Q&A: Sustainable seafood’s future

Dr. Cathy A. Roheim, who has researched seafood marketing and trade for nearly 20 years, is well known for her research in consumer demand for eco-labeled seafood. 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. She also served on the Marine Stewardship Council stakeholder council from 2000 to 2007, as its co-chair from 2006 to 2007 and on its board of trustees from 2006 to 2007.

As more fisheries pursue sustainability certification with the MSC and other organizations, consumer awareness of eco-labeled seafood is rising. SeafoodSource caught up with Roheim to talk about the future of sustainability certification and eco-labeled seafood. This is part one of a two-part Q&A; part two will run on Wednesday.

Loew: As more fisheries are certified, will certification become just a cost of business, rather than a differentiating feature for which a premium can be charged?
It is worth going back to the whole point of certification — to verify that fisheries are well managed and practice sustainable fishing. It would be great if we were at a place where all the world’s fisheries were well managed and sustainable such that they could be certified. Unfortunately, on a global basis, not all fisheries are at that point that they can meet the standards of certification at present. In that respect, product differentiation will remain for the foreseeable future, unless there becomes a lowering of standards such that even poorly managed fisheries with unsustainable fishing practices may meet the standard. Of course, in that case, benefits of certification programs would be questionable.

Is the trend toward certified seafood consumer-driven or is it more a form of corporate social responsibility (CSR)? 
At the moment, it is more a form of CSR than shoppers requesting it, although the extent of that varies by region. Certainly companies want to protect their brand image, but there are other economic factors as well. For example, in a recent survey we’ve conducted of major U.S. retailers, restaurants, foodservice operators and distributors, they’re sourcing sustainable seafood for several reasons. Among them is to promote sustainable fisheries to avoid losing sources of supply due to stock depletion, which imposes real costs to their businesses. Traceability via chain-of-custody certification helps ensure that they aren’t buying illegally harvested fish. In the current economic conditions, most companies are not expecting to recover increased costs of sourcing sustainable seafood from the consumer but anticipate that may change sometime in the future.

There are two organizations that certify fisheries as sustainable in Japan: the MSC and Marine Eco-Label, which is promoted by the Japan Fishery Association. Is it preferable to have a single certification label recognized worldwide, or should any organization that promotes sustainability be encouraged? 
There are a number of issues that enter into the answer to this question. On the trade side, exporters, especially those from developing countries, certainly don’t want to be faced with requirements to meet multiple standards required of multiple certification organizations in order to obtain multiple labels. That would impose tremendous costs.

But equally importantly, research shows that any certification organization must have certain elements to be successful, including credibility. If the stakeholders, including industry and environmental groups, don’t buy into the certification organization, this may influence the willingness of those selling labeled products to be associated with it.

Regarding consumers, there is valid concern about consumer confusion if there is a profusion of labels. Research also shows that trust influences their demand for the label. Research we’ve conducted on consumers in the U.S., and similar research my colleagues have recently conducted on consumers in Japan, shows that consumers tend not to find industry certification as credible as government or third-party certification. But consumers in different regions have different views about an international label versus a national label. In Japan, the same research showed that a Japanese label would be trusted more than one from outside the country. This may be less true in other regions. Since seafood’s a globally traded product, global perceptions of the credibility of the label are going to matter.

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