Twenty years of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to seafood

Photo Credit: WWF

Who would have thought we could scan or type the name of any fish or seafood into an app and immediately get its risk status and a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer as to whether we should buy or eat it?

Thanks to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)’s Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) we can do just that. ‘Twenty years ago WWF-SA and its partners realised that consumer, retailer, supplier and chef awareness was key to influencing the seafood chain to make sustainable choices in an effort to conserve our oceans,’ says WWF-SA’s environmental behaviour change specialist, Pavs Pillay. The term ‘seafood’ applies to all fish and seafood species.

This was long before ‘sustainability’ became a buzzword and it is encouraging to see that, 2 decades later, WWF-SASSI is still going strong and growing.

‘The WWF Nedbank Green Trust, funded by Nedbank, had the vision to be WWF- SASSI’s catalytic funder from the outset when it was initiated by Professor Kerry Sink, the marine programme manager and principal scientist at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI),’ Pillay explains. ‘Today, SASSI is one of the most successful sustainability campaigns in South Africa and is now a sub-brand of WWF-SA.’

The flagship tool of the campaign is the WWF-SASSI FishID app – a seafood identification system that makes it easy to identify over 33 seafood species from over 230 assessments. The app tells you whether the species are listed as green, orange or red. SASSI’s pocket cards, posters, and website do the same.

Red means ‘don’t buy’: The species are of conservation concern, and some are illegal to sell and restricted to recreational fishers only. Others are specially protected or from unsustainable populations or environmentally damaging farming.
Orange means ‘think twice’: Avoid it or enjoy it only on rare occasions due to it being overfished or from environmentally damaging farming.
Green means ‘best choice’: Sustainable choices from the healthiest and best-managed fish populations.

WWF-SASSI has had a massive uptake from major retailers. Five of the big 6 retailers (Woolworths, Pick n Pay, Spar, Food Lovers Market, and Shoprite Checkers) are part of WWF-SASSI’s retailer or supplier participation scheme. Two of the largest seafood franchises are also on board, namely John Dory and Ocean Basket, as is one of South Africa’s largest seafood distribution companies, Atlantis Foods (Breco Seafoods), which supplies to wholesalers, food service businesses and retailers. ‘We would like to have more large-distribution companies joining WWF-SASSI, as there are several in South Africa,’ says Pillay.

Over 40 chefs in South Africa have committed to serving only green-listed seafood. Well-known chefs such as David Higgs and Pete Goffe-Wood were some of the first to commit and offer delicious green-listed seafood dishes.

Some species straddle more categories than others. For example, West Coast rock lobster is red-listed and illegal to sell if it was caught by a recreational fisher in South Africa, while East Coast rock lobster is green-listed and can be ordered or bought. It’s green in one province but red in another where stock is completely decimated.

‘We have a rigorous scientific process to identify and rate each of the species, and while we focus on South African species, we include a range from other countries as we import 50% of our seafood species,’ Pillay explains. ‘For example, if you type in ‘hake’ on the WWF-SASSI app, it tells you that South African hake caught via demersal trawl is green, while Argentinian or Chilean hake (also trawl-caught) is red because those fisheries employ irresponsible fishing practices’.

Every 2 years WWF-SASSI undertakes a national consumer survey (between 700 and 2 500 surveys) across socioeconomic groups where they ask people about ocean conservation to determine their knowledge and understanding of the role the ocean plays in our lives, what fish and seafood they eat, what guides their choices, and whether they consult the WWF-SASSI app.

‘We have seen a fantastic increase in sustainable seafood awareness from about 21% in 2014 to about 84% in 2023,’ says Pillay. ‘We also consult groups of demographic-, psychographic- and geographic-representative people. Close to 50% of these groups understand the WWF-SASSI brand and 47% use the WWF-SASSI app to make informed decisions. Using the app and making informed decisions are indicative of shifting behaviour to being more pro-environmental.’

WWF-SASSI has been working with a range of fisheries to encourage responsible fishing practices. ‘South Africa is a massive exporter of seafood – including hake, squid, tuna, anchovy and red eye for fishmeal and farmed abalone. There are major markets in Europe, Asia, and the United States,’ Pillay explains.

The way a species is caught is significant, as it is directly linked to the risk and sustainability of the species. Wild-caught prawns, for example, are red-listed because they are bottom-trawled, destroying the ocean bed and resulting in high levels of bycatch. Up to 67% of the catch is generally discarded, which is unacceptably wasteful.

What sets WWF-SASSI apart is that it empowers all of us, individually and collectively, to contribute to a sustainable ocean and help ensure the ocean can regenerate or re-seed itself. ‘Healthy and biodiverse oceans are pivotal to our existence,’ says Pillay. ‘Oceans provide 17% of our protein and more than 50% of the air we breathe. Oceans are also essential heat distributors as the earth’s largest water body, and they are constantly being explored and mined for a range of commodities. Oceans are major ports of travel for goods, and they provide over 2 billion jobs globally.’

WWF-SASSI is one of a range of marine projects that WWF and the WWF Nedbank Green Trust have supported over many years, including contributing to government planning, policy, and management in the marine environment. For example, the Sea Change Project, led by Sink, culminated in the creation of South Africa’s first comprehensive national marine and coastal biodiversity assessment. They mapped 136 coastal and marine habitats for the first time and assessed their ecosystem threat status. This assessment is essential to inform policies and priority actions for threatened ecosystems (46% of our coastal and marine habitats are threatened) and the more than 500 species caught in South Africa’s oceans.

When it comes to seafood, every marine animal matters, including the one on your plate. You have a choice. Make it a green one.

Download the WWF-SASSI app
Or go the SASSI website at