Olympics sustainability pledge – progress or lip-service?

On 11 July, the International Olympic Committee picked Los Angeles and Paris as the hosts of the 2024 and 2028 Olympics Games (the cities will sort out between themselves in which order they will host). 

While the worlds of sports and seafood rarely commingle, a notable exception is the case of the Olympics. The Olympics are about as high-profile as you can get, which is why sponsors pay billions of dollars to sponsor them. Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs)  – including seafood-focused NGOs – also see the Games as a unique opportunity to press their agendas. 

Those NGOs scored huge victories at both the 2012 London and 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, when they were successful in their push to get the organizers to commit to serving only sustainable seafood. In London, following the lead of the Games, many U.K. government bodies and companies pledged to buy, serve, eat, and promote only sustainable fish, including the House of Commons, Her Majesty’s Prisons, Armed Forces, the Greater London Authority, leading universities and nearly 5,000 schools, the National Trust, a wide range of restaurants, and several large corporations – collectively serving over 200 million meals a year.

At the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, there was pointed criticism of the untreated sewage flowing into Guanabara Bay next to the Olympic Village, which triggered an algal bloom, eutrophication, and a putrid,stinky fish die-off. Still, the organizers got due credit in the press for promising that only certified sustainable seafood would be served to athletes, officials, media, and at on-site restaurants. About 14 million such meals were served in all – giving a boost to both sales and awareness. Rio de Janeiro state also made an effort prior to the games to promote Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) certification of small-scale aquaculture farms and artisanal fisheries. 

But with two years remaining until it they host the games, the organizers of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games have so far been less pleasing to the MSC and ASC, and to the Western-based NGOs campaigning on their behalf, because in addition to these certifications, two homegrown industry-controlled certifications – the Marine Eco-label (MEL) and Aquaculture Eco-Label (AEL) are also approved. These are not third-party verified schemes.

The language of the Tokyo Organizing Committee’s Sustainable Sourcing Code for Fishery Products additionally allows the approval of other schemes meeting the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) guidelines. It also allows for the use of non-certified product, if it has been caught or raised based on a national or local government-approved management plan that generally takes conservation and the environment into account. 

Western sustainability advocates consider this wording to be too loose. A number of nonprofits have stated their belief that rather than a narrow focus on a few certification programs, the organizing committee has placed more stress on using the Games to showcase domestic Japanese seafood. 

Portland, Oregon, U.S.A.-based Ocean Outcomes has been one group calling for improvements to the Japanese sustainability certifications. The NGO develops and implements locally led, industry-supported fishery improvement projects and is funded by a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, according to the foundation’s website.

Tokyo-based Japan Program Director of Ocean Outcomes Shunji Murakami called for the MEL and AEL to submit themselves for benchmarking by the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative, an NGO that has developed its own Global Benchmarking Tool to rate how well certification schemes meet the requirements of various seafood related guidelines from the FAO. 

“The current MEL certification scheme certainly falls short – we do not feel it complies with minimum FAO guidelines,” Murakami said. “However, we would like to encourage MEL to improve its scheme in order to at least meet these minimum guidelines and also consider incorporating additional performance criteria that may be essential for ensuring sustainable fisheries. Ultimately, achieving these improvements will need to be verified by an independent and globally recognized benchmarking tool such as GSSI.”

Wakao Hanaoka, formerly of Greenpeace and now the CEO of another Packard-funded consultancy named Seafood Legacy, based in Tokyo, posted on his blog a letter to the TOC stating, “The domestic eco-label, MEL/AEL, has many evaluative standards and review criteria that are ambiguous, along with areas that do not meet international standards of sustainability. In fact, MEL currently certifies spawning Pacific bluefin tuna caught in purse-seine nets.” 

His letter concludes, “Unfortunately, the Sourcing Code is a major step backwards from London and Rio.”

In letters from a wide network of sustainability groups supporting this position, added to Seafood Legacy’s appeal, the TOC is urged to strengthen its code. Among the strongest is from Kazue Komatsubara, Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace Japan. 

“The proposed seafood procurement policy is alarming, due to weak criteria that fail to establish reasonable benchmarks for sustainability, so that anything could qualify and be sold in Japan,” Komatsubara said in her letter. “The Fishery Products code should aim to be at least as good as the London guidelines, and preferably better.”


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