WHAT IS ECOLABELING?
Ecolabeling is formally defined as “a stringent form of environmental labeling that relies on independent third-party verification to ensure products meet certain environmental criteria or standards” (U.S. EPA 1998).
The use of third-party certification bodies adds credibility to an ecolabel, differentiating it from unsubstantiated claims of sustainability.
Ecolabels provide information to consumers on a product’s adherence to environmental standards, allowing them to make informed choices about what they are buying. As consumers grow increasingly aware of environmental issues and the role their purchases may play in environmental degradation, it is hypothesized that consumers alter their demand toward products they feel have the least impact on the environment, thus creating a market-based incentive for the increased production of such goods. As a result, continued use of ecolabels could potentially help promote sustainable production methods by giving consumers a tool to recognize products that meet particular standards.
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HOW ARE ECOLABELS EARNED?
In the instances of both capture fisheries and aquaculture, the critical starting point is the development of standards by which either fisheries or aquaculture operations (farmers, hatcheries, processors) are measured. Experience has shown that stakeholder involvement by all relevant parties, and credence placed in the standards by those stakeholders maximizes the success of any certification program.
An ecolabeling organization which is generally accepted to follow the appropriate structure of an ecolabeling organization (according to ISEAL and FAO) separates the standards-setting body from other functions. The standards setting body sets the standards and hires an accreditation body. This accreditation body then determines which certification bodies are capable of assessing fisheries or aquaculture operations against the standards, and accredits those which are appropriately trained. Thus, the third party independence of assessment of the standard is maintained.
If either a fishery or an aquaculture operation is determined to have met the standard, it is certified by the certification body and products coming from it are able to obtain the logo, or ‘ecolabel.’ However, another important step in the process must take place, which is Chain of Custody (CoC) certification.
To ensure products from certified sources are not mixed with products from non-certified sources during processing or while moving through the supply chain to the consumer, a certification of the chain of custody of the certified product must be obtained, up to the point where the logo is put on the processed pack, or to the point of the fresh fish counter at the retail outlet. This ensures veracity of the logo; ‘truth-in-labeling’ for the consumer, and protects the investment of those who have borne the costs of certification.
Chain of custody certification can be made less burdensome in the supply chain as some of its requirements follow closely with data requirements common to food safety regulations or other regulatory issues. In fisheries, CoC stemming from certification may have unique benefits, such as reduction of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) product from entering into the market.
Traceability is an important part of Chain of Custody certification. Traceability can be defined as ‘the ability to track and follow a food, feed or food-producing animal or substance intended to be, or expected to be, incorporated into a food or feed, through all stages of production, processing and distribution,’ (European Commission). Electronic traceability is a particularly sophisticated form, using the internet to track movements of products through the supply chain. Given the international nature of seafood and the issues involved in both capture fisheries and aquaculture, this form of traceability represents a more secure approach than paper documentation.
Once the Chain of Custody certification has been issued, a logo license may be obtained which allows the holder to place the logo or ecolabel of the standards body – or ecolabeling organization – on pack or in its retail counter with the certified product.
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- The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is the most well established international seafood ecolabel. The MSC certifies fisheries based on the environmental impacts of the fishery, as well as the management of the stock. The MSC is an independent, non-profit organization that was founded in 1997 to provide a solution to the problem of overfishing. Together with scientists, fishery experts and conservation groups, the MSC has developed an environmental standard to evaluate and reward fisheries. Consumers can identify products from certified fisheries by the blue MSC eco-label as shown at right.
- Friend of the Sea, has a certification program for fishery products from both capture and aquaculture. Founded in December 2006.
- The Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) is the leading aquaculture standards-setting body which has developed the Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) standards for several species, including shrimp, channel catfish, and tilapia. In process are standards for salmon, Pangasius, and feed mills. Compliance with the BAP standards is implemented by the Aquaculture Certification Council (ACC), an independent certifying body that examines all stages of the aquaculture cycle, from hatchery and growout through processing. The ecolabel used by the ACC is the Best Aquaculture Practices seal showed right.
- The World Wildlife Fund has sponsored a number of dialogues to bring together stakeholders around establishing standards for aquaculture certification for several species. A new organization is proposed, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, but is not yet established. Standards are in development for shrimp, salmon, abalone, clams, mussels, scallops, oysters, Pangasius, tilapia, trout, Seriola and cobia, of which the standards for tilapia is finalized.
Other Seafood Ecolabeling Organizations
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COSTS OF CERTIFICATION
Costs of certification for capture fisheries seem to be most often thought of as the costs of the assessment process. These costs are typically costs agreed to between the client fishery and the certification body. There are privately negotiated and vary depending on the scale and scope of the fishery. This is the case with the MSC, however, Friends of the Sea reportedly charges a flat fee for all fisheries regardless of their complexity.
Costs of certification go beyond simply the costs of assessment. Costs also include the cost of achieving a well-managed fishery capable of meeting the standards. For those fisheries in need of reform, those costs may involve changes in gear type for vessels in its fleet, changes to its management system, changes in data collection, changes in fishing grounds, among other costly changes. These changes are the point of the creation of fisheries certification – market-based incentives for fisheries reform.
The logic above is similar for aquaculture. Costs of certification of farms and other operations include the cost of assessment undertaken in a contract between the client and the certifying body. It also involves the costs to the operator from change in operations management practices. Costs of assessment are less complicated for aquaculture than capture fisheries as aquaculture operations are private operations, and rely less on difficult-to-obtain data such as stock assessments and by-catch impacts. Costs from changes in management practices in order to become certified may be much more significant. The incentive to undertake such best management practices are enhanced if the regulatory policies of the nation within which the firm operates promotes best management practices.
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BENEFITS OF CERTIFICATION
There is much interest in understanding what the benefits are to undertaking and maintaining certification of both capture fisheries and aquaculture. In other words, does in fact the marketplace reward those who promote sustainable seafood production?
There are a number of ways in which the market may reward certification, including:
- Access to new markets
- Expanding market share in existing markets
- Avoiding loss of market access in existing markets
- Price premiums
- Reduction in market risk
Depending upon where a firm is along the supply chain, the benefit of supplying certified seafood may differ, and the size of the benefit may differ. Studies addressing this issue can be found in the Resources Database.
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Organic certification of farmed seafood, not allowed currently in the United States but prevalent in the European Union, is conducted by several organizations. Organic certification includes ecological and other standards. For more information, see Organic Certification of Farmed Seafood.
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POLICY RESPONSES TO ECOLABELING
In response to concerns regarding the possible effects of ecolabels on trade barriers and the fairness in the application of ecolabeling programs standards on producers, policy makers have issued guidelines and policy responses. More information about these policy responses can be found at this link.
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The Resources Database on this website provide a searchable database of literature that includes reports, peer-reviewed journal articles, and other documents that discuss the costs, benefits and other issues associated with fisheries and aquaculture certification. The interested reader is suggested to investigate this database for more detailed reading or to contact the Director of the URI Sustainable Seafood Initiative, Dr. Cathy Roheim for more information.
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