Plastic pollution | Opinion

The limits for seafood certification

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Certification doesn't always mean better standards

Certification has helped develop demand for more-sustainable seafood but, as for other supply chains, can it secure the sector’s long-term future on its own?

Anyone reading the latest annual report from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) could be forgiven for thinking certification is the answer to all of seafood’s sustainability woes. Marking 15 years since the creation of the MSC standard and labelling mechanism – said to guarantee consumers responsibly sourced fish – the report says that MSC now covers nine million metric tonnes of seafood. That’s almost 10% of the total global wild-caught seafood supply.

As a mechanism for driving better consumer buying choices, MSC – like a number of other seafood labels – seems to be working. Retailers and restaurants are selling more than 17,000 MSC-badged products and consumers in almost 100 countries spent $4.5bn on MSC products in the last 12 months.

Promises, promises

It’s certainly big business that is only likely to grow. Not a week goes by without another big retailer promising to buy their seafood only from sustainably certified fisheries and aquaculture.

But whether certification is actually capable of achieving what it set out to do in the first place – to safeguard future fish supplies and improve the health of the world’s oceans – is very much up for debate.

One of the big concerns is the types of suppliers that are currently meeting sustainability standards. Fifteen years on, and fisheries based in developing countries, such as Cambodia or Thailand, make up just 7% of MSC-certified fisheries – even though these particular fisheries account for around half of all seafood entering the international market.

Meanwhile, half of the world’s supply of seafood comes from farmed sources, rather than caught in the wild. While farms have their own standards, set by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), just 5% of global aquaculture production is currently certified and the 13 main species currently covered by the ASC only account for about 40% of worldwide aquaculture seafood production.

Clearly, as things stand, the potential for aquaculture certification to make a difference is limited.

Multiple levels of standards

Retailers might ramp up their sustainability pledges. But they have little idea as to where their seafood supply will come from.

In a bid to meet demand and tap into the lucrative labelled-fish market, fishermen and companies up and down the supply chain have initiated so-called fishery improvement projects (FIPs), designed to get their operations on the right path to potential certification.

But research by the University of California suggests that seafood from two-thirds of developing-world fisheries enrolled in FIPs is already being bought by retailers intending to satisfy their sustainability commitments “while making little progress in improving their management”.

And it is in these developing countries where the worst human rights and labour abuses are taking place – social issues that are yet to be properly addressed by certification. Just look at Thailand’s seafood industry which has seen widespread use of trafficked migrants as fishing vessel workers.

Race to the bottom

With so many seafood labels – from MSC to Fish for Life and the RSPCA’s Freedom Food badge – and now multiple types of “certified” seafood in the market, there is a real danger of a race to the bottom being created in terms of sustainability standards.

Maybe the new Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative benchmarking tool will help to drive up the standards of some of the weaker certification bodies. WWF isn't yet convinced.

Yes, certification has increased consumer awareness of seafood issues and created demand for better standards from companies across the supply chain; there’s no doubt that without it, the industry would be worse off.

But with progress slow – and question marks remaining as to the impact standards can have in tackling both environmental and social issues across the industry – only time will tell if certification is the answer to achieving the ultimate, sustainable supply of seafood that we really need.
 

For full details of Innovation Forum's sustainable seafood conference in London, 25th-26th November, click here.

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