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Labeling Tropical Fisheries: opportunities & challenges for third party sustainability certification

This blog is a special one. Every year, the top student essay from the Managing Tropical Fisheries Course gets published in the SPC Fisheries newsletter. However in this cohort, the grade splitting the top two essays was so fine, and the second essay was so well written, that we decided that it also needed to be made available to everyone interested in tropical fisheries. As such, we've reproduced it here. The essay is by Ms Ella Aviran. We hope you enjoy it.

1. Introduction

Fishing sustainability continues to generate international concern, with researchers, conservation groups and international organizations repeatedly addressing the overexploitation of fish stocks around the world and the negative impacts of intensive fishing efforts on the marine environment (Martin et al., 2012). To address these concerns, different fishery management systems have been formed under public authority, such as local/national fisheries laws and global conventions, and under ‘softer’ legal frameworks, such as the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries by the FAO (Ponte, 2012). Despite these improvements in fishery governance over the past 20 years, leading to a reduction in overfishing and the rebuilding of fish stocks, many of these concerns are still unresolved, especially in developing countries in the tropics, and are aggravated by new climate related threats to our oceans (Roheim et al., 2018).

In more recent years, due largely to NGO’s frustration with the perceived failure of fisheries regulators globally to control fishing behavior and mitigate overfishing, the market-based approach of third party sustainability certifications and eco-labeling has risen and over the years, became very popular (Roheim et al., 2018). An eco-label is a market-based scheme that awards a certification or label to a product or company in recognition of meeting certain environmental impact standards (Carlson & Palmer, 2016). Due to the dependence of all market economies on consumers choice, eco-labeling potentially presents a powerful way for consumers to influence the behavior of large industries (Kaiser & Edwards-Jones, 2006). Today, there are countless of fisheries certifications and eco-labels that guarantee the sustainability of the final product, with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) being the largest in number and geographical spread, and is the most recognized certificate worldwide in the industry (Putten et al., 2020). As of 2021, 516 fisheries worldwide are engaged in the MSC program (certified, suspended or in MSC assessment), accounting for 19% of global wild capture production (MSC, 2021c).

The MSC was established in 1997 by Unilever and WWF to use market forces as an incentive for all fisheries to voluntarily improve their practices. It established a standard, describing a well-managed and sustainable fishery, fisheries meeting the requirements of the standard can achieve certification, which allows companies selling their products to use the MSC logo (Peacey, 2001). Fisheries are assessed against the standard by independent certifiers and for a product to exhibit the eco-label, all companies in the supply chain including buyers, processors, traders and retailers must be certified against the Chain of Custody standard guaranteeing full traceability “from ocean to plate” (Arton et al., 2020).

There is criticism of bias in the MSC certification program against small-scale fisheries and developing countries. It is neither intentional nor unacknowledged and has been discussed in the literature over the years (Bellchambers et al., 2016; Carlson & Palmer, 2016; Gardiner et al., 2004; Hadjimichael & Hegland, 2016; Jacquet & Pauly, 2008; Pérez-Ramírez, Phillips, et al., 2012). Recently, the MSC has been working towards increasing accessibility of its program to small-scale fisheries and fisheries from developing regions, and the number of these fisheries engaged with the MSC has increased in 2020-21. (MSC, 2021c). The increase can be attributed to projects as ‘The Fish for Good’, a four year project working with fisheries in South Africa, Mexico and Indonesia establishing regional advisory groups supporting the fisheries in improving performances towards MSC certification, and other Fishery Improvement Projects (FIPs) such as In-Transition to MSC (ITM) program, offering fisheries an independent verification of their progress towards certification and eligibility for financial support (MSC, 2021a, 2021b, 2021c).

Tropical fisheries’ importance is becoming well known, characterized often by small scale fisheries in developing regions, these fisheries play a key role in providing jobs and food security to millions. Unfortunately, climate change impacts are projected to be more significant for these fisheries in tropical regions, where warming is expected to decrease productivity (FAO, 2020). There is an immediate need for action towards sustainable fishing in the tropics, and with the proliferation of third-party sustainability certifications globally, it is important to examine the opportunities tropical fisheries can gain from them and the challenges they’re facing.

2. Opportunities

2.1. Financial

Third-party certifications and eco-labeling are based on the assumption that labeled products obtain market advantages over not labeled ones, therefor the financial opportunities for these certifications are an important incentive for fisheries in the tropics and globally. Developing country producers able to meet sustainability requirements for certification can benefit from increasing sales or prices of their labeled product, resulting in an improvement of the total income and therefor profits (Peiró-Signes et al., 2020). Some retailers are unwilling to pay a premium to suppliers, in which case market access provides the bigger financial incentive, with many buyers groups and major global retailers starting to make certification a prerequisite for accessing markets, thus certifications and labels may provide fisheries in developing countries the chance to maintain or enter international markets (Gardiner et al., 2004; Pérez-Ramírez, Phillips, et al., 2012).

Carlson & Palmer (2016) reviewed a sample of case studies of MSC certification in developing countries and found little evidence for price premiums and mixed evidence for market access yet they noted that since the majority of MSC-certified fisheries have only been certified within the last few years, more time is needed for financial benefits to be realized. They did find support that environmental certification in developing countries resulted in substantial benefits for certified resource producers, other than immediate economical ones.

Certifications and labels may provide fisheries in developing countries the chance to maintain or enter international markets

2.2. Social

Recent research notes social license to operate is an important motivation for certain fisheries to seek sustainability certification (Robinson et al., 2021). Fisheries, as a result of becoming certified, might improve their reputation which in turn may have economic and social benefits, it may also improve cooperation between managers and producer organizations, empowering fishers to have a stronger voice, and bridging the gap between management, science and community perceptions (Arton et al., 2020; Bellchambers et al., 2016). For example, in the case of red rock lobster fishery in Mexico, certification allowed the fishing cooperatives to differentiate their product as more regarded than that of the competitors, gaining them prestige and international recognition (Pérez-Ramírez, Ponce-Díaz, et al., 2012).

From Carlson & Palmer's (2016) meta-synthesis, social benefits of certification featured prominently in producer perceptions in 71% of MSC case studies, noting improved worker pride and self-esteem as some social benefits which may be sufficient to drive continued sustainable fisheries management.

2.3. Governance

A well-documented benefit of third-party certification and a significant opportunity for tropical fisheries is improved governance and producer empowerment. Government support of certified firms can take the form of regulatory relief, tax benefits and preferential treatment in the allocation of resource access rights (Carlson & Palmer, 2016). Certification is influential in facilitating governmental approval of the fishery and improving the regulatory approval process (Robinson et al., 2021). Certification, in some cases, can be an important political tool for fisheries in developing countries; in South Africa it is used to prevent reallocation of catch quotas and in Mexico, the rock lobster fishery has negotiated to obtain the government’s economic support, provided through the provision of electricity, increased road access and infrastructural improvements to fish processing plants (Pérez-Ramírez, Phillips, et al., 2012).

Another effect of increased government support may be the empowerment of producers to make long-term planning decisions, for example in certified fisheries in Argentina, stakeholders perceived the ability to plan for the long-term as a benefit of certification thanks to an assessment of the status of their current resources (Pérez-Ramírez, Lluch-Cota, et al., 2012). The ability to plan for the future is cited as a benefit in 65% of the case studies Carlson & Palmer (2016) analyzed.

2.4. Environmental

To achieve third-party sustainability certification, a fishery must follow a certain standard, for example the MSC standard articulates several sustainability requirements under three principles:

  1. the impact on the targets species’ stock,

  2. the impact on the ecosystem (other species and habitats), and

  3. the fishery’s governance and managements systems (Arton et al., 2020).

MSC certification can be seen as a path to increased learning, providing opportunity for fisheries in developing countries to gain input from outside experts, with regards to developing management strategies, assessing stock status, adopting new techniques for reducing bycatch and new processing techniques for reducing product loss (Carlson & Palmer, 2016). The Bahama lobster fishery can be seen as an example of environmental improvements and sustainability outcomes due to certification, ensuring the fishery continues on a path towards long-term sustainability (Thomas Travaille et al., 2019).

MSC certification process provides a pathway for fisheries managers in developing countries to access support to improve their fisheries

Learning is seen as the most prominent benefit of certification, with evidence that certification promoted producer awareness of environmental issues and the impact of their activities on the environment (Carlson & Palmer, 2016). In MSC certified fisheries in Argentina, a study showed the certification encourages the understanding of stock status and environmental problems, making users of the industry more careful with their resources to maintain long-term business (Pérez-Ramírez, Lluch-Cota, et al., 2012). Eco-certification requires fair and transparent data sharing and has an assured chain of custody which also provides a range of direct and indirect mechanisms of addressing illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, as facilitating a culture of compliance with existing regulations through dialogue with and trust in institutions (Longo et al., 2021).

3. Challenges

3.1. Financial

The inability of fisherman from small-scale fisheries in developing countries, which often characterize tropical fisheries, can be the first obstacle in these fisheries’ road towards certification. Economic costs of certification are present in all three stages of the certification process - the preparation, auditing and compliance, with costs varying, depending on the size of the fishery and the amount of improvements needed to meet the standards (Carlson & Palmer, 2016; Pérez-Ramírez, Phillips, et al., 2012). Another factor contributing to higher costs for certification in some fisheries is the lack of domestic certifiers, leaving fisheries to bear the cost of international travel as well as the costs associated with data collection (Renckens & Auld, 2019; Wakamatsu & Wakamatsu, 2017).

Costs associated with the compliance stage of certification can effect fisheries even after years of certification, as was seen when the Sian Ka’an and Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserves spiny lobster fishery withdrew from MSC certification, after less than five years certified, indicating it did not have the funds to cover the costs of annual surveillance and re-assessment audits (Nyiawung et al., 2021).

3.2. Lack of information and data

The characteristics of tropical fisheries, especially small-scale, include targeting a mix of species using multiple types of fishing gears and boats, make it difficult to evaluate the status of the resources and the fishing efforts (Salas et al., 2007). Due to the high biodiversity in the tropics and the mix of species targeted there is often missing or unreliable catch and effort statistics and little or no biological information or stock assessment, making it difficult to manage the fishery appropriately (Stratoudakis et al., 2016). Wide range of landing sites is another characteristic of small-scale fisheries in the tropics, making it difficult to effectively record catches and efforts (Salas et al., 2007). These fisheries are also often incapable of demonstrating stability and existing good practices to external assessors due to unregistered information, assessment and management decisions (Jacquet et al., 2010).

A lack of information on the certification process may also pose a challenge to fisheries wanting to certify. The complexity of certification processes can make the MSC certification inaccessible to many fisheries, with information regarding the requirements of certification, how to find an auditor and the process itself can be hard to obtain, difficult to understand or unavailable in an appropriate language especially for complex fisheries in the tropics, harvesting a mix of species with a variety of fishing gears (Carlson & Palmer, 2016).

3.3. Standards and market features

Non-existent or poorly defined access rights to fishery, a key characteristic of fisheries in developing countries, is a major challenge for seeking certification since only fisheries that have property rights over the fishery are able to participate in the MSC program (Pérez- Ramírez, Phillips, et al., 2012). Fisheries in the developing world often must share their territory with fishers from outside the community, and in fact many of these fisheries practicing sustainable management are prevented from certification due to actions happening beyond their control (Carlson & Palmer, 2016). The MSC also requires the status of the target species to be assessed in relation to biomass reference points, which in many data limited and multispecies fisheries in the tropics developing these species-specific biological reference points is not practical (Bellchambers et al., 2016).

Other than certification standards not being appropriate for small-scale, developing countries, tropical fisheries, often the markets’ features have an impact on the participation of these fisheries in certification schemes. The market demand for certified products, particularly MSC certified, is not uniform (Pérez-Ramírez, Phillips, et al., 2012). Asia and Southern Europe are the major destinations for developing country fish exports, and both have little interest in certified products, whereas in markets that are interested in certified products, the current demand is for species as pollock, herring and cod that are not the main species exported by countries in the tropics (Pérez-Ramírez, Phillips, et al., 2012).

4. Conclusions

While the effectiveness of third-party sustainability certifications and eco-labeling in enacting real change to the sustainability of fisheries remains controversial in the literature, the number of fisheries around the world involved in these schemes keeps increasing. The financial, ecological and social challenges tropical fisheries, particularly small-scale fisheries in developing countries, face in getting certified are gaining further recognition and with the number of programs being established in order to overcome them increasing in recent years, further research is necessary in understanding the impact of these programs and their outcomes.

Despite these challenges, the benefits for the certification process are clear. The standards and expectations set can help fisheries communities in developing a roadmap for the future, using this driver to better understand their harvested resource. The assessment process for certification can be used to lobby for change and create insurance for the future, it can help in organizing and empower communities and facilitate government approval. Third-party certifications should not be the only focus of fisheries management, and improvements to local/national managements are in definite need, but they could be used as a powerful tool to improve practices and incentivize fisheries around the world to work towards sustainable fishing.


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