Confused about eco-labels? Here’s a primer

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Hello Passionfish readers. We’re delighted to post this Q/A with economist and professor Cathy Roheim, Ph.D., one of our country’s top experts (if not THE top expert) on the subject of seafood sustainability and eco-labeling.
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QUESTION: Do we need eco-labels? Reasonable people assume that our government monitors seafood sold at stores and restaurants to ensure that it is legally caught, well managed, and not harmful to us. It wouldn’t be sitting pretty on the shelves otherwise, right?! So is the eco-label superfluous and really just a “feel good” thing? Is it a marketing ploy to brand the fuzzy word “sustainability” in order to charge more money to folks driving their SUVs to upscale grocers?
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ANSWER: I think the important thing to remember here is that a huge percentage of seafood sold in the U.S. is imported, and different countries manage their fisheries differently. Setting aside the issue of seafood safety – which is a very different issue – the U.S. government has a variety of regulations that set about ensuring that fish are legally caught within the U.S. jurisdiction and that fisheries are not over-harvested. But having regulations and then adequately enforcing them are two separate issues. And while the U.S. might be relatively good at it, not all countries are. Even in the U.S., different fisheries are managed better than others, and some have been managed pretty poorly in the past.
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So independent certification programs that use eco-labels have been set up to provide consumers with additional information from non-governmental voices on whether or not the regulatory bodies are actually being effective in managing fisheries. Sometimes, eco-labels also go beyond what the governments might monitor. For example, there are now aquaculture eco-labels which not only look at whether best management practices are followed in raising marine farm-raised products, but whether the products are raised in conditions in which the workers are paid with fair wages.
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Having invested resources into ensuring that their fisheries or aquaculture operations meet the criteria worthy of bearing the eco-label, it is not surprising that sometimes these products may be viewed as ‘premium’ products. Certainly, some marketing folks would like to make them equivalent to organic products in order to capture a higher price, but you’ll find that even the Wal-Marts of the world are selling eco-labeled fish these days, arguing it is the ‘right’ thing to do if we want to ensure that there remain enough fish in the ocean for the future or that the environment is not harmed in the raising of farmed fish and shellfish.
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QUESTION: The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) based in the UK has an eco-label that has certified 26 wild fisheries. Exactly what in the world does their stamp of approval mean? [Please answer in your own way. We, at Passionfish, have always supported the MSC for their valiant efforts]. And, in the 232 years since the US was last a colony, haven’t we raised enough smart scientists whom we can trust to tell us which fish we should eat?
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ANSWER: The MSC has certified 26 fisheries globally now, the largest of which are a bunch of Alaska fisheries, including salmon, pollock, halibut and Pacific cod. One thing readers can do to learn more about the MSC is to go to their website. Otherwise, I could spend a lot of space talking about the program, so I’m just going to hit the highlights. The MSC was formed in 1997, jointly by the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever. For those who aren’t familiar with Unilever, it is a huge global corporation, which at that time owned the Bird’s Eye brand of frozen seafood and about 25% of the frozen fish market in both the U.S. and Europe. Unilever was worried that with the state of the North Atlantic whitefish stocks (cod, haddock, etc), they would soon run out of fish supplies and then what would they sell to their customers as fish sticks? So they teamed up with WWF, which as an environmental organization is always concerned about the world’s oceans, to form the MSC, as a program that determined standards for sustainable fisheries which would then certify fisheries against those standards. Those fisheries determined to be sustainable would be eligible to have products from them bear the MSC logo (or eco-label).
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The logic behind the label is that informed consumers who care about sustainable fisheries will demand seafood with the MSC label, as opposed to those products which don’t have the label, sending a market signal back to fishermen and fisheries managers that only sustainable fish is preferred.
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What does the label mean? Well, it’s required that next to the logo, the consumer be able to read the statement that ‘This product comes from a fishery which has been certified to the Marine Stewardship Council’s environmental standard for a well-managed and sustainable fishery.’ The standard itself is based on the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization’s Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, broadly on three main criteria: a) the health and productivity of the fish stock; b) the function of the ecosystem surrounding the fishery; and c) effective fisheries management.
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The MSC became independent of WWF and Unilever after it was formed, and will soon be celebrating 10 years as an independent organization. It now has 1,100 labeled products in the market worldwide available to consumers from those certified fisheries, with most of those in the UK, US, and Germany, but also in many other countries (again, see their website for where you can buy their products).
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Another 25 or so fisheries are in the assessment process, which is an independent third-party process (expert, including scientists, independent of the MSC determine if the fishery meets the standard). Not without controversy, the MSC is the only major international eco-labeling program for capture fisheries that is 100% compliant with the United Nations’ guidelines for eco-labeling. It has significant backing from major environmental organizations worldwide and from many major retailers and processors in the U.S. and Europe.
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You asked why scientists can’t tell us which fish to eat — why do we need the MSC? We do have plenty of smart scientists, and they have been telling the regulators which fish to cut back on harvesting and which are in reasonable shape. The scientists aren’t the problem; but fisheries management in many countries is inherently a political process because the managers are balancing not just the needs of the fish stock but also the needs of the communities dependent upon them. So while it might be prudent to cut quotas (the amount one can fish) by 50%, that might mean that the number of people able to fish would also be cut by a significant amount, with a down-stream affect on those employed in the processing plant who would have less fish to process, etc. So when faced with the short-term costs of fewer fish to catch versus the long-term costs of fewer fish to catch, politicians often opt for the long-term cost (in other words, catch the fish now and decimate the population).
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The hope of a market-based approach such as the MSC was to involve the rest of the market in the decisions — to get the retailers, processors and consumers involved by having them tell the politicians “That’s not good enough. We want fish in the future, so make some tough decisions and find other ways to help save fishing communities.”
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QUESTION: North to the Future! Is the title of Alaska’s state song pointing the way to the future? Nearly 40% of this state’s wild-caught, MSC-certified salmon began life in hatcheries, were fed pellets, and later released to the sea. “Enhancement” or “replenishment” of stocks is not talked about much even when “wild” fisheries the world over are dependent on it. Why the silence? Is “enhancement” a story behind the label?
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ANSWER: Actually, it’s over half of the salmon that started their lives in hatcheries, for certain species. If you are interested in reading more about that, I can recommend a report that I recently published with my colleagues Gunnar Knapp of the University of Alaska and Jim Anderson of the University of Rhode Island. It’s called The Great Salmon Run: Competition between Wild and Farmed Salmon. It was prepared for TRAFFIC North America and it’s available at this WWF link.
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The report is huge (over 300 pages) and tells you a ton about farmed and wild salmon, but there is one chapter devoted specifically to explaining hatchery salmon. Most hatchery salmon are the species ‘pink’ and ‘chum’, which are two of the lower valued species in the marketplace. The higher valued species, ‘sockeye’ (also known as ‘red’), ‘chinook’ (also known as ‘king’), and ‘coho’ (also known as ‘silver’) tend not to be raised in hatcheries, mostly for biological reasons. There are a lot of political factors behind all this, as well as other factors, including trying to put more fish in the ocean.
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It doesn’t necessarily diminish the value of the label, because scientists did determine that the fisheries are sustainable. But it does create an interesting angle for the discussion of whether or not Alaska does actually practice finfish aquaculture (Alaska as a state has a moratorium on finfish aquaculture), and to what extent the large supply of pink and chum as a result of hatchery production depressed prices for wild salmon, especially during the tough years a few years ago.
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QUESTION: Does green-washing exist with green-labeling? Tell me, is this “eco-label” about sustainability really about “traceability”?
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ANSWER: The eco-label is all about traceability. More and more retailers and processors are demanding greater and greater traceability with regard to the seafood they buy, particularly related to whether the seafood they are buying comes from legal sources. Let me first define for your readers what traceability is. Traceability is the ability to follow the movement of a food through specified stages of production, processing and distribution, as defined by the UN. Essentially, it is a record-keeping system that identifies and tracks products, transportation of products, and ingredients of products from origin to consumption, while providing the ability to quickly trace back products at any point along the supply chain. It became necessary for food safety purposes, in order to track backwards in the food chain the source of food which made consumers ill, so products could be removed from store shelves.
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With eco-labeling, in order to make sure that seafood from certified fisheries are kept separate throughout the processing chain and rest of the supply chain from seafood from uncertified fisheries, a chain of custody certification is also required. To implement that chain of custody, traceability is used. One of the benefits of traceability, and eco-labeling, is that not only do we ensure that fish which is labeled as coming from a sustainable fishery actually does come from such a fishery, it also guarantees to the buyer that the fish they are buying comes from legal sources, as opposed to illegally caught fish.
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QUESTION: You say “po-tato” and I say “po-tayto.” The wallet-sized buying advice cards that dozens of advocacy groups have circulated seemed easy enough: red (avoid), yellow (proceed with caution), and green (eat freely). But are people noticing that these campaigns are proliferating and don’t always jive? What’s your advice?
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ANSWER: These campaigns began in the mid-1990s and there are certainly many of them, both here in the U.S. and globally. Initially, many of them did not agree, although I think there has been more harmonization recently than there was before. The benefit of these cards is that they are compact and easy for a consumer to carry around with them, pull out and consult when they need to make a purchase decision. However, that is also their downfall. By having to be compact, they leave out important information about a particular fish species on the red list – in other words, some species currently on the red list might not be there if the list were more specific as to where the fish was from, or what type of gear type was used. But if too much information is put onto the card, it would no longer be a card, it would be a book.
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Alternatively, the green list has almost too much information – here they go into great detail that certain species of certain gear types from certain countries are ok. But how is a consumer to find that type of fish in the market or at a restaurant?
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In addition, the methodologies behind the cards are different from an eco-label. The methodologies behind a card are less transparent — it is not clear how it is decided which species go on which list. If eco-labeling programs follow the United Nations’ Code of Conduct for Eco-labeling Programs, then all stakeholders are involved in certification, in other words, everyone who is involved in the fishery including environmental groups, industry, academics, etc. All information is taken into account. The standards are clearly laid out for all to see, and third-party independent certifiers do the certification. Those fisheries which are doing well are rewarded for doing well. The wallet card system doesn’t reward the ‘good’ fisheries in the same way, and so doesn’t create incentives for better fisheries management as the eco-labeling system does.
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This is why an ecolabel is, in my view, a preferred approach because a consumer simply has to look for the label (assuming the label is a trustworthy label). If the label appears on the product, then one doesn’t need to worry about what gear type was used or country of origin of the fish – the appearance of the label is sufficient.
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QUESTION: Where’s the Good Housekeeping Seal when you need it? My mom lives in Denver. She’s smart, cosmopolitan, politically moderate, and can sniff out a bargain before the ink on a barcode dries. But, like other savvy shoppers across the country, should she be convinced that an “eco-seal of approval” provides significantly greater value in tangible ways? In other words, are green certifications of more benefit to suppliers rather than the general population? What’s a person to do who lives on a fixed income but wants to “do the right thing”? Sometimes this “movement” seems aimed at the rich. Enlighten me.
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ANSWER: This is a really good question. There’s no doubt that this movement is doing a lot to help out the corporate image of many corporations, in North America, Europe and other countries. But on the other hand, while fish is technically called a ‘renewable resource’, if they are fished past the brink then they become a ‘non-renewable resource.’ There are some corporations who truly do understand that the future well-being of their businesses depend on the existence of plentiful levels of fish in the future. So to say that this movement is aimed at the rich misses the point.
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We’re at the beginning of this entire movement – it’s only about 10 years old. For many years the fisheries industry was focused on what we call ‘command-and-control’ management. In other words, management by government regulations. And while we do have some successes to point to, and in some cases it is actually improving, we have some spectacular failures as well — I’m speaking worldwide, not focusing only on the U.S. Some countries have fisheries which aren’t managed at all, some partially managed, some which are managed yet very badly. Command-and-control focuses on managing the supply side, the fishing industry itself. People in the fishing industry are absolutely not bad people. They are pursuing an occupation, and simply responding to the economic incentives created by what is sometimes poor management. They work very hard at supplying us as consumers extremely nutritious and good food, sometimes risking their lives to do so.
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This movement is simply engaging new players, people at the other end of the spectrum (consumers, retailers, processors), to create new incentives, to change behavior in the fishing industry and among fisheries managers and the regulators in the cases where management is either non-existent or poor, while at the same time rewarding those in the fishing industry who are sustainably fishing as opposed to punishing them. But it takes time. None of these programs — wallet cards, ecolabeling, etc — are without their warts, but every day brings improvements and I believe change in the right direction. Some fisheries need more change than others, and we still haven’t really touched on aquaculture, which has a different set of issues, but that’s for another session.
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THANK YOU, CATHY! Very enlightening!

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