Certification matters - Seafood Summit, Hong Kong, September 2012

Posted by Phil MacMullen, Head of Environmental Responsibility on 03 October 2012

I've been mulling over my observations from this year's Seaweb seafood summit in Hong Kong, seeing what stories there are to tell. I was there running a panel on the advantages of having better, industry-generated data throughout the supply chain. I managed to find four excellent speakers and the event went very well with- but that's another story.

My first narrative starts with a workshop run by Peter Hajipieris but then brings in strands from several other conference sessions. Peter's workshop asked several certification 'brand owners' to describe what marked their schemes out as different and then discussed the implications of the new 'Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative' (GSSI) which aims to establish standards to which all schemes should conform, so that they have a degree of equivalence. This would mean that auditing to the standard of any 'approved' scheme would preclude the need to be audited for another, very similar scheme in order to satisfy the demands of an ENGO or industry grouping.

Peter was very good at keeping the certifiers focused on the realities of the market and the need for continuous improvement. One large Canadian multiple remarked that certification was 'no panacaea' and that the various players had to establish fisheries improvement partnerships (FIPs)for less well performing fisheries ensuring that these were based on key performance indicators (KPIs) that would bring them back on line.

Curiously, whilst some of the certifiers were being a little coy about their USPs, one well known US fishlist producer said that the ENGO community had clear expectations of industry. These included transparency, clear metrics, consistency, global standards, and several more….but, of course and unsaid, these things work both ways!

There was talk of 'audit fatigue' with producers commonly having to pay for audits for maybe six different certification schemes which were essentially similar; and talk of the 'certification market' reaching saturation so that standard owners may start with the best of intentions but then morph into bodies that 'exist to survive rather than to serve'.

At a separate panel on 'Retailers' sustainable seafood journey experiences' there were several references to their moves towards exclusively pole and line caught tuna and one of these was accompanied by a slide showing fishermen on a typical flat decked boat with no rail operating in 'scuffly' weather. Some of the fishermen were clearly struggling to keep their balance and I asked the panelists if they had any data on the relative human fatalities for various fishing methods. None had and they appeared concerned that this sort of issue could come around to bite them sometime in the future. I later discussed with them how we could try to dig out data on health, safety, etc.

Although most retailers are happy to go along with some Fairtrade product, and some flirt with other ethical issues, none has seen fit to look at the ultimate sacrifice that some fishermen make - and how their product standards may affect this.

Three points to finish: all commentators on the commercial side emphasized that public awareness of, and insights into, issues of certification and sustainability were very limited; a recent Alaskan survey into public recognition of certification logos found that a made-up logo/scheme scored more highly (at 9%) than the 'real' brands; and one keynote speaker warned of likely increasing tension between national fishery managers and the demands of certification schemes and FIP initiatives. Keep watching this space!

Phil MacMullen, Head of Environmental Responsibility

Please note content may only be reproduced with permission from Seafish, please contact Dawn Sneddon