expert on aquaculture and biotechnology for the Council of Europe (Oviedo, 1999) and FAO / WHO (Rome 2004);
(v) supervisor for a doctoral thesis by Arne Sveinson Haiugen on ethical and environmental accounting in aquaculture (UiO, Dept. of biology 2008);

(vi) PI for a project on value assessment of Norwegian fisheries towards 2020 (Norwegian Research Council, 1999-2000);

(vii) PI of the project "Ethical challenges in the fisheries and aquaculture sector", financed by the Research Fund for Fisheries and Aquaculture (FHF), 2002;

(viii) partner in the EU project “CONSENSUS – Multi-stakeholder platform for sustainable aquaculture”;

(ix) partner in the EU project “PEGASUS – Public perceptions of genetically modified animals: science, utility, and society” with a special focus on cultured salmon (2009-2012). These and other related activities represent a valuable knowledge and data base which to date has only been partially harvested in relation to the ethical status of seafood from fisheries and aquaculture. ESea will mobilize this knowledge base.

Coordination and utilization of on-going research activities:

ESea will draw on activities which are on-going, and utilize these activities within the framework of the project. One major activity is connected to the work in the SEAT project (“Sustaining ethical aquaculture trade”, work package leader in EU funded project 2009 – 2013), involving both the PI, Arne S. Haugen and Scott Bremer, as well as doctoral student Janne Johansen. The data and experiences gathered during this project by far exceed the deliverables of the SEAT project, and shall thus be integrated into ESea. Furthermore, the PI has just completed a field trip to Kakinada in India visiting both local fisheries and aquaculture sites. The trip was funded by the Meltzer fund, and resulted in various valuable contacts and experiences directly pertaining to the question of ethics. Another on-going activity is the work the PI as president of EurSafe is doing in relation to the (aquatic food) strategy of the planned APSafe in Asia. Talks on future activities will be held in Bangkok in November 2013. Most importantly, the PI shall devote the major part of his research time to the ESea project for the coming years. Mention must also be made of the doctoral project of Helene Nilsen, supervised by the PI, whose PhD will cover the area of food and culture at SVT. The project started in 2013. The PI is also co-supervisor to another PhD project (Mads Solberg, started in 2013) at the UiB which will perform a study at the Sea Lice Research Center in Bergen.

Developing new research activities and associated projects:

ESea will act as umbrella project for a number of related activities, which currently are in the planning phase or for which external funding is sought. Each of these activities and projects will extend the knowledge base of ESea and widen the network of researchers associated to the project. We mention in particular the following activities and / or proposals:
(i) The PI has submitted a project proposal (May 2013) entitled “GLOBALETHICS” to the Norwegian Research Council (FRIHUMSAM) which essentially addresses the question of the relation between social values, ethical principles (like equity, justice, precaution etc) and ethical norms, and is designed to be based on empirical data from five Asian countries, focused on food security in relation to aquatic food products. If funded the project will directly feed into the ESea objectives (5), (6) and (7);
(ii) Dr. Scott Bremer is about to submit an application for a postdoc scholarship to the Norwegian Research Council (HAVBRUK), entitled “INCITE”, which centers around the issue of governance in aquaculture, in particular exploring the potential for citizen based governance in Norwegian aquaculture communities. If funded, this project will be crucial to objectives (2), (4) and (8);
(iii) A meeting shall be held in Uppsala, followed by a meeting in Bergen, in September 2013 with Tony Pitcher and Mimi Elizabeth Lam from the Fisheries Department of the University of Vancouver, Canada. Both are recognized experts on global fisheries and their sustainability assessment. The PI has for some time had email exchanges with them, and now a firmer basis for the collaboration shall be discussed, aiming at among others an application to the North-American program of the Norwegian Research Council, in order to conduct two workshops (output c) and establish research collaboration;
(iv) Other research opportunities, e.g. in relation to Horizon 2020 of the EC, shall be considered at a later stage.

It should be mentioned that ESea can draw on an international network of researchers. This network was established through personal contacts within other projects or research activities. Even though their involvement with ESea is not clarified or finalized yet, it is foreseen that future activities will call on them for their expertise. A comprehensive list of this network cannot be given here, but we shall tentatively mention the following names:

Dorothy J. Dankel, researcher at SVT and the Institute for Marine Research, Bergen, and involved in ICES.

Dave Little and Jimmy Young, profs at The Institute of Aquaculture, University of Stirling.

Ellen Hey, prof of public international law at the Erasmus School of Law, Rotterdam.

Anna Olsen, researcher at the University of Porto, specialised on animal welfare.

Kate Millar, director of the Center for bioethics at the University of Nottingham.

and several researchers from the universities of Tübingen, Copenhagen, and Versailles.

The research

The upcoming research of ESea will be focussed on different objectives and activities during different stages of the project. One of the major project activities at the start will be the planning of two workshops with the Canadian researchers. A workshop in Norway shall focus on ethical issues in aquaculture, while the workshop in Canada will focus on ethical issues in fisheries. This activity will be accompanied by the planning of the TV production in 2014. A script shall be written in collaboration with Univisjon, UiB, and new footage shall be added from one or more Asian countries. A lot of the initial work will be desk research, utilizing existing publications and data. Also scholarly work on sustainability ethics will be analysed.

With the expected increase in funding several parallel lines of research shall be pursued. One main line of research will center around the question of (global) governance in fisheries and aquaculture. This is a crucial question in ESea, and new models of governance will be anaylzed, for instance as outlined in J. Kooinman’s important publication Fish for Life (Amsterdam University Press, 2005), and in part discussed in Dr. Scott Bremer’s dissertation. The governance issue arises at the interface of different social systems, institutions and groups, and takes on formal and informal features. Arguably there is a need for improved governance both in fisheries and aquaculture, as the potential for social conflicts is still a major hurdle for further development. In particular in the developing world and in large parts of Asia, one detects that mere rulings by government (legal instruments) show little effect. Improved governance is needed along the whole value chain, and ESea adopts the working hypothesis that governance for better ethics will have to utilize “citizen science” in particular through new narratives explored in participatory exercises. Research shall among others be based on case studies and interviews.

The other major line of research takes its anchor point in the consumer, or more specifically, in the citizen. It asks the question of acceptance and acceptability of seafood products since there is still a significant knowledge gap in regard to formative causes for consumer choices and preferences. In particular in Europe, and especially in relation to seafood, one can observe great variations both in diachronic and synchronic behaviour. Temporary “food scares” have an effect, but also the emergence of niche markets in some countries, for instance organic or fair trade products, is seen as an important trend in consumer attitude. Yet, other analyses like Stefano Ponte’s work on Brand Aid indicate that perhaps not the ethical quality of the product or the production may always be in the forefront of the consumer’s mind, but rather the promise of contributing to a “good cause”. Therefore, this line of research shall explore these questions through qualitative interviews and other materials.

A further focus for more research shall be on conceptual matters, in particular directed to matters of practical ethics. Some of the concepts underlying ethical production and ethical consumption are poorly explored when taking into account the value plurality within societies and across different cultures. The PI has led a EU project entitled “Value Isobars” which explored some crucial issues conceptually and methodologically. In the light of this, it emerges that while some purely theoretical work may clarify some aspects of the problem, empirical work is needed in order to gain insight into the relation between values, principles and norms. This could be termed “experimental philosophy” since conceptual clarification is seen to emerge from empirical data. Research under this heading will involve surveys, interviews and workshops in various countries.

Accompanying all the research efforts of ESea will be a continuous effort to update and strengthen the researchers’ knowledge of global fisheries and aquaculture realities. A database of relevant literature and documents shall be established.

Project events

September 11 – 14, 2013:
The project group attending the EurSafe 2013 in Uppsala; talks with Tony Pitcher and Mimi E. Lam on future collaborations.

September 16, 2013, 1 pm – 3 pm: 
Invited lecture by Mimi Lam (University of Vancouver, Canada) at SVT, UiB:
"Rapfish - assessing ethics and sustainability in fisheries"

November 28 – 30, 2013, Bangkok:
The project group presenting work at the Asian-Pacific Society for Agricultural and Food Ethics,  Conference at Chulalongkorn University.