The sustainable seafood movement is still in the very early stages of development, but producers, retailers, foodservice operators and non-governmental organizations are working collaboratively toward the harmonization of certification standards for both wild fisheries and aquaculture, said panelists at Wednesday's conference, "Sustainability: Today and Tomorrow," at the European Seafood Exposition in Brussels. About 275 people attended the conference.
"It's just the beginning of change," said Peter Hajipieris, commercial manager-fish for British retailer Tesco, with about 2,000 stores in the United Kingdom and an additional 1,200 stores throughout Europe, Asia and the United States. "Sustainability is not going to go away."
Since 2001, Tesco has marketed seafood from fisheries certified as sustainable and well managed by the Marine Stewardship Council, a London-based non-profit organization established by the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever in 1997.
Bill Herzig, senior VP of purchasing for Darden Restaurants, the United States' largest casual-dining operator with nearly 1,700 restaurants, including Red Lobster and Olive Garden, agreed. Darden sources shrimp from farms and processing facilities certified by the Global Aquaculture Alliance's Best Aquaculture Practices.
"We're in the very early stages of the sustainable seafood movement. In America, we call it the first quarter of a football game," said Herzig. "There are some very smart, capable, forward-thinking people involved in the movement, and we need to continue to engage in the three Cs -- communication, collaboration and convergence.
"There will wind up being a relatively small number of certification standards," he added.
About 17 farmed seafood certification standards currently exist, noted Jose Villalon, director of aquaculture for the WWF, who expects the number to shrink to four or five in the next five years. WWF has initiated the Aquaculture Dialogues to develop measurable, performance-based certification standards that minimize or eliminate the key environmental and social impacts of farming seafood. Currently, five dialogues are underway -- salmon, tilapia, pangasius, shrimp and mollusks. Three others are due to commence later this year -- trout, abalone and seaweed.
"We need to make sure aquaculture products are produced in a responsible way," said Dan Lee, standards coordinator for the GAA.
In addition to promoting aquaculture certification standards, panelists discussed the need to crack down on IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing worldwide.
"IUU fishing is a serious problem," said Herzig, adding that seafood buyers need to actively engage with fisheries to prevent IUU fishing. Darden and WWF are working with the Honduran lobster fishery to design traps that allow undersized lobsters to escape.
Tesco is also working to expose IUU fishing by sharing information such as blacklists with competitors, said Hajipieris. "I call it, 'Pete beats the cheats,'" he quipped.
Another challenge for seafood buyers like Hajipieris and Herzig is communicating the meaning and importance of sustainability to consumers. Herzig noted that about 20 percent of Americans have a real awareness and strong interest in sustainability. "But as consumers become more educated," he said, "they'll base more purchasing decisions on sustainability."
In fact, seafood certification standards are making headway into the marketplace. Globally, one-quarter of farmed shrimp exports go through a BAP-certified farm or processing facility, and more than 100 fisheries are engaged in the MSC program -- 26 are certified, 73 are under assessment and 20 to 30 are under confidential pre-assessment.
"Sustainability is a global issue already," said Nicolas Guichoux, regional director-Europe for the MSC. "Six years ago, Europe didn't have much interest in sustainable seafood. Now the market is asking for MSC-certified product."
Steven Hedlund, reporting from Brussels at the European Seafood Exhibition