Sustainable certifications slowly catching on in Japan

Published on
February 22, 2009

The two certification organizations that certify fisheries as sustainable in Japan - the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Marine Eco-Label (MEL) - are making gradual inroads into the Japanese seafood market.

The London-based MSC was created by the World Wildlife Fund and food conglomerate Unilever in 1997. The Tokyo office was set up in 2007, with Kozo Ishii serving as program director for Japan.

The Kyoto Danish Seine Fishing Federation snow crab and flathead flounder fishery in the Japan Sea was the first Japanese fishery to be certified by the MSC, in September 2008.

Chain-of-custody (COC) certifications have been granted to 29 companies, mainly processors and a few distributors. Supermarket operator Aeon, based in Chiba, is the only Japanese company to receive COC certification as a re-packer. The company repacks MSC certified products under its Green Eye label for its in-house TOPVALU brand.

About 150 imported MSC-labeled products are sold in Japan, with salmon and Alaska pollock (including many processed forms, such as fishcakes and surimi) being the largest in terms of volume. Certified sablefish is also available. Worldwide, about 2,000 products carry the MSC label.

Ishii said that the pole-and-line skipjack fishery for the central and western Pacific has been in the full assessment phase since last October and is expected to be approved in September or October. Two other fisheries are in the confidential pre-assessment phase.

Ishii hesitated to compare the competing MEL certification program, saying only, "The one thing I am concerned about is that it will cause confusion to consumers."

Introduced in 2007, MEL is promoted by the Japan Fishery Association (JFA), based in Tokyo. JFA spokesman Ken Kobayashi said the cost of MSC certification can be high, while the domestically administered MEL is more affordable for local Japanese fishery cooperatives.

So far, one fishery has been certified by the MEL: the beni-zuwei crab (Chionoecetes japonicus) fishery out of of Sakai, in Tottori Prefecture, in 2008. COC certifications have mainly been granted to handlers of this product around the port. Two more fisheries are in the public comment phase.

Both programs are based on the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries issued by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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