Responsible Fishing Scheme’s international rollout gathers momentum at SEG17

Published on
April 25, 2017

With crew welfare and responsible catching practices onboard fishing vessels becoming more important issues of concern for seafood supply chains all over the world, the establishment of an internationally recognized standard that demonstrates good practice at sea and also encourages further engagement has been propelled to the top of many wish-lists.

Originally introduced in 2006 by Seafish, the U.K. seafood authority, the voluntary Responsible Fishing Scheme (RFS), which provides a set of guidelines for vessels and skippers to follow in order to achieve certification is widely held up as the scheme that’s most fit for purpose as it provides the means by which supply chains can demonstrate that they are buying from vessels adhering to social and ethical best practices. 

Fully updated and relaunched for the U.K. catching sector in January 2016 as part of Seafish’s current corporate plan, new RFS incorporates five key areas: safety, health and welfare; training and professional development; the vessel and its mission; care of the catch; and care for the environment. Furthermore, considerable progress is now being made toward its international rollout, with many leading players within international supply chains already showing their support.

“The RFS has been up and running in the United Kingdom for more than a year and we have seen growing commitment from the supply chainwith an ever growing number of businesses in the retail, food service and processing sectors committed to incorporating RFS certification into their sourcing policies, and using their influence to support the scheme’s expansion,” said Libby Woodhatch, head of advocacy at Seafish. “With any new standard, it always takes a little bit of time to bed in, but the updated RFS has definitely been well received.”

Those supply chain supporters already onboard include seafood suppliers like Young’s Seafood Ltd., Icelandic Seachill and Direct Seafoods, and retailers such as Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and Lidl.

To advance the internationalization of standard, this year Seafish will be conducting work relating to the audit methodology – to further explore its international applicability, and refine the “international translation process” which has been drafted to ensure equivalence is established from country-to-country. More recently, because the RFS’s current unit of certification is the skipper and the single vessel, it has been evaluating group certification, because the reality in many fisheries is that a group certification model is more appropriate, particularly in some of the international fisheries where there are higher levels of fleet ownership and vertical integration.

“We completed the first site visit in the group certification pilot in Orkney last month and the findings of that work were really good. Now we are working on what needs to be achieved so the vessels can get their certification,” said Woodhatch.

A month earlier – in February – there was a commitment by the RFS Oversight Board to undertake some international pilots. This builds on two studies conducted last year on the feasibility of the standard in both the Icelandic cod fishery and the Peruvian anchovy fishery. As well as proposing that pilots should be undertaken, the board also recommended to the Seafish Board that the welfare element of the standard should be strengthened so that the “crew voice could be captured and heard.” 

Consequently, there were two outcomes from last month’s Seafish Board meeting: First, an agreement to initiate the international pilots; and secondly, to look for a new entity to operate, manage and deliver the RFS.

“Seafish will remain the standard-holder. The RFS was set up by industry, the oversight board and the technical committee and we want to maintain that ethos,” Woodhatch said. “But we are a non-departmental government body and running an international standard goes beyond our remit. Therefore, we will be going through a process to identify the right people to run the entity.”

Seafish must now follow set tender procedures incorporating clear notification periods. In parallel with that process, it is establishing an international working group that sits outside the formal governance of RFS with the express purpose to locate, fund and manage some international pilots.

“We have had lots of global interest in the pilots, with international fisheries saying, ‘Yes please, we absolutely want this; how do we get it?’ Funding the international pilots is the first step in being able to move toward having the standard available for non-U.K. vessels,” Woodhatch said. “Seafish can’t run the pilots because we don’t have the levy or the resources, so what we will do is put the ball in the international working group’s court. But the pilots will have to be done within the constraints of the standard with proper audit protocols followed. It will be up to the working group to fund them and get that process going because international audiences are really keen to have the RFS standard; they need it and they believe in it; they like the way in which it has been established with a mix of industry and relevant NGOs; and they want to sign up because there is nothing else out there that is as fit for purpose as the RFS.”

Timelines are currently being finalized but the pilot process will run in parallel with the public procurement process that puts the invitation for the new entity out to tender. However, because it must all coincide with the Seafish Board meetings, it will be completed within the next 11 months, explained Woodhatch.

“The pilots can probably be conducted quite quickly, but establishing the new RFS entity could take until the end of 2017 or up to the end of the last quarter of the current financial year,” she said.

“Those pilots could potentially inform Version 2.0 of the RFS Standard, as could the certification that is being undertaken in the U.K. fleet, because like all standards you will reach the point that things need to be tweaked.” 

For example, within RFS’s rollout in the United Kingdom, it was found that some of the parts of the standard were more difficult to audit, which was slowing the audit process. The team worked with members of the pelagic fleet challenged with having their catch audits completed when they traditionally land in foreign ports, to move to a remote system using temperature management documentation and confirmation by customers.

“Like all standards, RFS has to remain robust, so we may need to think about moving to Version 2.0 of the standard.”

That could happen under the new entity, but the full international rollout will most certainly come under its stewardship, Woodhatch said.

The first meeting of the international working group will be held in Brussels to coincide with the Seafood Expo Global 2017, and will predominantly be attended by global harvesters and members of the supply chain.

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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