Q&A: Reaching MSC’s potential in the Americas

In part two of a two-part interview with SeafoodSource, Kerry Coughlin, director of the Americas region for the Marine Stewardship Council, addresses challenges facing the MSC program in 2011 and whether the global economic downturn has dampened interest in fisheries certification. Part one ran on Tuesday.

What’s the biggest challenge that the MSC faces worldwide in 2011?
We’re reaching a point globally where going to start to have to engage much more extensively in the developing world. A lot of the world’s fisheries aren’t positioned right now to meet a global sustainability standard like the MSC standard. The challenge is going to be figuring out how to help these fisheries use the MSC standard as a tool, as a benchmark.

It’s actually a pretty cost-effective tool, if you look at the cost of a pre-assessment, it’s maybe USD 15,000 or USD 20,000. That’s not a lot of money to avail yourself of a benchmarking tool and an independent assessment of where you are against that. So that’s really valuable. But some fisheries may struggle to get that amount of money. And then from there, work with those fisheries to say, “Here are areas where you may not be able to either meet the standard or through [a third-party] demonstrate that you’re meeting it.” You just can’t say it; you have to prove it. And sometimes that proof is in the data that may be hard to get. We’re really aware of this issue and are working with partners to break through the barriers.

Is there a particular challenge that’s unique to the Americas?

The geography is vast. So how do we cover that much territory with a limited staff when it takes a day-and-a-half to fly to parts of your region? The other thing we face is the issue of going to scale. If you deal with four or five [supermarket companies in the United Kingdom], you’ve pretty much covered the retail picture. But in foodservice, we really need to be geared up. What does our staff do when 300 to 400 [restaurants] approach us in one month? We need more material to make [the MSC process] more self-explanatory without diminishing the value of the program for participants and consumers. We’re very focused on growing in the foodservice sector.

Has the global economic downturn dampened the MSC’s progress or interest in sustainable fisheries over the past two years?
It didn’t really materialize to the extent we thought it would. Everyone is realizing that sustainability is not a marketing gimmick. The conferences I’ve been to and the private conversations I’ve had indicate that all these companies from small to large understand that [sustainability] is fundamentally changing the way we do business. It’s here to stay. That’s a fundamental shift, and it has certainly affected the seafood sector.

It’s not to say that the economic downturn doesn’t make things more difficult. In North America, margins for retailers and restaurants tend to be a little lower than in other places in the world, and I’m sure that’s a factor. If restaurant business is falling off, it may be hard to say, “I’m going to pony up for USD 1,000 to get certification.” It doesn’t mean that won’t continue to try to source sustainably, they just may not be able to afford certification that allows them to visibly display that.

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