The Success of the MSC: Harnessing buyers; not consumers (editorial comment)   SEAFOOD.COM NEWS by John Sackton May 30, 2007- The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has achieved stunning success. It has fashioned a potent brand-building idea, and has given it to retailers, who are now pushing it down the global seafood supply chain.

In our news today, we write about the entire Scottish pelagic industry coming together to get MSC certification for Scottish herring and mackerel. The impetus is that British retailers are increasingly telling their seafood suppliers that if it is not certified, they won't carry it.

At a recent ecolabeling conference in Canada, salmon suppliers in British Columbia showed the conference a letter from Sainsbury's, saying that in order to continue buying canned salmon from BC, it would have to have an MSC certification by 2008. The BC industry has been in the certification process for many years, and has been victimized by a certifying agent that ceased to work on their project.

Another major high volume fishery, Pacific Whiting, which is jointly managed by the U.S. and Canada, is about to announce that it will enter the certification process. The preliminary assessments have been done, and contracts have been signed, and the formal announcement from the MSC should be forthcoming any day.

This will add hundreds of thousands of tons of whitefish to the pool of certified fisheries.

Other major fisheries coming on stream are the Eastern Canadian shrimp fishery, both in the Gulf and off Newfoundland. Also, the West Coast Pink shrimp fishery.

At the conference in Canada, the question that was essentially on the table was how to ramp up so that all eligible Canadian fisheries (of which there are many) could be certified.

All of this activity, and there are many more fisheries being actively solicited to buy certification, has shown the effectiveness and success of the MSC in gaining recognition as the primary certifying body. Even Icelandic USA has announced it has MSC chain of custody certification.

But once a fishery is certified, is it always certified? Originally fisheries certification by third parties was held to be necessary because of the failure of governments to properly manage fisheries.

Now, the success of fisheries certification falls squarely on traditional fisheries managers.

Virtually all certifications done so far come with 'exceptions'. These are specific things that the certifiers find need improvement in a fishery. They can range from by-catch to gear issues to habitat destruction. So long as the fishery promises to correct the exception, the fishery can be certified.

Now with some fisheries reaching the 5 year mark, the battle over these exceptions is coming home to roost. First, there is a lack of consistency among the certifiers over how to evaluate exceptions. So, for example, an exception that is deemed critical for Canadian halibut is ignored for U.S. halibut, even though they are managed by the same international agency.

Secondly, the data needed for certification generally comes from governments. Even though certifiers are hired to review the stock status and management practices, the actual data on which they rely has to be collected and managed by governments.

In Canada, there is a recognition that if this is to be a long term arrangement, budgets and data collection methods have to be adjusted to conform to the requirements of certification.

But certification also has to conform to the budget choices and management decisions made by various countries and management bodies. No one has the money to do all the fisheries science they would like to, and so all research must be prioritized.

What the Retailers and the MSC are doing is changing some of the priorities. This is not necessarily a bad thing if the purpose is to gain market acceptance and maintain trust in fisheries management. It is unacceptable if the certification battle becomes non-science based, or a forum for various interest groups to fight over fishing issues, such as use of trawls, marine reserves, stock allocations, or the existence of farmed salmon etc.

The MSC appears to recognize that the key to future success includes operating within the global seafood supply chain. It is truly a case where consumers need to eat and value a fish in order to generate the support necessary to sustain and preserve it.

Should the MSC ever delist a certified fishery for frivolous reasons, they would destroy the utility of their label to the supply chain.

So far, the MSC appears to be taking its responsibilities very seriously and ramping up the number of certifiers, streamlining its procedures, and making the certification process more accessible and transparent.

But the MSC is also a business, and like any business, its revenues depend on the value of its services and the goodwill of its customers. These are the retailers and suppliers who pay the costs for the ecolabel. So far, the equation appears positive but in any relationship of mutual dependence, the outcome must reflect the needs of both sides. In this case, the need for recertification may require the MSC to review how it allows certifiers to deal with exceptions; and recognize that fisheries that are demonstrably sustainable over time need to be recertified, even with exceptions. The key thing that has changed with success is that now retailers and suppliers, not consumers, are paying the freight; and that means that what may have at one time seemed reasonable in an theoretical exercise cannot be allowed to hold up continued certification in a global seafood supply chain.


John Sackton, Editor And Publisher News 1-781-861-1441
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