Q&A: Gauging awareness of sustainability

Published on
January 18, 2010

Dr. Cathy Roheim is a professor in the University of Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics and director of the URI Sustainable Seafood Initiative, a collaboration between the Rhode Island Sea Grant Program and URI’s College of Environment and Life Sciences.

In part two of a two-part Q&A, Roheim talks to SeafoodSource about consumer awareness of sustainable fisheries and the high cost of certification. Part one ran on Tuesday.

Loew: How does consumer awareness of sustainable fisheries and demand for eco-labeled seafood products compare in Europe, North America and Japan?
Roheim: We’ve done consumer surveys now in all three geographic areas, although not all at the same point in time, and there’s a growing body of literature in this area by several researchers. The clear result we’ve seen is that, once informed of the meaning of the ecol-abel and the environmental issues, a significant portion of consumers do prefer sustainable seafood as indicated by the eco-label and are willing to pay a premium for it, in all three regions.

The difference between the three regions seems to be that many Europeans are already more aware of the environmental issues associated with the fisheries, such that demand for sustainable seafood exists at a level above the other two regions. But the implication of the research is that with further education, demand in North America and Japan will increase over time too.

Is enough being done to educate consumers about the eco-labeling programs? 
Given the response to the last question, no, since further education will likely increase demand for sustainably certified seafood. And, if the labeling program is linked to certification given only to those fisheries that are well managed, this increased demand will not create pressure to increase supply, but rather will result in increased prices. That is a good thing for fishermen, rewarding them for their good fishing practices. And as indicated above, some consumers have indicated a willingness to pay that increased price.

Should governments set standards for sustainability labeling, as it has for organic?
Certainly not for capture fisheries; it would be ironic if they did. The FAO [the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization] has already created Guidelines for Ecolabeling of Fish and Fishery Products from Marine Capture Fisheries. These guidelines help ensure that certification organizations meet certain principles to achieve fairness and objectivity for fisheries certification around the globe. While these are voluntary guidelines, whether a certification organization meets the principles of the guidelines is frequently used as a metric to measure the capture fishery programs.

The issue of harmonization of standards seems to be of greater concern for governments in the area of aquaculture, and driven by Europe in particular where there is a larger number of organic and eco-labeling programs. The FAO has drafted similar guidelines for aquaculture, and federal governments are actively involved in that process. The market is still shaping and forming the aquaculture certification landscape, as we wait to see what happens with the ASC [Aquaculture Stewardship Council]. Various partnerships have been forming between current groups. I think it would be preferable to allow that process to continue for the time being.

Is the high cost of certification and burden of managing data unfair for smaller fisheries interested in pursuing sustainability certification?
Cost is the elephant in the room, and not just for the smaller fisheries. In a survey of MSC’s fisheries clients last summer, we asked them whether they expected that the benefits of certification would outweigh the costs. As we all know, the costs of MSC certification are often criticized. Opinions were varied. Many said they thought the benefits would outweigh costs — as they stated, “Why else would we be going for certification?” — and others said it is not all about market benefits but proving that their fishery is sustainable. A notable comment was that anticipated losses from not becoming certified due to loss in market access or market share would be greater than costs.

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Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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