Is MSC certification all it’s cracked up to be?

Published on
January 29, 2012

The announcement on 17 January that eight major Alaska salmon processors had decided they didn’t want their Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification to be renewed must have sent shockwaves through that organization.

Between them, the eight companies process three-quarters of the Alaska salmon supply. So after 29 October, when the current certification agreement runs out, products from one of the world’s major fisheries will no longer be carrying the MSC’s blue tick logo on their packaging.

“Reassessment is an expensive, time consuming and lengthy process, so Alaska salmon producers had to decide now whether continued MSC participation made sense or not,” said Jim Gilmore, public affairs director for the Seattle-based At-Sea Processors Association, which serves as the MSC client for the Alaska pollock fishery. Another of the world’s major fisheries, Alaska pollock is still MSC certified, but it sounds from this statement that serious consideration may be being given to its continuation.

The MSC is at pains to point out, of course, that it doesn’t receive any money from the certification process of fisheries against its standard. It just receives a 0.5 percent royalty on the wholesale value of consumer products that carry its label. Nevertheless, third-party certification and all the other costs involved mount up and are not insubstantial.   

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) has stated that Alaska salmon didn’t need MSC certification to show that the resource is sustainable. It had been awarded Responsible Fisheries Management Certification via an independent third-party assessment conducted by Global Trust Certification and was based on the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries.

“We have also heard from customers that not everyone requires certification because they already know about Alaska’s 50-plus years of leadership and commitment to sustainability,” said Ray Riutta, ASMI’s executive director.

Alaska salmon has been making inroads into the British retail market. Apart from the ever-present cans of Alaska salmon, tray-packed Alaska salmon fillet portions and even smoked Alaska salmon are now a relatively common sight on supermarket shelves. However, what part, if any, has MSC certification played in the growing popularity of Alaska salmon in the UK? 

According to Riutta, third-party certification is “a market tool that provides assurance to retailers and foodservice operators that seafood is responsibly managed.” So, if Alaska salmon processors decided that it wasn’t worth seeking MSC re-certification, then presumably the presence of the MSC eco-label on Alaska salmon products wasn’t deemed to be the factor for increasing sales.

The fact that Alaska salmon is wild-caught, rather than farmed, may be more significant, plus the fact that it has an attractive red color and has more flavor than the mild-tasting farmed Atlantic salmon on offer.

However, British retailers are currently falling over themselves to promote the fact that the seafood they sell comes from sustainable sources. Indeed, Sainsbury’s, one of the UK’s top four supermarket chains, has just announced the launch of its 100th MSC-certified product, which it claims makes it the UK’s largest retailer of sustainably sourced seafood.

Now Sainsbury’s, like the other major supermarkets, isn’t a charitable organization. There is only one reason that it has jumped on the sustainability bandwagon and that is it believes this will increase seafood sales and at the same time, of course, increase profits.

Last October, the supermarket chain said that by 2020, it would only be selling independently certified sustainable fish. So, presumably Alaska salmon will have been de-listed by then unless, of course, Sainsbury’s accepts ASMI’s definition of sustainability.

Not surprisingly, the MSC says that ASMI’s sustainability program falls short compared with the one it offers. It was developed “without broad consultation and stakeholder engagement,” which shows a “lack of transparency. The developer (Global Trust) is under contract to ASMI and does the assessment of fisheries ASMI submits. This is not a third-party system.”

The arguments may rumble on. However, at the end of the day, those who pay the piper call the tune, and the MSC may have to accept that its certification system is not the be-all and end-all for sustainable seafood.

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