Olympic pressure pushes Japan’s Marine Eco-Label to undergo GSSI benchmarking

Published on
January 2, 2019

With the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games around the corner, environmental advocates have ramped up the pressure on the host country to commit to serving only seafood certified by third-party accredited sustainability schemes.

Currently, the language of the Tokyo Organizing Committee’s Sustainable Sourcing Code for Fishery Products sets the bar for approval for seafood sustainability at meeting the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) guidelines. However, that language was criticized for being overly broad – seemingly with the intention of including the Marine Eco-Label (MEL) and the Aquaculture Eco-Label (AEL), both industry-run programs that are not third-party certified – in the category of acceptable certifications for seafood sourcing for the Games.

This inclusion rankled conservation groups because neither label’s requirements are as strict as some other programs, such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC).

Nora Christiansen, oceans global campaign leader for Greenpeace International, wrote to the president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games to complain that the draft Sustainable Sourcing Code for Fishery Products would provide little guarantee of meaningful commitment to sustainability.

“As it stands, the proposed seafood procurement policy falls well short of best practice, specifically due to weak criteria that fail to establish reasonable benchmarks for sustainability, so that unsustainable or unethically sourced marine products could be provided at the Olympic Games. While the code supports the idea of purchasing certified seafood, it endorses inadequate and weak certification schemes,” she said. “By doing so, Games organizers will be misleading consumers into believing they are making responsible purchasing decision, when in reality, at this stage of MEL and AEL’s development, they are not.”

Ryan Bigelow, the senior program manager for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, told SeafoodSource there was initial excitement about sustainable sourcing commitments for the Olympics, but that hopes had faded a bit with the announcement of the looser proposed policy requirements

“We appreciate efforts by the Olympic Committee to include a sustainable seafood commitment in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. We hoped that the commitment would prescribe sourcing seafood products at the Games only if they had been assessed as a ‘responsible choice’ by an independent ratings or eco-certification program, such as [the Marine Stewardship Council], [the Aquaculture Stewardship Council], or members of the Global Seafood Ratings Alliance,” Bigelow said. “However, we remain optimistic that the Games can encourage discussion and advance sustainable seafood in Japan and globally.”

The mounting pressure from environmental groups has pushed the Japan Fisheries Association, which operates the MEL and AEL, to commit to subjecting its programs to benchmarking by the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative, which determines whether seafood certification schemes meet the requirements of the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (CCRF), the FAO Guidelines for the Ecolabeling of Fish and Fishery Products from Marine/Inland Capture Fisheries, and the FAO Technical Guidelines on Aquaculture Certification.

After announcing the move in January 2018, the JFA spent the remainder of the year updating their standards so they would meet the GSSI benchmark and become GSSI-recognized in advance of the Olympics. The group recently released the revised standards, and JFA Vice President Naoya Kakizoe, who also serves as chairman of the MEL Council, acknowledged the move was an effort to gain international trust for the scheme.

GSSI Managing Director Herman Wisse, speaking at the fourth Tokyo Sustainability Seafood Symposium on 1 November, said the MEL had run into a snag as its designated certification organization, the Japan Fisheries Resource Conservation Association (JFRCA), has currently not acquired accreditation to ISO 17065, a standard developed by the International Organization for Standardization outlining internationally acceptable methods for conducting independent certifications.

Wisse said that the FAO guidelines require certification bodies to be accredited and follow the criteria of ISO 17065, and while he would not comment on whether the updates to MEL’s standards were adequate – noting that the process of identifying gaps and recommending improvements was confidential – he did confirm that in order to be recognized, the certifying organization would need to be accredited to meet the requirements of ISO 17065.

Minoru Tamura, technical manager of the MEL Council, told SeafoodSource JFRCA is now in the process of trying to acquire ISO 17065 accreditation through the Japan Accreditation Board (JAB). 

While it is not yet known whether MEL will be successful in acquiring GSSI recognition, representatives of NGOs in attendance at the Tokyo summit in November said its effort to tighten its standards was a positive step that should be encouraged.

Wisse said that by using GSSI’s Global Benchmark Tool, programs like MEL “can engage locally, build confidence and increase the amount of certified seafood that meets internationally accepted guidelines.”

Wisse said there was demand from GSSI partners for more sustainably-certified seafood, and that the GSSI benchmarking signaled to those companies the integrity of a certification. That sentiment was backed up at a later point during the Tokyo symposium, when GSSI announced the addition of a new funding partner: JCCU (Japanese Consumer's Co-operative Union). It joins supermarket chain Aeon and seafood congolmerate Nissui as GSSI’s underwriting partners in Japan. GSSI is also supported by Wal-Mart, which owns Seiyu stores in Japan.

Photo courtesy of Herman Wisse/GSSI

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

Want seafood news sent to your inbox?