Has the Marine Stewardship Council reached a plateau in Japan?

A Japanese fishing boat.

Even as eco-labels gain more market traction in Japan, the number of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified fisheries in the country remains low.

There are eight named MSC fisheries in Japan, but some of these fish for multiple species. MSC counts named fisheries according the number of number of species fished (e.g., a named fishery that fishes for both bonito and albacore is counted as two certified fisheries.). By this counting method, there are now 14 certified fisheries in Japan. Seven fisheries are currently in assessment. The MSC will release in its upcoming Annual Report that the number of MSC certified fisheries worldwide had grown to 539 as of March 2022.

The relatively sparse amount of MSC certifications, compared to most other countries with similar fishing efforts, contrasts Japan’s goals on sustainability. In September 2015, Japan adopted the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the country established an SDG Promotion Headquarters in May 2016. The headquarters, headed by Japan's former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was created to ensure a whole-of-government approach to implementing the agenda comprehensively. It also established the SDGs Promotion Roundtable Meeting where government, NGOs, experts, and business gather to make policy recommendations.

Japan didn’t stop there. The Keidanren, a comprehensive economic organization comprised of 1,494 representative companies in Japan, 108 nationwide industrial associations, and the regional economic organizations for all 47 prefectures, revised its Charter of Corporate Behavior with the primary aim of proactively delivering on the SDGs through the realization of what it terms “Society 5.0.” The shift envisions a transformation of society by utilizing IoT, AI, robots, and other innovative technologies to optimize individual lives and society as a whole, based on the principles of the SDGs.

The practical effect in Japan has been clear for companies, which have cited accomplishments or activities for each goal in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) portion of their annual reports. For those related to Goal 14 “Life Below Water,” popular initiatives include efforts to reduce ocean plastic, funding of habitat restoration such as replanting kelp beds and sea grass beds, and encouraging consumption of eco-labeled seafood.

Panasonic Corporation has been a prominent promoter of eco-labeled seafood. In addition featuring Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and MSC-certified seafood at its own cafeterias, it has helped other companies adopt best practices in regard to sourcing and promoting sustainable seafood, and has also helped its caterers and food suppliers to obtain chain of custody certification.

Since the eco-label push, ASC certification in Japan has been increasing. ASC and the Tokyo-based social and environmental organization Seafood Legacy signed a memorandum of understanding on 14 September to deepen their collaboration for publicity and developing sales channels.

“In Japan, the number of companies that have achieved ASC certification is growing – with 82 companies already certified as of August 2022,” the groups said in a press release. That number was up from just 61 in 2019, lifting Japan's ranking to sixth globally for the number of farm sites with ASC certification, though it lags behind in volume of certified seafood produced, ranking 29th overall.

The boom in ASC certification in Japan is in stark contrast to the country’s MSC certifications, despite Japan’s extensive fishing activity.

The types of fisheries certified offer a clue as to why Japan is struggling. Of the eight named MSC fisheries, six are tuna fisheries managed by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, rather than the Japanese government, and the remaining two named MSC fisheries are rope-grown bivalve fisheries, which are relatively easy to certify since there is no pollution and no bycatch associated with them.

The WCPFC-managed tuna fisheries were able to achieve the MSC standard because their management system is based on maximum-sustainable yield (MSY), something that the Japanese government adopt until relatively recently, when it began to shift from total allowable effort to total allowable catch. Even then those tuna fisheries may have their certifications suspended in June 2023 if the WCPFC does not meet an MSC ultimatum to implement a harvest-control rule at its December 2022 meeting.

Japan’s prior total allowable effort system resulted in relatively little data collection, making the creation of a MSY policy more difficult. Previous certifications highlight the problem: The Kyoto Danish Seine Fishery Federation (KDSFF) snow crab and flathead flounder fishery was the first Japanese fishery to gain MSC certification in 2008, but the certification has since been withdrawn. In the case of the flathead flounder fishery, inadequate data to justify the MSY was the issue.

The other problem hampering the MSC in Japan is the difficulty of managing bycatch in a mixed fishery. Most of the inshore fisheries in Japan are mixed. A December 2021 research article, “Can the Japanese fisheries qualify for MSC certification?” looked at the pre-assessment scores for 53 fisheries in Japan. The report found most of the pre-assessed fisheries in Japan did not meet MSC standards.

Though the pre-assessed fisheries targeting total allowable catch (TAC) species are relatively well-managed, the study found difference in scores between the Japanese and MSC fisheries due to ecological performance, including their approaches toward bycatch and endangered species.

In an April 2022 Seafood Legacy Times article, Reiko Omoto, an associate professor at Tottori University and an MSC assessor, cited two obstacles regarding gathering fisheries data in Japan.

“In Japan, official data such as catch volume and species is stored in several different locations, and these locations (which include the Fisheries Agency, fishery cooperatives, and the fisheries themselves) vary depending on the region and fishing method in question. As this data is scattered, it is a challenge for us to consolidate the data required for conducting the certification assessments,” Omoto said.

Even with consolidated data, some of the mixed fisheries would struggle to qualify for MSC certification, she said. If the necessary data is available, a mixed fishery can still be assessed, but if there are days with high bycatch of endangered species or other similar issues, the fishery “may find it difficult to obtain certification.”

However, problems with the data itself remains one of the biggest obstacles to MSC certification in Japan, Omoto said.

“The second issue is the difficulty in collecting data in the first place,” she said. “Although fisheries have taken the initiative to establish their own stock-management rules in many cases, they may determine that the data in their possession is irrelevant when they interpret the certification standards, which leads to the data being largely withheld.”  

Photo courtesy of Andrey Gudkov/Shutterstock


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