Sustainable fishing – eco-labels should cast a broader net

By Chandran Nair

This column by Chandran Nair appears in the October 2007 issue of the Ethical Corporation

Asian food markets are awash with fish, but opportunities for selling sustainable seafood in the region have yet to be realised, says Chandran Nair.

Despite concerns about over-fishing and illegal operators pillaging the oceans, it is still possible for western consumers to buy sustainable fish.

Seafood-eaters in Europe and the US can choose from a number of eco-labels, the most respected of which is the Marine Stewardship Council mark. This guarantees that fish have come from sustainable and well-managed fisheries. In ten years the label has grown to cover 300 fish products in 25 countries around the world. But its presence in Asia is limited.

The MSC’s programme has certified or is currently assessing 50 fisheries representing more than three million tonnes of seafood. But none of the currently MSC-certified fisheries, and only two of fisheries undergoing assessment, are in Asia. This is despite the fact that Asia is home to more than two-thirds of the world’s fishing vessels. China and Japan alone have some of the world’s highest seafood production and consumption rates. Estimates of illegal fishing in Asia are lacking, but vessels flying Asian flags have been implicated in illegal fishing activities all over the world.

The case for engaging Asian fisheries and markets could not be clearer. Why then is Asia lagging behind in the fish eco-labelling movement? Part of the reason is that in order to establish itself the MSC set its sights on large, industrialised fisheries serving European and US markets. It was believed that only sophisticated, western consumers would be interested in sustainable fish products. This view has been turned on its head recently by the stocking and promotion of MSC products by retailers Aeon and Seiyu in Japan, thought to be among the toughest fisheries markets to crack.

Ironically, one of the problems for the MSC is that its standards are high and not all fisheries can meet them. Therefore, in theory, finding new fisheries to certify should get harder, not easier. In addition, some fisheries, whether well managed or not, are unwilling to pay the costs of certification or to change their operations to conform to the MSC’s definition of best practice.

Meaningless rivals

This has caused rumblings in Asia of alternative labels, which may or may not have lower standards. In either case, it is likely that the burden of choice for consumers will grow as they try to separate the real eco-labels from the deceptively attractive but ultimately meaningless symbols.

Another issue for Asia, particularly outside Japan, is that many Asian fisheries operate in regionally closed cycles of demand and supply. In other words, there is no export of local fish to eco-label-receptive western markets, and little market presence of non-Asian fish, which could introduce the labelling concept.

How then to persuade the Asian fisheries, suppliers and consumers to adopt a certification scheme that has been developed solely in Europe and the US?

There is at least one example from Japan of a small fishery serving a domestic market that wants the MSC label as recognition of its achievements. This, however, may be something of a special case. The issue of how to promote western eco-labels in Asia remains to be tackled and will need some serious consideration.

Finally, there is the question of cost, which cuts across all markets and regions. Are consumers prepared to pay more for a product that guarantees its sustainability? On the MSC, the jury is still out. Ultimately if producers cannot cover the costs of certification, periodic re-assessment and the logo-licensing fee, eco-labelling will not be sustainable from a business point of view.

These issues make eco-labels more attractive for the giant international retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Carrefour, and less so for the old style diversified supply chains that distribute most fish in Asia. Continued consolidation in the food retail sector in Asia could ironically lead to a greater product diversity, including eco-labels, but also greater price sensitivity as consumers compare products side-by-side along the aisles.

The role of eco-labelling schemes like the MSC’s in determining the future of fisheries worldwide, and specifically in Asia, is still emerging. But there can be no doubt that solutions will have to bring together the enlightened self-interest of suppliers, growing consumer awareness in certain Asian countries, and stronger regional regulatory co-operation to curb the big business of illegal fishing.