GSSI seafood benchmark tool deserves a chance

Recently, the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (GSSI) released a new “tool” designed to set standards for sustainable seafood certification programs worldwide, and judge individual programs based on those standards.

The announcement drew mixed reviews from NGOs that produce certification programs. Some, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), make some valid points, but overall the industry and the certification program organizers should applaud GSSI’s effort to rein in an ever-more complex landscape of different – and sometimes competing – programs.

There seems to be no shortage of well-intentioned organizations out there weighing in on seafood and how it is produced, from the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA)’s Best Aquaculture Practices Program to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Aquaculture Stewardship Council (both of which were created by WWF). Those three may be leading the pack as far as visibility goes, but there is also a number of smaller organizations vying for the industry’s attention. Just a few of those groups include Friend of the Sea, the British Retail Consortium (which certifies food safety, not sustainability, but arguably one is a component of the other) and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s Responsible Fisheries Management program, the latter being marketed specifically to compete with the MSC’s certification program. Many, if not all of these programs offer labeling for products that meet their standards, but pressure on the industry to perhaps seek out more than one certification may mean before long a piece of fish or bag of shrimp could wind up peppered with labels that confuse rather than clarify.

GSSI’s benchmark tool may not be designed to solve that problem – its website promotes it as “an international multistakeholder platform” that seems to be geared more toward the industry than the individual consumer, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While most certification program proponents will say the public wants to see seafood bearing their label, there are likely an equal number of shoppers who limit their concerns to product safety and cost. That means the burden of ensuring sustainability may also fall to the industry. While there are some groups out there already that rate sustainability programs, GSSI’s visibility places it in a position to become dominant in this regard. A single location that specifically describes and rates each sustainability program out there could become just the handy resource seafood companies need to make sense of it all.

It won’t be a perfect system. The first and most obvious question to greet GSSI’s announcement is how it will judge the individual programs. GSSI said it will use guidelines set by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as the core of its own standards. That’s a good starting point, but as WWF rightfully pointed out last week in its criticisms of the benchmark tool, it may not quite be enough. GSSI’s tool won’t, for example, study the actual performance of certification programs, WWF argued, and the NGO warned the industry not to rely solely on the benchmark tool when evaluating a certification program.

Still, if GSSI leaves room for improvement down the road for its platform, there’s huge potential here, and at least one stakeholder already sees that. Wally Stevens, executive director at GAA, said GAA was sending an application to GSSI for review, and urged other organizations to do so. That’s good advice – the more groups that get involved with the benchmarking tool, the better it will work in the long run. It’s fine to be wary, like WWF, but let’s not let the initial skepticism put an end to this program before it has a chance to get started.


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