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Global Retail: Divided loyalties

MSC suspension puts mackerel in unchartered waters

The loss of mackerel certification has put buyers on edge. From left, Ian Stephen (Lunar), Frank Green and Huw Thomas (Morrisons) assessing mackerel at  Lunar Processing in Peterhead, Scotland.  - Photo by Duncan Brown
By Jason Holland
September 01, 2012

Its abundance and affordability makes mackerel a firm favorite with television chefs and food writers, who go to great lengths to encourage consumers to eat more of these oil-rich fish. But the suspension of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) status for North East Atlantic fisheries is testing the sourcing policies of some of Europe’s leading retailers.

The MSC suspended seven mackerel certifications at the end of March after the EU, Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands failed to establish agreed quotas for the 2012 season within the given scientific advice. The decision meant any mackerel caught after March 30 couldn’t bear the MSC eco-label.

While the move further fueled the long-running EU coastal state dispute over catch shares, the initial effects on consumer sales were negligible. However, the cat was thrown among the pigeons at the end of June when two major retailers, Marks & Spencer (M&S) and Sainsbury’s, confirmed they would stop selling Scottish mackerel because it no longer bears the MSC mark.

Sainsbury’s Josephine Simmons says the retailer, which is the U.K.’s largest seller of MSC-labeled fish, will continue to work collaboratively to “only offer” customers fish from well-managed fisheries.

“In line with our own sustainable sourcing policies, we have taken the decision to stop sourcing mackerel from the affected fisheries pending an agreement between the parties involved, which we believe is the only way to ensure sustainable supplies of mackerel into the future,” she says.

The loss of MSC status put both retailers in a tricky situation with regards to their own strict sourcing plans. For example, part of Sainsbury’s “20 by 20” sustainability program states that by 2020, all the fish it sells will be independently certified as sustainable.

Nevertheless, other retailers have promised to stand by the product. Frank Green, Morrisons’ head of seafood trading, confirms the chain will continue to source Scottish mackerel.

“It’s a high-profile issue, but we’ve not had any customer queries about the loss of MSC on the product. It’s the same product that we have bought for a number of years — now with the exception of the MSC label,” says Green.

There is a third band of retailers that will continue to sell Scottish mackerel because they still have supplies that were caught while the eco-label was still in place. 

“Our position is under review pending International Council for the Exploitation of the Sea 2012 stock assessment advice. However, we have no plans at this stage
to stop selling Scottish mackerel and are currently using fish caught prior to the suspension of the MSC certification,” says Jess Hughes of Waitrose.

Problems are expected to ensue once stores’ MSC stockpiles dry up. Scottish Pelagic Sustainability Group (SPSG) Chairman John Goodlad confirmed a meeting will take place in the fall between the Scots’ pelagic industry and the main retailers. It will be chaired by Scottish Fisheries Minister Richard Lochhead. 

“The meeting has been welcomed,” says Goodlad. “But the long-term solution to this is dependent on reaching an agreement with the Faroes and Iceland, and at this point in time it’s probably looking as bleak as ever.”

Goodlad says that while the Scottish fleet is disappointed to be losing its MSC accreditation, “under no circumstances would it wish to jeopardize the prospect of a good, long-term quota agreement in order to get it back.”

Less than 10 percent of the Scottish mackerel catch goes into U.K. retail channels, he says. Ninety percent of the £110 million (€140 million/$172 million) annual catch goes to Russia, Ukraine, Africa, China and Japan, which are not specifically buying it because it holds MSC certification.

Similarly, Norway’s main mackerel export markets are China, Russia, Japan and Turkey and the Norwegian Seafood Council (NSC) says exports so far this year haven’t been affected by the loss of certification. 

The outlook is potentially gloomier for Denmark’s mackerel industry, which was annually landing around 24,000 metric tons of MSC mackerel and cites the United Kingdom as its main market.

Christian Olesen, director of the Danish Pelagic Producers Organisation (DPPO), says his biggest worry is if the MSC certification is reinstated after Denmark’s short catching season closes.

The DPPO’s main buyer in Denmark is the mackerel canning giant A/S Saeby Fiske-Industri, and Olesen explains that because the Danish season is concentrated into two months, from mid-September to mid-November, Saeby buys raw material in that window for a whole year’s production.

“They are buying September through November this year for 2013,” he says. “Meanwhile, the meetings between the [North East Atlantic] coastal states will start in September, but realistically an agreement couldn’t be in place before late this year.

“Our worst-case scenario is that we will catch our uncertified fish from September to November and then on 1 December they will reach an agreement and the MSC certificates will be reinstated. If that happens, everyone else will start their season with MSC. So we see a risk of being the only ones to go a season without it.

“Our problem is not selling the uncertified fish; it’s being the only provider of uncertified fish.”

But if certification isn’t reinstated, Olesen says the Danish industry is “optimistic” about being able to sell all of its fish. “Prices may go down a bit but there’s still quite a strong market,” he says.

A lot now hinges on whether the EU, Norway, Iceland and the Faroes can this year strike an agreement that falls within the scientific advice, and more governmental pressure to achieve this end is expected in the next round of talks. But while European supermarkets will be hoping any further controversy can be avoided through a swift resolution that restores MSC certification, with two years of failed negotiations behind the coastal states, it’s far from being a formality.

Contributing Editor Jason Holland lives in London

August 2012 - SeaFood Business 

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