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In February, the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission announced it would seek Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification for its product. Dungeness crab becomes the latest West Coast fishery seeking to be labeled as a sustainable fishery certification under the MSC program.
Earlier this year, an application was made by the Fishing Vessel Owners Association and the Deep Sea Fishermens Union to MSC to begin the certification process for the Pacific halibut fishery off Alaska, Washington and Oregon and for the Alaska black cod (sablefish) fishery. The California Salmon Council has also received a grant to begin the certification process for California troll-caught king (chinook) salmon, seeking to make it the second salmon fishery along the U.S. west coast to be MSC certified, after Alaskas.
The MSC certification, which some have called ecolabeling, is seen by some west coast fishing leaders as critical to either 1) maintaining market share, 2) gaining access to new markets, and/or; 3) getting a better price for the fish. In Europe, accessibility to a number of markets there is now dependent on MSC certification, and in the U.S., chains such as Whole Foods are looking to MSC certification, as well as some of the seafood guides such as the Monterey Bay Aquariums where no MSC certification currently exists, to guide their decisions on what seafood to display. At the restaurant level, chefs and owners belonging to groups such as the Seafood Choices Alliance and the Chefs Collaborative are also emphasizing sustainably-harvested seafood, and those fish with MSC certification are accepted with virtually no debate.
Certification is being sought with the recognition that an environmentally well-managed fishery is important to the North American consumer, according to the Fishing Vessel Owners Associations Manager Bob Alverson. Our fishermen believe that in the next decade this will be essential in marketing wild caught fish.
The Oregon Dungeness Crab Commissions Nick Furman agrees. "This is a growing movement," said Furman, referring to the certification of fisheries as sustainable. "I dont think it would hurt us and I think it would help us if we got MSC approval."
To date, the MSC, a privately operated certification system, is the only game in town. Co-founded in 1997 by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Unilever, MSC was developed as a way to reward responsibly managed fisheries around the world using an eco-label applied to seafood from fisheries successfully assessed against the MSC Standard. MSC is now independent of its founders, with offices in Seattle, London and Sydney, Australia. To date, seven fisheries have been certified under the program: Alaska salmon, New Zealand hoki, Western Australia rock lobster, Burry Inlet cockles, Southwest Handline mackerel, Thames Blackwater herring and Loch Torridon nephrops. Seven other fisheries are in the full assessment process, including Alaska Pollock, and more than two dozen fisheries are at other points in the process. The MSC currently has more than 120 labeled product lines in more than 20 retail outlets in ten countries.
If MSC is the only game in town right now, what is its record? Lets take a look at some of the complaints that have been raised and look closer at the details.
One of the charges lobbed at MSC when it was first formed was that it was developed by Unilever to get the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to greenwash the fish Unilever sold as being sustainable. Unilever, as the worlds largest buyer of seafood, is not universally liked.
I wonder if the fact is of concern that MSC is in co-op with Unilever that is in co-op with Royal Greenland one of the biggest shrimp trawler companies (probably the biggest) in the North Atlantic? asked one Icelandic fisherman friend who has kept on top of Unilevers operations.
These questions were certainly initially valid. However, MSC is now indeed completely independent of both Unilever and WFF. The degree of influence either or both of those founding entities might have over MSC today because of historic ties, we dont know. However, MSC has hired two veterans of the commercial fisheries Jim Humphreys from Bellingham and Duncan Leadbitter from Sydney (Australia), both known and respected by many U.S. West Coast fishermen. A number of the fisheries certified to date or under review for certification have no ties to Unilever. In fact, there is no evidence, to date, that either founder is controlling or dictating which fisheries will be certified or how the process is to be managed.
Another charge that was initially made against MSC is that it was legalized extortion, that is, a fishery that was not certified would be viewed as unsustainable and potentially hurt in the marketplace, but in order to gain certification a fishery would have to pay MSC. However, thats basically the way certification works in other fields as well. The question to be asked is, are the costs reasonable and do they relate to the actual costs involved in conducting the certification process? Being the exclusive certifying entity for seafood, this concern regarding MSC is certainly valid. To their credit, to date the fees charged by MSC do appear to bear a direct relationship to their actual costs for certification and operation.
Even if the prices charged for certification are reasonable for the amount of work that has to be performed in the certification process and thereafter -- and all indications are that they are reasonable -- there is still the issue of affordability, particularly for the smaller fisheries.
To combat this problem, MSC has sought to develop a grants program to assist those fisheries that would not otherwise be able to afford its certification process. The existence of a grant program directly addresses the affordability issue and also seems to put to rest charges of MSCs opponents.
Another charge leveled against MSC at its inception was that it would probably certify those fisheries it liked (meaning anything Unilever sold) and refuse to certify the fisheries it didnt like. That charge might have had more merit were it not for the fact that most of those chosen to conduct the MSC certification process already had an extensive history as professionals in other certification programs from organic agriculture to sustainable forestry. From the beginning the approach appeared very professional.
The other factor to consider is that MSC has sought to make their process as transparent as possible while still protecting an applicant fishery. There is a record for review by anyone challenging a certification or failure to gain certification. This reflects an entity that fully understands the weight of its decisions, seeks to make them fairly and does not take them lightly. In fact, everything we have seen to date indicates an objective process with high standards.
Old concerns having been put to rest, the attacks today on the MSC certification process are more subtle. For instance, the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), a U.S. trade organization representing many American fish importers and exporters, distributors and processors, and which has fought any form of seafood labeling for years, has recently requested the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) to create voluntary technical standards for sustainable fisheries by the FAO to serve for the certification and eco-labeling for all fish and seafood in the marketplace. Yet this is the same NFI that opposed seafood labeling language in the 2002 Farm Bill (inserted by Senators Murkowski, Stevens, Boxer, et al.) and has railed for years against eco-labels in any form.
The concern is that such proposals are not about fixing MSC or the eco-labeling of seafood, which is by no means broken, but in derailing the existing certification system itself before it gets any more momentum. The way to do so would be to follow the same strategy large food processors pursued when they sought to fix the standards for organic foods -- that is, just get the government to lower the standards. They failed, but much the same dynamic appears now to be going on with seafood.
We share a concern that many others have expressed: FAO voluntary guidelines for eco-labeling of seafood would inevitably be so weak as to allow just about any fishery to qualify if it complies with its own nations fishery laws, no matter how bad or lax those laws themselves actually are. The result would be to make the labels meaningless. Both consumers and fishermen would be victims. The many fishermen that are already fishing to higher standards deserve to have their fisheries certified and acknowledged as having met the very highest standards of sustainability.
Not all parts of the U.S. shoreside sector are trying to undermine the MSC standards. Here are some of the participating companies with MSCs Chain of Custody Certification: 10th & M Seafoods, (Anchorage), Alaska Seafood International (Anchorage), Bear & Wolf Salmon Co (Seattle), Coastal Villages Seafoods (Anchorage), Cook Inlet Processing (Seattle), Copper River Seafoods, (Cordova), Favco (Anchorage), Great Pacific Seafoods (Seattle), Hoonah Cold Storage (Hoonah), Icicle Seafoods (Seattle), Ice Strait Seafoods (Bellingham), Interocean Seafood (Seattle), Kake Fisheries (Kake, AK), Leader Creek Fisheries (Naknek), Norquest Seafoods (Seattle), Norm Thompson Outfitters (Hillsborough, OR), North Pacific Processors (Seattle) Northern Keta Caviar (Juneau), Northern Products (Seattle), Ocean Beauty Seafoods (Seattle), Pelican Seafoods (Pelican), Peter Pan Seafoods (Seattle), Salamatof Seafoods (Kenai), SeaBear Smokehouse (Anacortes), Seafood Producers Cooperative (Bellingham), Sea Hawk Seafood (Valdez), Select Fish (Seattle), Snug Harbor (Kenai), Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association (Ketchikan), Trappers Creek Smoking (Anchorage), Triad Fisheries (Seattle), Trident Seafoods Corporation (Seattle), Wards Cove Packing Co (Seattle), Wildcatch (Bellingham), Woodbine Alaska Fish Co (Monroe, WA), Wrangell Seafoods (Wrangell).
Finally, there has been a lot of confusion regarding what an MSC certification would actually mean. Certainly this is part of the controversy regarding the certification of the Bering Sea Pollock factory trawler fishery, which has a number of serious negative impacts on local, shore-based, small boat fishing and independent processing operations, and which thus negatively impacts some local fishing-dependent communities.
In other words, the issue is whether and to what extent the MSC should consider the social and economic factors and impacts involved with a fishery, or just look solely at the biology? Here are some of the questions that should be asked MSCbut which still have no answers:
We share these concerns. Do we really want a certifier such as MSC that now focuses solely on the biological aspects of sustainability to also be engaged in looking at the social and economic aspects as well? Should all the factors going into a fishery, its biological sustainability, which may be difficult enough to determine, but also its cultural and social sustainability as well, all be part of one certification, or should they be separated, much like we now find on coffee labels?
If we think it is important for fish to be certified as sustainable to gain greater market access, protect existing markets or simply get a better price, and we also value the culture and economics of our fishery as well, is it then possible to follow what has been done in coffee and develop two types of certification? In coffee there is the well-known organic certification, verifying that the coffee so labeled was grown without pesticides and in ways that do not harm the environment. A second label has also recently been developed, the Fair Trade certification. That certification involves 17 national Fair Trade certification initiatives in Europe, North America and Japan (the U.S. partner is TransFair USA). Together these initiatives make up the Fair Trade Labeling Organizations International. For coffee growers what they have sought to do is make sure the actual farmer, not just the middlemen, share in the profits from the sale of the coffee and get back a living wage.
With the increasing globalization of the trade in seafood, and having seen what has happened to many of our markets over the past few years, is some form of Fair Trade label for seafood that far fetched? The U.S. will soon begin debate over the recently negotiated trade agreement with Chile a take it or leave it situation with none of the details being released by the U.S. Government (much of the leaked portions we have gotten from friends in Chile indicates our U.S. Trade Representative did American and Chilean fishermen no favors). Further negotiations continue at the World Trade Organization (WTO) over rules that will affect our fisheries (see FN April 2002, Not Fish Friendly: The WTOs New Doha Agenda for Fisheries, available on the web at: http://www.pcffa.org/fn-apr02.htm), with the next major meeting planned for September 2003 in Cancun.
Would a Fair Trade certification work for fisheries? Were not saying here such a certification would work, or even if one should be developed. That would depend on how much support it had, the nature of its standards, as well as its objectivity and transparency. But we are raising the question. Shouldnt such factors as the degree of ownership of the fleet by the fishermen themselves be considered in some sort of certification process? Shouldnt their access to competitive markets be considered? Shouldnt the conditions they are forced to endure in local communities or under their nations fishery laws be considered? There are strong arguments for the need for a certification process that takes the special value, both economically and culturally, of small-boat, independent, shore-based artisanal fisheries into account. Just as a healthy fishery and vibrant fishing communities is a lot more than just about economics, its also a lot more than just about biology.
Finally, if there is agreement on the need for a fishery fair trade label, and agreement on what factors are to be considered to attain certification under such a label, who would do it? Do we seek out the folks that did Fair Trade coffee (and now chocolate), do we seek help from a major foundation, do we look to the folks at the FAO (who are already being asked to undermine MSC certification) or do we look to ourselves?
So there you have it, some of our thoughts on the issue of certification. Should our industry begin considering a fishery fair trade label? If so, what factors should be considered and who should do it? Let us hear your thoughts on these issues.
The public that supports us in our occupation of catching fish already realizes the need for standards and acceptable practices. Ultimately, however, the public is only able to chose what it supports with its purchasing dollars -- whether a sustainable, diversified, small-boat and community-based fishery that supports healthy fishing communities, or alternatively a globalized, factory fleet-based fishery in the hands of a few multi-national corporations -- through some sort of identifiable label.
Zeke Grader is Executive Director, Pietro Parravano is President and Glen Spain is Northwest Regional Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens Associations (PCFFA), the west coasts largest organization of commercial fishing families. Natasha Benjamin is with the Institute for Fisheries Resources, a PCFFA affiliate organization dedicated to the protection and restoration of our nations fisheries. PCFFA can be reached at: Southwest Regional Office: PO Box 29370, SF, CA USA 94129-0370, (415)561-5080; Northwest Regional Office: PO Box 11170, Eugene, OR USA 97440-3370, (541)689-2000; or by email to: email@example.com. PCFFAs web site is at: www.pcffa.org.
To learn more about the Marine Stewardship Council, go to: www.msc.org
For more about the benefits of fair trade see: http://www.transfairusa.org/content/benefits/ben_index.jsp
To see how fair trade works see: http://www.transfairusa.org/content/works/wrk_index.jsp
For Fair Trade labeling, go to: www.transfairusa.org
To learn more about the upcoming WTO trade discussions, contact the Institute for Fisheries Resources Victor Menotti at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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