Quality over quantity when it comes to certification in Asia Pacific fisheries

Posted on 10 February 2017

A combination of stringent certification and tailored fisheries improvement projects are seen as the way forward for sustainability in the region. Here are some points from Dr Geoffrey Muldoon’s talk on the relevance and application of certification and eco-labeling at the recent Asian Development Bank Green Business Forum.
In the Asia Pacific region, certification and eco-labeling can play an important role in assuring a sustainable future for global wild-capture fisheries and aquaculture as effective, incentive-driven policy tools to promote green products and processes. The push for increasing the number of certified fisheries, however, should not result in the quality of certification being compromised.

The nature of seafood production in Asia Pacific, alongside challenges in governance and capacity, has been widely acknowledged as posing significant problems for the certification approach in the region. What this reinforces is the need for innovative new tools and approaches that can, through a system of rigorous incentives, encourage those fisheries and farms not yet ready to aspire for certification to ‘improve’ their production systems in line with a certification benchmark. Regardless, the quality and rigor of certification or improvement efforts must prevail over volume.

This was the message delivered by Dr Geoffrey Muldoon, WWF Coral Triangle Coordination Team’s Business and Industry Senior Manager, in his presentation at the “Green Business Forum (GBF) for Asia and the Pacific: Investing in a Sustainable Future,” held last November at the Asian Development Bank (ADB) Headquarters in Manila, Philippines. The GBF is a platform for knowledge-sharing on the best policies and incentives, institutional arrangements, and financing options for sustainable “green business” in the Asia Pacific region.

In 2014, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, almost 90% of fish stocks were either fully (58%) or over fished (31.5%). Furthermore, research suggests catch of wild-caught seafood will decline from an estimated 68 million metric tonnes (MT) in 2012 to around 58 million MT by 2030. Aquaculture, now the fastest growing means of food production in the world, provides almost half (49%) of all seafood eaten worldwide today. With wild-catches declining and the world’s demand for fish projected to rise to 150 million MT by 2030, aquaculture will need to continue growing to meet this demand, with estimates suggesting more than 60 per cent of all fish for human consumption will need to come from aquaculture.

Dr Muldoon’s presentation went on to point out that more than half of the world’s seafood comes from developing countries, particularly the Asia-Pacific region, and as a fisheries “food bowl,” the region must take greater responsibility for maintaining the health of its capture fisheries and minimising the environmental impacts of aquaculture.

Keeping the bar high

Market-based tools like certification enable consumers to make better choices, and also provide incentives for producers—aquaculture farms included—to move towards certification. Dr Muldoon’s discussion emphasised the limitations of the certification approach in developing countries with the Asia-Pacific region accounting for less than 7 per cent of the world’s certified fisheries and farms. With that, the case for “green business” in seafood needs to consider the importance of tailored approaches such as fishery and aquaculture improvement options, capacity building, new technologies, and investment by governments and financial institutions in fisheries recovery to drive conservation impacts.

“Around 319 fisheries, representing about 11 per cent of global fisheries catch, are already either Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified or under assessment,” says Dr Muldoon. “It’s important to understand that this includes some very large fisheries, and moving this number beyond 11 per cent will be very challenging. The persistent push for more certified seafood commodities has, however, given rise to concerns about certification quality. Dr Muldoon says “that ‘poor’ or ‘substandard’ certifications pose a major threat to achieving actual conservation impact, both in terms of wild-caught and farmed fish."

The first step in securing robust certifications is to have accredited, independent third-party process auditors carrying out assessments on whether or not to certify a fishery or farm. The use of independent third-party assessors is critical as it helps ensure verifiable and reliable outcomes. Even where independent third parties have carried out the audit however, we have seen deficient assessments and this has led to fisheries being inappropriately certified in the past few years. WWF and other NGOs need to remain vigilant on the quality of not only the certifications but also the performance of the assessors.”

“WWF’s position is that there should be no lowering of the certification bar in the quest for more certified fisheries and farms,” warns Dr Muldoon. “The bar should remain high, and only fisheries and farms capable of meeting or exceeding the bar should be certified now and into the future,” he adds. However, this has also led to the discussion on the need for improvement pathways to move fisheries and farms toward MSC and ASC respectively, particularly in developing countries.

Dr Muldoon posits that for fisheries specifically, many, if not most, in the Asia-Pacific, will be unable to achieve MSC certification in the short and medium term. This has created a need for an “interim solution, such as tailored Fisheries Improvement Projects (FIPs) to help catalyse transformation,” he says. FIPs generally are being widely promoted as a step-wise approach to help fisheries meet the MSC standard for sustainable fisheries within an acceptable timeframe of three to five years. WWF considers the FIP programme to overall have delivered good conservation outcomes.

“What’s important to note here in the developing world context though, is that fisheries are often starting from such a long way back that achieving certification within a five-year timeframe is unrealistic.” This, along with governance and regulation challenges that restrict the pace of change and the dominance of small-scale fisheries in Southeast Asian countries, suggests there are compelling reasons to look at adapting the FIP model further to make it more relevant for this region.

Reading the labels

For farmed species, the volumes of “certified” fish is confounded by there being a number of different aquaculture eco-labels. Dr Muldoon pointed out the opportunities for harmonisation across different certification systems is already happening, where aquaculture standard setters—the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), Global Good Agricultural Practice (GAP), and Global Aquaculture Alliance-Best Aquaculture Practices (GAA BAP)—are working collaboratively to increase efficiency and reduce duplication in the auditing processes, and have agreed to combine checklists for farms pursuing more than one certificate.

WWF as a network supports the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) eco-label, which has demonstrated varying success, in terms of uptake, across different species. In terms of certified product as a percentage of total production volumes, Salmon, with 27 per cent of total global production now certified, has achieved the most penetration, when compared with bivalves (e.g. mussels, oysters) and Abalone, where certified product is less than 1 per cent of total production. For those species farmed mostly in Asia, Pangasius has made the most significant inroads with ~18 per cent, while Tilapia and Shrimp, can claim ~5 per cent of production. For numerous other staple species of the Asian diet, (e.g. Carp, milkfish, freshwater fish), certified farms and products are non-existent principally due to little if any consumer demand.

In terms of consumption, eco-label awareness levels vary; being higher in Europe than in the US and Oceania/Pacific. In some European countries like Germany, major retailers source almost 90 per cent of their product from MSC-certified fisheries. Anecdotally, in the US, it is suggested that MSC sourcing is driven more by the retailers themselves and not consumers, due in large part to their partnerships with NGOs. In Asia, while the MSC is making some good inroads in terms of consumer awareness in certain countries (e.g. Japan, China, and Singapore), eco-label recognition remains low.

There seems to be conflicting views though on whether certification and eco-labeling in fisheries has impacted on production systems or consumption patterns. According to the MSC Global Impacts Report of 2015, the MSC maintains that its programmes have led to considerable improvements in terms of stock status, habitat and ecosystem impacts, and in terms of fishery-specific management. WWF, however, is concerned that certification itself has not had the impact desired in terms of conservation gains, for stocks, bycatch, and habitat. “Specifically, WWF has reservations about those fisheries that are certified with what are called ‘conditions’—that is, if these conditions are not met within a specified timeframe, the certification should lapse—are not being held accountable,” adds Dr. Muldoon.

We’re all in this together

Dr Muldoon underscores the government’s role in helping use certification schemes to move towards sustainability. “Governments are critical to the process, as governance and regulation are the cornerstones of most certification schemes. However, in some cases, they can be a roadblock to certifications or even simple improvements in fisheries, because they are not implementing necessary legislation or not doing it fast enough. Industry is, in some cases, being held back by ineffective and deficient regulatory systems and conditions.”  

“While they remain to be robust tools for ensuring and promoting sustainability, certification and eco-labels are far from being a panacea for the many complex issues facing most fisheries and aquaculture in Asia Pacific,” ends Dr Muldoon. “A keen understanding of geographical context needs to be considered and applied and all sectors, from the catching sector, processing sector, buyers, exporters and importers, retailers, NGOs, academics, and the science community, need to be involved.”
Pangasius fish are unloaded onto the docks at the Hùng Vuong Factory in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam
© WWF/Greg Funnell
Marine Stewardship Council