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Raising Standards Through Seafood Certification Worth the Effort

February 23, 2012

  • The two largest certification programs claim to cover 7 and 10% respectively of the world’s capture fisheries
  • In some developing countries, fish account for 80% of a country’s exports

World trade in fish is growing quickly, and so are calls for better governance of wild and farmed seafood. In an era of increasing globalization and concern about wild fish stocks, many businesses and groups think the standards set by seafood certification programs could have a positive influence on the way fisheries and aquaculture are managed around the world.

Today, private certification programs label seafood that meet certain criteria. For example, wild fish from a thriving fishery may be labeled to assure consumers they are buying products from a sustainably managed fishery. International guidelines for the ecolabelling and certification of fish and fishery products from wild fish stocks as well as for farmed fish have been agreed by UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Members and have set widely accepted standards for private as well as public certification and ecolabelling schemes. Farmed seafood may also be labeled if it is produced and handled by facilities that meet standards for environmental impact, working conditions, food safety and quality.

While certification has been influential in certain markets in Europe and North America, so far certified seafood products still make up a relatively small share of the global fish trade. The FAO notes in a recent report (pdf) that the two largest international ecolabelling programs claim to cover only 7 and 10 percent respectively of the world’s capture fisheries, or less than one-fifth of wild-caught fish sold each year.

Certification Systems Could Aid Sustainability Goals

Experts believe sustainability goals worldwide would be aided by a limited number of widely accepted certification systems, based on sound ecological principles. Proponents say such systems encourage the use of best practices, permit seafood imports to be traced, and enable greater regional and international trade and benefits for local people.

For example, a decision in 2006 to establish area rights to restrict fishing benefited a clam fishery of Ben Tre province in Vietnam. With better control over harvesting, the fishery gained Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification, followed months later by a 20-30 percent increase in the price of clams and a five-fold increase in wages. The fishery now supports thousands more people than before, according to Towards Global Sustainable Fisheries (pdf), a February 2012 report published by the Prince’s Charities.

Establishing similar practices in more places could boost the $274 billion (pdf) that farmed and wild fish and other seafood contribute to global GDP. Fish account for about 10 percent of global agricultural exports – reaching a record $102 billion in 2008.

" Based on our experience, it’s important to establish aquaculture projects collaboratively and with a sustainable certified program from the onset "

Roger Bing

Vice President, Darden Restaurants

Developing countries trade more fish and seafood than any other agricultural good, and in some cases, fish accounts for 80 percent of a country’s exports. Some developing countries, however, may face challenges meeting some of the standards set by multiple certification programs, which have caused an increase in costs and inefficiency by processors trying to accommodate customers, says Roger Bing of Darden Restaurants, a major restaurant operator and seafood buyer in the United States.

“Based on our experience, it’s important to establish aquaculture projects collaboratively and with a sustainable certified program from the onset,” says Bing. “This is to ensure that the project is set up for success from a balanced perspective using the best science of the day.”

The World Bank can help developing countries develop robust and relevant criteria of sustainability and evaluate the impact, both positive and negative, that eco-certification may have on fishing communities in developing countries, especially small island states, says James Anderson, a natural resource economist and leader of the World Bank’s program in fisheries and aquaculture.

The Bank can also help countries reform their fisheries and aquaculture governance so they will have the possibility of being certified.  “This will result in broader market access, better quality, healthier fish stocks and less waste,” says Anderson.