Home / Aquaculture / DOES CERTIFICATION MATTER? (Part II)




By: Hon Prof Roy Douglas Palmer,   

is Executive Director of the Association of International Seafood Professionals (AISP), based in Victoria, Australia, and Director of Orga P/L (T/a FishyBusiness).

What are the issues relating to certification?

At the American Aquaculture Conference earlier, Dr. Claude E. Boyd (Auburn University) and Dr. Aaron McNevin (WWF) raised a number of issues confronting this question.

They pointed out that purchasing and certification efforts are private businesses that supply the demand for a product, and that the differentiation of aquaculture products through certification programmes marginalises small-scale producers. They said however that environmental regulations in most major aquaculture producing countries are not rigorous, are poorly enforced (or both) and they argued that it should therefore be recognised that certifications and some third-party audited purchasing policy programmes of individual buyers are important, because they are the only means currently available for attempting to verify that aquaculture facilities are operating by acceptable production and environmental management practices.

Importantly, they said that certification standards and other requirements were developed in many cases through stakeholder committees, following various accepted codes of conduct for standard-setting. They pointed out that most certification programmes claim that there are inherent mechanisms for continuous improvement of standards, but it needs to be remembered that it is not in the best financial interest of a certification business to reduce the number of certified facilities which would likely be the result of increasing the rigour of standards. They concluded that it is unlikely that, in their current forms, the “one size fits all” adage applies to effective standards for aquaculture farms. For certification programmes to be effective and maintain relevance, standards must also be dynamic and locked into continuous improvement based on new findings and experiences.

Questions that need to be asked of all standard owners before you align your company with them:

  • What are the audit costs and duplications relating to adopting your standard?
  • What effort is your organisation making in driving down such costs/duplications?
  • What efforts are you making to ensure small scale operators are not disenfranchised?
  • Is your standard GSSI and GFSI approved?
  • Which assistances can you give/offer?
  • What are the tangible benefits of your certification over others?
  • How are you ensuring that your standard is dynamic?
  • How are you connecting with my country’s certification and standards?

More questions for primary producers:

  • Do I understand completely what my buyer wants?
  • Could my risk be minimised by adoption of standards?
  • Could I get cheaper insurance if I adopted standards?
  • Will it make my business more resilient?
  • Will my staff respond to change?
  • What is my market differentiation and will this help?
  • Will it make my brand stronger?
  • Do Standards enable cross-fertilisation of national and international programmes?
  • How does it connect to consumers?

 So just how big has certification become and is it sustainable?

Well interestingly, considering the amount of trees it has consumed in paperwork you would have to say that with approximately 12% of the world’s fisheries (actually MSC claims they have close to 10% of the annual global harvest of wild capture fisheries on their website) and approximately 8% of world’s aquaculture, the answer is not as far as some would have hoped.

On fisheries there can be no question that there were gaps and improvements needed. However whilst there are always concerns, the latest State of World Fisheries & Aquaculture (SOFIA) highlights, amongst other things, that the ‘global total capture fishery production in 2014 was 93.4 million tonnes, of which 81.5 million tonnes came from marine waters and 11.9 million tonnes from inland waters. For the first time since 1998, anchoveta was not the top-ranked species in terms of catch as it fell below Alaska pollock. Four highly valuable groups (tunas, lobsters, shrimps and cephalopods) registered new record catches in 2014. Total catches of tuna and tuna-like species were almost 7.7 million tonnes.’ Actual figures have to mean something and whilst no one should be complacent, it would indicate that world fisheries are resilient. The issue that concerns many people is that MSC, as an example, concentrated on the fisheries that were already quite well managed – as one person said ‘they aimed for the cream before addressing the volume and difficult areas’. Additionally there are concerns that certification is becoming a trade barrier especially for smaller operators.

If environmental sustainability is so important then why has this not impacted on tariffs in the harmonised tariff system codes (HTS) which imported/exported products are classified under? Surely a driver to trade would be created through this system and you would imagine that standard owners would have seen such benefit in motivating this process, and yet there has been no change in the system and it is never mentioned.

Is the message getting through to the consumer?

Do consumers prefer eco-labeled products and are they agreeable to paying a premium for them?

Specialist seafood marketers, Callander McDowell, which recently reported on MSC’s ‘independent’ global research that apparently revealed the importance of sustainability when buying fish and seafood, were decidedly unimpressed. They say the report is ‘relatively meaningless since all that these consumers are doing is agreeing with a statement. It doesn’t mean that any of them are actively buying sustainable seafood to help save the oceans.’

Of most interest to Callander McDowell, they report, ‘was that the research found that 54% of seafood consumers said that they were prepared to pay more for sustainable seafood. Unfortunately, whilst many might express such good intentions, the reality is that when actually making buying decisions, such good intentions usually go straight out of the window and the price becomes the deal breaker. This is evidenced by the fact that MSC certified seafood does not command a premium in store.’

Always vexing is the survey which concentrates on what consumers SAY versus what they actually DO. There is little evidence that consumers actually pay extra for products with eco-labels and consumers simply assume brands (consumer products or retailers) have done the sustainability work for them. They are rarely heard asking such questions before they purchase in retailers or restaurants. After all we do not ask to see food safety licenses before we dine…we just assume that to be in business, they meet the requirements.

Callender McDowell point out that there are many NGOs applying pressure to those in the food chain to commit to sustainable seafood. This, they say, can lead to concerns about negative publicity and hence retailers opt to stock these sustainable products even though shoppers show little interest in the logos. The question is if the logos were removed from stores overnight, would anyone notice?

In another report, the Norwegian University of Life Sciences group “Consumer Preferences, Eco-labels, and Effects of Negative Environmental Information’ conducted a stated choice experiment in France with eight types of fish that were either eco-labeled or unlabeled. They found that participants were willing to pay a 4% premium for MSC- labeled wild cod, and a premium of about 11% for Agriculture Biologique-labeled farmed salmon and farmed cod. However when participants received negative environmental information on farmed fish or harvesting wild species, their willingness to pay fell by more than the positive effect of eco-labeling. This implies, they say, that the eco-labeling organisations need to improve consumers’ trust in their labels and that public authorities can also play a more active role in developing trust in eco-labels.

This highlights one of the major problems. The plethora of certification programmes only go to create confusion rather than clarity when communicating with the consumer. This situation could be eased by the GSSI benchmarking approach, which brings all the elements to a simple conclusion.

 What is the way forward?

Each organisation has to make its own decision when it comes to certification and it is not an easy one to make. There are many questions that need to be asked and there are no easy answers. Dr Rohana Subasinghe. Senior Aquaculture Officer of the Fisheries and Aquaculture Department of FAO (since retired) said “The application of certification in aquaculture is now viewed as a potential market-based tool for minimising potential negative impacts and increasing societal and consumer benefits and confidence in the process of aquaculture production and marketing.”

It was noted at the FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI) meeting (11-15 July 2016) that ‘GSSI and FAO will explore adding aspects on animal health and welfare, food safety and socio-economic issues to the Global Benchmarking Tool. Some Members welcomed the progress of the GSSI partnership and especially the piloting of the Tool in support of the implementation of the Technical Guidelines.

Members requested that the results of the three regional workshops and recommendations be made available for global review to provide a better understanding of the process and the relationship between the Global Benchmark Tool and the Evaluation Framework. The Sub-Committee stressed that certification schemes and the Global Benchmark Tool should not create barriers to trade nor add additional costs and requirements on small-scale producers.’


Seafood is well liked and appreciated in Asia, which is by far the world’s major seafood fisheries and aquaculture production area. For some time there has been, within the Asian seafood community, some underlying concerns that they are being forced down a pathway of certification that is unnecessarily costly and not necessarily efficient.

Meanwhile, many developed countries have locked themselves into political positions driven by minority environmental groups which have strangled fishery and aquaculture development. The centre of the world is moving more and more to Asia and by 2030, over 60% of the world’s middle class will be in the Asian region. Will this be a catalyst for major change?

It is a great pity that we have a disjointed approach to this important issue because a genuinely shared responsibility would maximise returns to all and could enable governments and institutional buyers to revolutionise trade in seafood which will ease costs and enable more funding to be spent on research issues and promotion of seafood.

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