Joseph John Jr. and his son Jeremiah John haul in nets while salmon fishing on July 1, 2015 in Newtok, Alaska.
A dead cert: demand for sustainable seafood is growing © Getty

Finding ethically-sourced fish is about to become easier for leading retailers and restaurants that have pledged to offer customers sustainable seafood.

The world’s largest seafood eco-labelling scheme is operated by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) whose blue logo is a common sight in supermarkets across the world. The scheme will soon become part of the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative, a benchmark backed by leading retailers, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and NGOs. The global benchmark, launched last year, has already recognised schemes that operate in Alaska and Iceland and is expected to give its stamp of approval to the MSC next year.

Eco-labelling and certification are widely regarded as key tools in encouraging the adoption of sustainable practices across a global seafood trade that is estimated to be worth $150bn a year.

Demand from retailers and restaurants has pushed suppliers in the fisheries sector to certify increased volumes of supplies as sustainably sourced.

Sustainable seafood now accounts for 14 per cent of global production compared with just 0.5 per cent in 2005, according to the International Institute of Sustainable Development.

Yet eco-labelling is one of the most hotly debated issues among members of the food supply chain. For consumers, the myriad of labels and programmes has led to confusion. Many producers, meanwhile, complain they have struggled with the investment required to obtain the benefits of certification.

Sitting in the centre of the chain, the buyers of seafood, who include retailers and food service groups, have become frustrated by demands for multiple certification and resultant soaring costs.

Led by retailers Metro of Germany and Ahold of the Netherlands, they set out to streamline the certification process. NGOs and the FAO were also involved in planning the global benchmark, which took three years.

The GSSI benchmark is expected to resolve at least some of the problems and frustrations surrounding eco-labelling in the fisheries sector.

Prompted by the cod fishery collapse of the north Atlantic’s Grand Banks, the MSC was founded in 1997 as a partnership between the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever, with the aim of safeguard seafood supplies for the future.

The MSC, now independent and a not-for-profit body, covers more than 300 fisheries globally, accounting for close to a tenth of the world’s annual harvest of fish captured in the wild. Its inclusion as part of the GSSI standard will enhance the breadth and reach of the benchmark, according to fish specialists.

Nicolas Guichoux, MSC’s global commercial director, says the rollout of the wider benchmark would strengthen the cause of his own organisation. “We hope that, in the long term, it will help to deliver transparency that contributes to real improvements in the health of marine environments,” he says.

The road to the creation of the GSSI has not always been smooth. There was a debate over whether the benchmark should provide a tiered ranking or be a “pass or fail” standard. The FAO and other stakeholders raised concerns that a tiered ranking system would risk leading to competition among eco-labels and confusion among consumers over divergent standards.

Mr Guichoux says that“MSC will continue to stand out in terms of global consumer recognition” and that agreement over the GSSI’s “pass or fail” rule means “a minimum bar” has been set for other schemes. “The GSSI standard is a high one and it is absolutely not a race to the bottom,” says another stakeholder.

Although there are a myriad of seafood eco-labels, a handful of established schemes have dominated. Relations between rival certification bodies have on occasion been fraught. The Alaskan fishing industry clashed with the MSC in 2012 when it dropped the eco-label for its own alternative, saying MSC procedures were too costly and burdensome.

The GSSI benchmark opens the door to lesser known schemes. Developing countries such as Vietnam and Thailand have been looking to launch their own eco-labels. Such schemes, if and when approved by the benchmarking tool, will have an equal footing with more established certifications such as MSC.

Audun Lem, deputy director of the FAO’s fisheries and aquaculture department, says the GSSI benchmark will provide “more equivalency among schemes, reduce overall certification costs for producers and provide more clarity in the market”.

Herman Wisse, programme director at the GSSI, adds that the vision is for it to become an umbrella platform for stakeholders in the seafood supply chain to discuss common problems, including the scale of over-exploitation.

‘The FAO’s 2016 report on fisheries shows there are challenges, with estimates of 30 per cent of fish stocks still being overfished,” says Mr Wisse.

On the positive side, he adds: “We have the public sector, the private sector, NGOs working on global challenges, shaping solutions for the future of the seafood sector.”

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