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Going Green: MSC rival?

Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute builds Global Trust certification program

Lisa Duchene
March 05, 2011

This month Alaska salmon, certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council for the last decade, will become even more decorated. The state’s booming salmon fisheries are expected to become the state’s first to achieve another endorsement of sustainability via a new program created by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and Global Trust, an Ireland-based certifier.

ASMI last year paid Global Trust $700,000 to assess Alaska’s five major fisheries — salmon, halibut/black cod, groundfish, pollock and crab — against the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. The price tag includes the first round of certifications, due by 2012 and valid for five years, but not annual surveillance work or re-certification costs.

ASMI’s strategy is to achieve third-party certification of the major fisheries as an endorsement of the state’s fisheries-management regime, backing the sustainability component of the Alaska seafood brand. 

“We were looking for a cost-effective way to provide that third-party assurance so that all the users in Alaska, including the little ones as well, would benefit,” says Randy Rice, ASMI’s seafood technical program director.

The ASMI/Global Trust program will not include an eco-label. Companies that apply the MSC logo to a consumer-ready product pay a licensing fee of 0.5 percent of the fish’s wholesale value and includes chain of custody. For Alaska suppliers that want to make a certification claim, there will be a chain-of-custody component available at an additional cost through Global Trust.

The ASMI program is the first competitive challenge to the Marine Stewardship Council, created in 1997 by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Unilever to address depleted and overfished wild stocks. The 244 fisheries now certified or in full assessment to meet the MSC standards represent an annual catch volume of 7 million metric tons of seafood, or 12 percent of the global seafood catch.

Alaska’s Pacific cod, flatfish, salmon, pollock, halibut and sablefish fisheries are all MSC-certified, but none of Alaska’s crab fisheries are. MSC-certified Alaska fisheries represent about 28 percent of the volume in the MSC program. None of the Alaska organizations that pay the cost of certification to the MSC standard — considered “clients” by the MSC — say they have plans to drop out of the MSC program. 

One good reason: Many of the seafood market’s largest-volume buyers specify MSC-certification in their seafood-purchasing policies. 

So whether the ASMI/Global Trust program — and potentially others modeled like it from other seafood-producing states and countries — successfully rivals MSC depends on whether the market’s largest-volume buyers, and the environmental NGOs that advise them, recognize it as a credible, equivalent or sufficient alternative.

Ray Riutta, ASMI’s executive director, says eight of the largest-volume U.S. buyers of Alaska seafood, including a distributor, two retail chains, suppliers and one of the largest foodservice operators, indicated they were interested in an alternative since MSC certification is essential in some, but not all, markets.

“Having competition for the MSC is healthy. The concern I have is that the standard itself be as robust and at the same level that the MSC has reached over the past 10 years,” says Dick Jones, former seafood buyer for Whole Foods Market who advises buyers on sustainable purchasing as Americas program director for Seattle-based Sustainable Fisheries Partnership. “Competition in any industry is healthy and you just have to be comparing apples to apples when you’re trying to see whether a standard has the same impact on all the key deliverables, especially on sustainability.”

To gauge credibility, Jones is looking for the standards Global Trust develops and uses to assess fisheries to be compliant with the ISEAL Alliance, the global association for social and environmental standards, to be auditable, third-party verifiable and developed through stakeholder input.  The program also should have independent and transparent governance — all aspects of the MSC program. The components of the standard should also be in line with the MSC’s, says Jones. “If they meet both those sets of criteria, then I can tell you SFP would absolutely encourage our retail partners to adopt [that] standard as equivalent.”

The ASMI/Global Trust program is not ISEAL-accredited, but is accredited with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Global Trust has created performance criteria from the FAO documents — the responsible fisheries code plus seafood eco-labeling guidelines — within an ISO-65 framework, says Rice. “We’re posting everything on the website as it evolves and that’s certainly our interest, to make it transparent,” he adds.

WWF works with eight of the U.S. market’s 10 largest seafood buyers, including Kroger, Sysco and Walmart, says Bill Fox, WWF’s VP of fisheries. Their purchasing policies encourage responsible purchasing and MSC certification, says Fox. 

“We support the best, single eco-label in existence and right now it’s MSC, not because we helped set it up, but because of its evolution. It is the best by far in the eco-labeling space,” says Fox, citing a 2009 WWF-funded analysis of seafood eco-labels by Accenture, a Swiss firm that determined the MSC program was the most rigorous. The ASMI/Global Trust program did not exist at the time of the study.

ASMI’s move dates to 2008, when the Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G) said it could no longer be the MSC certification client for salmon. ASMI considered taking over for ADF&G, but could not agree on the cost with the MSC. In early 2010, the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation (AFDF) took over. By March 2010, ASMI announced the Global Trust certification program. 

Industry insiders say there was anti-MSC sentiment on the part of some ASMI board members. MSC did a few things to sour the relationship, they say, including urging salmon buyers to pressure their suppliers to stay in the MSC program using an MSC-supplied form letter, increasing its eco-label licensing fee from 0.1 to 0.5 percent and WWF’s 2008 “Stinky Fish” video campaign in which a hand puppet told consumers to avoid destructive fishing practices by seeking out MSC-certified fish. 

MSC’s relationship with the Alaska seafood industry is “sound and growing,” says Kerry Coughlin, MSC’s regional director-Americas. “We certainly agree there were a couple of missteps in there,” she says. “We talked with the industry and apologized. Things like that should not characterize a long-standing and successful relationship over a decade.”

Jim Browning, AFDF executive director, says 43 companies, large and small, contributed to the $200,000 cost for the salmon fishery’s continued certification. “It is the entire industry,” says Browning. “We’re working with MSC, not only on the direct level but through the Association of Sustainable Fisheries to not only improve the relationship with Alaska’s fishing industry — not just salmon — but all the certified fisheries and reduce the costs to industry for the certification process and retention of the certification.” 

Other clients say MSC certification has been valuable and that a second layer of certification can only help.

Glenn Reed, president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, not a client in any MSC certification, says the ASMI/Global Trust program is a positive alternative. 

“People can decide if it’s better for the company and business plan to go down the path of an MSC process or go the way of Global Trust,” says Reed. “Because they do approach it differently it gives people two nice options to choose from. It’s a positive for processors to have sustainable fisheries — period.”

 

Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa.

March 2011 - SeaFood Business 

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