Getting to Know Your Cod: A Funder Backs the Fair Trade Push on Seafood

The Rockefeller Foundation’s program to stop overfishing has a distinct focus on small-scale fisheries and empowering poor and vulnerable communities. One major grant expands Fair Trade certification, which you may recognize from your coffee or tea packaging, among seafood suppliers.

Rockefeller is a relative newcomer to the wide world of fisheries grantmaking, officially starting its program in 2013. But this justice-oriented environmental funder is building a formidable portfolio, making large grants to a handful of nonprofits operating in the space since its launch. In a nutshell, the issue is that fisheries worldwide are collapsing or at risk of collapsing due to overfishing, and funders are rushing to address the issue in a variety of ways, from data mining to impact investing.

Related: The Many Foundations and Billionaires Trying to Fix the World’s Fisheries

Rockefeller is notably partnering with Bloomberg Philanthropies to fire up private investment in sustainable fisheries, but the foundation’s program is somewhat of an extension of its greater efforts to make vulnerable populations more empowered and resilient. So its funding puts a strong emphasis on non-industrial fisheries, backing a lot of work in Indonesia, a huge producer dominated by small fishers.

One of its recent, substantial grants sent $2.2 million to the certification nonprofit Fair Trade USA for its work over the next three years to scale fair trade principles to seafood commodities. 

Certification programs are popular among fisheries funders, as an attempt to create economic incentives for sustainable fishing by increasing demand among consumers. (We've written about other funder efforts to increase consumer demand for sustainable fishing.) But the Fair Trade label differs in that environmental sustainability is only one tenet of its rating system. Other requirements include better wages for workers, community development, and safe working conditions. 


Fair Trade USA started out to benefit coffee suppliers, and has a high profile in that industry, but has since expanded into tea, cocoa and many other product categories. In 2014, it launched Fair Trade Certified seafood, and Rockefeller is now backing efforts to expand the group's standards among seafood suppliers. 

Another current grantee is the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, which recently secured $2.2 million over two years for its work to shift Asian blue swimming crab fisheries in Indonesia to sustainable production. Rockefeller also backs marine research at the University of Rhode Island.

Related: Check Out Rockefeller’s Ocean Grants – They’re Getting Bigger

Restoring fisheries is a topic that means a lot of things to a lot of people, as the ramifications of overfishing impact global economics, our ability to feed the world’s population, and ocean ecosystems. But much like other massive issues such as climate and deforestation, there’s an underlying question as to whether making systems more sustainable has the effect of empowering independent, local stakeholders, or if it just further consolidates wealth. In the case of fisheries, that’s all about striking a balance between constraining the size of the catch while supporting the livelihoods of individual communities that depend on fishing. 

Using Fair Trade certification for this purpose has drawn criticism similar to that directed at other consumer labeling efforts. Fair Trade USA, in particular, is at the center of a fight for the future of the movement, which led it to split off from former parent group Fairtrade International to pursue expansion to more and larger suppliers.

But with a three-year commitment, Rockefeller is banking that the organization can lead consumers to demand seafood that’s not just sustainable, but also beneficial to fishing communities.