Fishery improvement projects, or FIPs, which are designed to bring seafood from wild fisheries to the certified market, need only a promise of sustainability in the future.
"We're cautiously optimistic that fishery improvement projects, which fast-track access to international markets, can lead to sustainable fisheries, especially in developing countries," said Professor James Sanchirico.
Retailers like Walmart in the US and Sainsbury's in the UK have promised that soon all the fresh, frozen, farmed and wild seafood they sell will come from sustainable sources.
Respected, private third-party certifying programs like the Marine Stewardship Council are helping to ensure compliance with meaningful sustainability standards designed to help conserve fish populations and protect oceans.
While many of the sustainability standards have been met by commercial fisheries in the developed world, fisheries overseen by developing countries make up only seven per cent of MSC-certified fisheries, even though these developing-country fisheries account for about half of all seafood entering the international market.
Fishery improvement projects aim to get fisheries on a path to sustainability and potentially certification by the MSC.
A critical objective of the partnerships is to create market incentives for improvements by allowing seafood from these developing-country fisheries to enter the potentially more lucrative export market for certified seafood.
"It is hoped that the projects will protect marine life and ecosystems in areas where local and national governments have not acted to oversee sustainable practices, while also satisfying the demand for sustainable seafood," said Gabriel Sampson, lead author of the study.
Demand for seafood from wild fisheries and aquaculture around the world has nearly doubled over the past four decades.
Mr Sampson and colleagues report that seafood from two-thirds of developing-world fisheries enrolled in fishery improvement projects is already being bought by retailers, intending to satisfy their sustainability commitments while making little progress in improving their management.
If access to the fisheries is not better regulated, the current efforts by retailers to secure sustainable, wild-caught seafood could stimulate a "race to fish" and ultimately undermine the sustainability claims.
Fishery management reforms should include data collection and ongoing monitoring, strengthening harvest and access rights to the resources, limits on the catch, and instituting traceability throughout the supply chain, the researchers said.
Having multiple types of certified seafood in the market could lead to a "race to the bottom" in sustainability standards, unless the fishery improvement projects are carefully monitored to make sure that seafood retailers closely adhere to the sustainable-improvement requirements for market access.
"The retailers and organisations involved with managing fishery improvement projects need to insist on progress toward reforms from the fishery as a condition for purchasing seafood from that fishery," Mr Sanchirico said.
"This would likely lead to more durable conservation and greater assurance for consumers that marketing claims of 'sustainable' seafood are valid," he said.