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Global Recession Could Negatively Impact Demand For Sustainable Seafood

Just one of the many examples of the considerable momentum behind the sustainable seafood movement is the recent announcement of Loblaw, Canada’s largest food retailer, to source all of its seafood products - canned, frozen, fresh, wild and farmed - from sustainable sources by 2013. This was stated in the latest Forum Fisheries Agency Trade News Report. Loblaw is Canada’s largest food retailer.
In this movement, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has proved the industry leader is setting sustainability standards for wild-caught fish, as Loblaw demonstrated by indicating that it will be testing all of its wild-caught seafood supply chains against MSC standards and phasing out ‘unsustainable’ supply where it cannot be demonstrably improved (note: Loblaw is testing against MSC standards, not necessarily requiring that all products bear the MSC label).
The quantity and value of MSC labeled seafood products continues to grow rapidly. In 2009, the retail value of MSC products is expected to reach US$1.4 billion, an increase of US$400 million over 2008 sales. Over 2,000 fish products available in 42 countries bear the MSC label. The number of fisheries involved in the MSC program rose 41% in 2008. By 2009, 43 fisheries were certified under the MSC scheme, and over 100 fisheries were under assessment.
MSC has indicated that there is significant unmet global demand for MSC certified tuna products and that certified tuna is one of its strategic priorities. Indeed, there are currently only two certified tuna fisheries. These fisheries were subject of some debate at the European Tuna Conference 2009. A representative of the American Albacore Fishing Association (AAFA) made very clear that the price premiums afforded by MSC certification by its members were central to the survival of this pole & troll fleet. The process took four years and over 90% of the AAFA’s catch is sold as MSC product, but the majority of this is exported.
The President of Wild Planet Foods - a top-end US branded-distributor of sustainably caught fish products - indicated why AAFA’s catch is mainly exported: the higher fish price would translate to each can costing around 50 percent more at point of retail. He concluded that, if the pricing of MSC certified tuna is too high, brands and consumers may be pushed away resulting in a lack of expansion of MSC.
Nonetheless, Morrisons - a UK supermarket chain - recently announced that it was adding AAFA-caught MSC certified canned albacore tuna steaks to its The Best premium product range.
While AAFA’s experience in receiving price premiums for MSC-certified catch has been positive, price premiums are not guaranteed and should not be the primary motivation for a fishery entering into certification. Some fisheries are opting to enter into MSC certification as a means of maintaining (or increasing) market access, in the event that environmental certification ends up becoming a pre-requisite - which has been announced by many retailers as a near-future measure.
Six more tuna fisheries have begun the formal certification processes. Two tuna fisheries in the WCPO are considered ready for immediate full assessment: the temperate albacore long line fisheries (Pacific island country flagged vessels) and the Solomon Islands pole and line skipjack fishery. Other tuna fisheries, such as the Maldives’s pole and hand line fisheries, have sought sustainable certifications from competing eco-labels, such as Friends of the Sea.
Despite these trends, FFA states that the expansion of the MSC program is: “clouded by concerns over the impacts that the global recession could have on the seafood sector and on demand for sustainable products”; products that, as noted, carry a price premium.
MSC notes that fisheries are continuing to come forward for certification and that there is still strong interest in the marketplace, but that there is danger that demand will drop off, or that companies that are MSC supporters could be put out of business during the economic downturn.
Likewise, MSC faces growing competition from an array of competing certification schemes, such as Friends of the Sea. From the perspective of both producers and consumers, the ever-increasing number of eco-labels creates confusion in the marketplace. Competition also stands to dilute MSC’s dominance, stated the report.