Talking Points in Response to ‘False Promise of Certification’

Editor’s note: The following is in response to a report questioning the validity of sustainability certification programs. Crafted by the Changing Markets Foundation, the May 3 report, titled “The False Promise of Certification,” does not cite the Global Aquaculture Alliance’s Best Aquaculture Practices third-party certification program.

The “The False Promise of Certification” report is built on muddled thinking. It misstates problems and remedies and criticizes certification unjustly. Certification has never claimed to be a universal cure all. The fact that certification has gained any prominence is a result of its ability to drive more sustainable practices. In effect, the report homes in on certification because it is a convenient and obvious target.

1. What the report ignores

The nutritional needs of a growing population: Remarkably, the report calls for seafood consumption to be scaled back. Certainly, there is limited scope for increasing wild fisheries, but aquaculture is growing steadily and it can continue to grow because it’s more resource-efficient than terrestrial farming. Some forms of aquaculture do rely on wild marine ingredients, but an increasingly large percentage come from independently certified, responsibly managed sources.

The health benefits of seafood: Average seafood consumption rates are below recommended levels for healthy brains and vascular systems, so consumption needs to increase rather than decrease.

2. What the report muddles up

Consumer “confusion:” The report overstates consumer confusion as a result of multiple programs. But it then goes on, correctly, to identify that globally there are only two main certifications for wild seafood: the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Friend of the Sea. The trend is now away from proliferation, assisted by independent benchmarking schemes such as the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (GSSI). The report effectively ignores decades of work by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation and more recently GSSI.

Viable alternatives: The report doesn’t provide viable, large-scale alternatives. The report champions small-scale fisheries, fishermen’s cooperatives and simplified standards. However, if people are to respond to well-meaning initiatives, for example those that target small-scale fisheries, then they will need an identity, a name and perhaps a logo. This is the path to logo proliferation that the report identifies as a source of confusion.

Certified fisheries are not compared to un-certified fisheries: Certified fisheries deserve scrutiny but they will never match up to an idealized situation in which they are left untouched. A fairer comparison would be between certified and un-certified fisheries. However, by their very nature, uncertified fisheries are typically data poor, so the comparison is difficult to make. Certification programs can’t be blamed for this fundamental problem.

3. What the report gets right

The importance of a responsible seafood policy: The report rightly notes “The most important step a company can take toward responsible behavior is to adopt a responsible seafood policy.” And nowadays, thanks to programs like Best Aquaculture Practices and MSC, such a policy can include independent, third-party certification.

Expert opinion: The report concedes, along with expert opinion, that certified fisheries are more likely to reflect healthy, moderately exploited stocks.

4. The case for seafood certification

Seafood certification is but one tool for actively promoting sustainable seafood, and it serves to complement rather than replace effective regulation and enforcement efforts. It has never claimed to be a universal cure all. It has gained recognition in the marketplace by demonstrating that it has a valuable role to play. Outside scrutiny is welcome, and schemes must have transparent governance and management. But certification schemes should not be criticized on the basis that they play an expanding role in the sustainable seafood movement. Final decisions on whether a fishery or farm achieves certification are taken by independent, third parties (certification bodies) and are not taken by the program owners. Certification programs remain open to input and engagement from conservation groups to ensure environmental objectives are met.