Japanese sustainability documentation template and rating website evolving

Published on
October 7, 2021
The logo for SH"U"N, a sustainability website devoted to informing Japanese consumers about the sustainability of the seafood they are eating.

Two systems have been launched in Japan that are devoted to informing Japanese consumers about the sustainability of fish they are eating and making it easier for fisheries to apply for sustainability certifications.

Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency (FRA) Senior Adviser Yoshioki Oozeki first introduced the development of the two systems – SH "U" N (short for Sustainable, Healthy, “Umai,” Nippon) and MuSESC (Multi-task Support System for Eco-labeling and Seafood Certification) at the 2019 Seafood Show Osaka. Now, two years later, Oozeki said he’s learned more about the challenges facing the two systems.

Similar to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program, SH"U"N is a website consumers can use to check the sustainability of various species harvested in Japan, which uses a points-based ranking system.  

In a 2019 Nippon Foundations’ Ocean Newsletter Oozeki said he planned to publish evaluations for around 50 species by the end of the year, though the number currently stands at 33, due to various obstacles Oozeki has encountered.

Unlike Seafood Watch, which gives color-coded recommendations such as “best choice” and “avoid,” no overall score or rating is given. Rather, scores are given in four different areas (regional stability, fishery management, status of stocks, and environment and ecosystem issues).

“No final score is given because there are different opinions about which axes are important,” Oozeki said. “For example, environmental NGOs don’t care about the social axis. So, regional stability – for example, the heritage of food culture of small countries, which is a social measure – is not important in their evaluations.”

Currently, the site includes tabs for wild-catch fisheries and for aquaculture for its listed species, but there is no data yet for aquaculture. Oozeki said that the lack of data is because aquaculture is carried out by private businesses, and it is difficult for a government agency like the National Fisheries Resources Institute to access the information.

“ASC [Aquaculture Stewardship Council] or MEL [Japan’s domestic Marine Eco-Label] can evaluate the data because of cooperation from companies who want the certification,” he said.

Oozeki recently launched an app for the ratings system, which recently hit the milestone of 10,000. downloas. Oozeki said while he was very excited to launch the smartphone app, the current version has poor repeat use, perhaps due to its data-rich style, which doesn’t lend itself to quick use.

Limited resources for the project have stunted its growth. As the product of a government agency which may have a strong effect on businesses, the evaluations are subject to a stakeholder-hearing and public comment process, which takes about six months and requires a lot of energy to manage, Oozeki said. Additionally, efforts to conduct outreach to supermarkets and restaurants to ask them to feature fish with high ratings, or to make SH “U” N better known to their customers, have not been completed at the level Oozeki would have preferred.

Oozeki said that as Japan shifts from a total allowable effort (TAE) system of fisheries management to a total allowable catch (TAC) system – in line with Japan's Fisheries Reform Act – SH“U”N may be used for more active outreach to publicize the new system, as Japan's general public may still have a poor awareness of the change.

The switchover to a TAC system will see the number of species managed based on stock assessments raised from the current 50 to 200. The number of species managed based by TAC will be raised from the current 9 to 24 by 2023. Before the reform, a TAC was only applied to saury, Alaska pollock, sardines, mackerel, southern mackerel, horse mackerel, squid, snow crab, and bluefin tuna.

Separately, MuSESC is a cloud-based server system supporting the acquisition of fishery product eco-label certification. The system allows data to be entered into a template, which can then be used for applying to eco-label programs like the MEL program. It is expected to make it easier for small fisheries to prepare for eco-label certification.

Because the FRA is a government body, it cannot engage in for-profit activities, so the operation of this program will be shifted to another organization associated with Tokyo University, Oozeki said.

The services are expected to remain free for internal use by fishery managers, but if they wish to use it for obtaining eco-certification, a fee would be contracted as part of the agreement with a third-party certification organization.  

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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