Q&A: Reaching MSC’s potential in the Americas

The Marine Stewardship Council has reached a lot of milestones recently, including the 100th certified fishery (Barents Sea cod and haddock) and the 7,000th product to carry the MSC eco-label (peeled, frozen shrimp at Sainsbury’s). Last month, the London-based organization’s Kerry Coughlin celebrated an achievement of her own — her one-year anniversary as director of the Americas region.

But the celebration was a quick one, and Coughlin and her colleagues at the MSC’s Seattle office are focused on continuing to grow the program in 2011. Currently, there are 39 certified fisheries in North and South America (including one in Russia’s Far East), more than double the number of certified fisheries a year ago. More high-profile U.S. fisheries are engaging in the MSC program — the Oregon Dungeness crab fishery earned certification two weeks ago, and Maine lobster and Atlantic sea scallops are pursuing certification.

What’s more, consumer awareness of the MSC eco-label and sustainable fisheries in general is building among Americans, who have been slower to catch onto the sustainable seafood movement than their European counterparts.

But the MSC isn’t without its challenges, and the program has been the target of criticism from some environmental NGOs.

This is part one of a two-part interview with Coughlin. Part two will run on Wednesday.

Hedlund: What’s your take on the Food & Water Watch report? It’s almost as if F&WW is saying seafood eco-labels are deceiving and that very few of the world’s fisheries are worthy of sustainability certification.
I don’t know what [F&WW’s] agenda is. The piece is not fact-based. There’s no credible analysis in the report. So it was frustrating. We work with international bodies of scientists, and these people are committing time and effort into the MSC program because they realize it works. And buyers and fisheries are coming into the program because everyone realizes this is a program that works. Buyers realized they have a chance through a market-based program to influence change on the water, and they are. So I don’t know where [the F&WW report] is coming from.

The MSC has reached a few milestones as of late. What does that say about the program’s progress since its inception in 1997?
The reason we tout our progress, momentum and growth is that it demonstrates the MSC is the right concept at the right time to galvanize all of the players in the global seafood industry. That’s what’s exciting to us — to see those partnerships in the organization grow.

What [the numbers] indicate is that increasingly people … throughout the supply chain realize that this is a way to drive change on the water. What’s coming is that consumers will increasingly be more of a player in that.

Are American consumers becoming more aware of the MSC eco-label and sustainable fisheries in general?
It’s definitely increasing. Consumers are looking for a way. In my mind the MSC can’t get the word out fast enough to consumers that they have a way. We don’t have the marketing budget of a multi-national company. We can’t advertise during the Super Bowl. Where we reach consumers is through our partners. That’s the model we’ve adopted.

The environmental NGOs that are out there are doing tremendous work to raise awareness about ocean issues and the depletion of ocean resources. Many of them partner with us, and part of their goal is not only to engage fisheries but also to make their consumers aware that there’s a way to make a sustainable choice.

Last week, the MSC announced that the Argentine anchovy fishery has entered full assessment. Is interest in the MSC program in Central and South America growing?
I just got back from a trip to South America, and the interest there is burgeoning. There’s a great deal of interest, and that’s with not a lot of outreach on our part, to be honest. Fisheries are familiar with the process. Governments are familiar with the process. They know the MSC. They’re moving into pre-assessment. They’ve moving into full assessment. They see the value in the MSC, and they’re selling into markets where the MSC is important. There’s a great deal of movement [in Central and South America], and that will only continue.

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