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Double MSC Certification Highlights Management Issues On Tuna Fisheries

Last month, the Western Fish Boat Owners Association (WFOA) announced to be taken under full assessment by the MSC certification regarding the Albacore Tuna North Pacific fishery.

Considering that the American Albacore Fishing Association (AAFA) already has an MSC certification for that same area since 2007, this can be considered the first case of a double MSC certification of the same tuna fishery.

The situation is causing reactions from AAFA members, especially when it comes to WFOA publicity on the matter.

The director of AAFA, Natalie Webster, believes that by not mentioning the previous certification WFOA is causing confusion and misleading the public:

“If MSC grants multiple certifications for the fishery, it would be disastrous for fishermen.  It would create a lot of confusion and really dilute the message of this vital fishery.  It is very expensive to get MSC certification and then you have all the costs required just to maintain it.  Repetitive certifications make it difficult to provide fishermen the incentives needed for them to support MSC certification.  At some point you just wonder, is this really worth it?”

She referred to WFOA director’s interview with as false in many ways: “Wayne Heikkila made sure people think we don’t exist. (…) He said they’ve been thinking about going forward with the certification for 5 years, but the truth is that they’ve been blocking MSC for 5 years”.

Albacore tuna fisherman, Mike Shedore, shares the same opinion: “I have, until recently, been a member of WFOA for 30 years. Much of that time was spent on the Board of Directors.  Wayne Heikila has done nothing but denigrate and dismiss MSC as relevant to this industry as a marketing tool.  And this recent decision by Heikila, and some in WFOA, to pursue MSC has nothing to do with a change in philosophy, but has everything to do with riding on the coattails of the success earned by AAFA in marketing our premium albacore thru MSC and other outlets”. 

The management issue is clear between those organizations and its members. The MSC results for AAFA members have been praised as a good example of the certification benefits. In addition, it gave the fishermen -for the first time- an established market price before the start of the fishing season: “The AAFA vessel price established was several hundred dollars per ton higher to the fishermen than what could be procured through WFOA.  This price held throughout the season and was never matched” adds Mr. Shedore.

By understanding the issues between those two organizations, the tuna industry turns again to the eco certification complex role in the industry nowadays.

The director for the Americas MSC office, Jim Humphreys, talks about how MSC is handling the situation and their position on divergences between organizations. Is the Albacore Fishery being certified again?

Jim Humpheys: The answer is yes, but it’s slightly more complex than that. MSC is a voluntary program with clients to represent the fisheries. In some cases, when clients represent just part of a fishery, as is the AAFA situation, once the certification process is finished we asked them to provide some kind of sharing mechanism so that other fishers, who didn’t help to pay for the assessment, can later on join the certification. And AAFA did that, other fishers had the opportunity to join their certification which increased their participation up to 53 vessels. However, not all the fishers were satisfied in joining the AAFA certification, for one reason or another; I cannot tell you why exactly. We have an alternative for fishers who cannot reach an agreement; they can go forward for a second certification. That’s what the WFOA is doing.

Don’t you think that may cause some confusion for consumers?

Well, not for consumers, I guess it has some potential confusion for the buyer level. Consumers can still trace the fish back to the fishery.

What about retailers?

Yes, potentially. AAFA is the one who holds the certification; WFOA is still under assessment, so the product coming from them so far doesn’t carry the certification. I understand the confusion, but AAFA is the one that holds the certification now.

Is the Northern Albacore Fishery the first case of shared clients?

No, there’s a similar situation for Pacific Cod, in the Bearing Sea. They became certified in 2006 and one group that chose not to join the certification at that time, decided to move forward now and is under assessment for the same fishery as well.

It’s clear that cases of duplicate certification are caused by management disagreements. Don’t you think that allowing that behavior is opening a window for third parties certifiers to make “easy” money?

It’s hard to say, the MSC policy is designed so that second certifications are allowed but it’s also designed to make the existing certificates as broadly available as possible. I’m not really certain in how we could change the policy and still allow fisheries to move forward with the certification without either allowing them to accept free riders or penalizing people who couldn’t join the certification before for one reason or another.  There’s a cost for the certification, which needs to be paid by some group. There are sharing-mechanisms, but if the participants cannot come to an agreement, a second certification is possible and the costs will also need to be paid by someone. If that’s fair or not fair, it’s a matter of judgment.

Do you think that management issues between organizations may get bigger than the meaning of the MSC certification?

Some conflicts between different organizations will always exist whether MSC is there or not. MSC may be one of the issues. In an ideal world, one certification would happen and everyone would join it. The complexity of many of our fisheries has created real challenges and we are trying to be as sensitive as we can. However, we are always looking for ways to improve it, so if there are any suggestions from your readers, I’ll be happy to look into it.

Is there any control over the sharing mechanisms required by MSC?

Our requirements are that the system would have fair/reasonable standards. Our board has had some discussion whether or not they would provide a percentage factor (on what comes to the costs of joining) and so far they haven’t moved in that direction. We intended to use as a crucial factor whether or not other groups want to join the certification in first place. On AAFA’s case, they had a good participation rate last year, and based on that I would have to say their system is working. It would be very difficult for us to get into a formula that analyses the cost structure and make the judgment on whether or not it would be reasonable enough, so we really left that up to the market to place.

Are the costs for the second certification lower?

The assessment process has a number of steps and a specific time for those to happen, MSC tries to be very transparent on what comes to that. There are potential changes currently occurring in the processes, so I believe that the previous reports will help, but certainly won’t provide all the required information for a second certification. How much of advantage would that be? It’s hard to say. How much of cost saving would it be? We generally don’t see the contracts; those are between the client and the third party certifier, so I cannot really comment on that.

What about those who cannot afford to join the MSC certification?

The way I tend to look at it is: there are markets that are interested in buying certified products, and in those cases the market should support the costs of it. From what I’ve heard, markets are supporting the costs of those products so far. However, if the fisherman is selling into a market that doesn’t express any interest in sustainability – I would still encourage them to go forward with the certification – but we are a market based program. I would ask them if their markets are looking for sustainable products, if not, I don’t see the reason to spend all that money. I think it’s very important to ask that question before getting into an assessment because clients expect a return from that investment.

Do you believe MSC certification only recognizes sustainable fisheries or that it can change them into sustainable methods?

I think it helps to do both. The program provides an assurance that if the fishery is certified and the label is on the product, the fishery has met the MSC standards and can be traced. The way that MSC certification works improves fisheries performance, since it looks into a number of factors that impacts sustainability and good management. Some fisheries may pass the assessment, but if there were some specific items that the scores were low, the fishery is asked to make improvements until it meets 100% the requirements and it has 5 years deadline as a condition to the certificate.
Some fisheries have realized that the market for sustainable seafood is growing and they are making changes now to meet MSC standards in the long term. I think we’ll see a lot more certified fisheries in the next 5 years.

To conclude, the MSC won’t take any part on issues between organizations from the same fishery.

All the assessments, all the certifications they have to be done in a group level. We need to work well as a group. We’ve been doing that with AAFA and we intend to do it with WFOA as well.