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And penguins might fly: are eco-labels on seafood really all they’re cracked up to be? Flickr/Mollivan Jon

The ifs and buts of eco-labelled seafood

It’s been a long time since eco-labelled seafood first appeared on Australia’s supermarket shelves, but the “dolphin-safe” tuna we’ve had since the 1990s is about to be joined by a much larger range of certified seafood.

Australia’s two largest supermarket chains, Woolworths and Coles, recently announced goals to have all their fresh seafood, and their own brand canned and frozen seafood, certified “sustainable” by the end of 2015. They will continue to sell other, non-certified, brands, but this is an ambitious and admirable move.

This follows the example of numerous overseas seafood retailers. Dutch supermarkets made a similar pledge in 2007, and now most of their seafood sold is certified. In 2006, Walmart – probably the biggest supermarket chain in the world – said that 100% of its domestically sold seafood would be certified sustainable by 2012. They’re currently at about 80%, but that’s still an impressive figure. Sustainable-certified seafood is now sold in at least 106 countries, with Germany, the Netherlands, the US, and the UK topping the list for certified products sold.

Eco-labelling is a powerful market-based tool for encouraging sustainability, but the certification process has received criticism in recent years for being expensive and subjective.

The certification process goes typically like this: a seafood supplier or retailer wants to assure the consumer a particular fishery is sustainable. The supplier then pays a third-party assessor to evaluate the fishery (at a cost somewhere between A$15,000-A$150,000). If this satisfies the standards of the certifying body (against criteria for sustainability, environmental impact, and management practises), then the fishery becomes certified. Retaining this stamp requires annual auditing and re-assessment within five years.

The two main certification bodies are The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Friends Of The Sea (FOS). Woolworths and Coles will certify their wild-caught fish using MSC, and certify their farmed fish using organisations such as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council.

Is “sustainable” seafood really sustainable?

Does an eco-label ensure a responsible purchase for the concerned consumer? They are much better than buying blind, but there are a few reasons why not all eco-labelled products are created equal.

For one thing, the standards for “sustainable” are not very strict. The MSC can still certify an unsustainable fishery, if an action plan for improvement exists. One study suggests that overfishing is occurring in 30% of MSC certified stocks, and suitable information for assessment is lacking for 11%.

A fishery that is declining due to harvest can still be certified, likewise can a fishery that was once over-fished, but has not yet recovered (“depleted”). MSC admits that at least 27% of certified stocks are depleted.

So why are some arguably unhealthy fisheries being certified? There is a lot of pressure on organisations like MSC to create a program that doesn’t alienate suppliers and retailers. If they are too strict, their labels won’t be adopted and their conservation mission will fail. Some also blame a conflict of interest caused by a company choosing their own third-party assessors, because the assessors have a financial incentive to approve a fishery.

Objections to questionable certifications by interest groups have been largely unsuccessful. MSC needs to be cautious that it does not continue to dismiss objections, less it loses its credibility. It’s clear that MSC must walk a fine line, but it’s ultimately the consumer that determines the success of market-driven conservation, so MSC needs to act carefully to convince the consumer of its scientific integrity.

Most importantly, the consumer should be aware that not all sustainable seafood products will have an eco-label. Australia currently has only about six fisheries in its waters currently MSC certified, and another eight FOS certified (New Zealand will shortly have about the same number). And while much of our purchased seafood will be sourced and certified overseas, there will still be many local, smaller, fisheries that cannot afford to be certified (and should not be forced to).

Use labels, don’t rely on them

Labels are a great starting point, but they won’t always represent the most sustainable choice, particularly for fresh fish and in smaller retailers. Supermarkets are the ideal environment for eco-labelling products, particularly their own branded products, so keep in mind that there will be fewer eco-labels outside this system.

The consumer still needs to take an initiative and do their research. Examine multiple sources, such as seafood guides, or government sources. Conflicting information is a sign to keep looking.

The retailers and certifiers have a role to ensure that eco-labelling does not become a marketing exercise. If programs like MSC continue to certify sustainable fisheries, depleted fisheries, and fisheries currently being over-fished, all with the same label, then they need to communicate this to the consumer.

The MSC uses ratings, so why not show them? Certified seafood is currently rated between 60 and 100, which is far more informative than a one-size-fits-all eco-label. It would also provide an incentive to improve fisheries to the highest standards, not just to above a minimum threshold.

We also have a role as consumers to remain vigilant to these programs. We must not allow terms like “sustainable” to become muddied and subjective (like “freshly baked” has been). We should support eco-labelling – it only works if we, the consumers, reward sustainable producers – but keep in mind that a product does not need a label to be sustainable.

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