It is well understood that fisheries resources are renewable resources. However, many fisheries are overfished, and many others are in danger of becoming overfished. Product certification and ecolabelling are tools that can be used to support fisheries management. These tools, while inter-related and serving the same goal, have important differences as currently applied in fisheries. Product certification is a measure mandated by governments, often mutually agreed upon by regional fisheries management organizations, in order to ensure that only legally harvested and reported fish landings can be traded and sold in the domestic or international markets. Such certification (and catch documentation) does not necessarily involve a product label at the retail level. Where product certification comes with a label to inform consumers, however, it can influence consumers choices similar to a voluntary ecolabelling programme.
Product labels can be mandatory or voluntary and may refer to different kinds of product characteristics or attributes including the products composition or contents, product quality or form, as well as environmental or social aspects of the products production process or method. The focus in this publication is on product labels that convey environmental information, in particular whether the product comes from well-managed fisheries. Different types of environmental labels are distinguished in the literature. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), for example, distinguishes between three different types of environmental labels. Type I environmental labels are those based on voluntary multi-criteria product life-cycle assessment of environmental effects with verification through a third party. Type II environmental labels are based on self-declared environmental claims by producers, importers and retailers on products and services, and Type III environmental labels provide quantified product information according to pre-set indices, similar to general consumer information on product packages. While ISOs general guidelines for environmental declarations and labels call for product life-cycle assessments (from cradle to grave), in fisheries there are examples of so-called single issue labels such dolphin-safe to indicate that dolphins were not killed or seriously injured in the capture of tuna. The focus of this publication is on ecolabels that seek to lead to well-managed fisheries. Occasional reference is also made to current efforts to establish ecolabelling schemes for aquaculture products.
The goal of ecolabelling programmes is to create market-based incentives for better management of fisheries by creating consumer demand for seafood products from well-managed stocks. Ecolabels are seals of approval given to products that are deemed to have fewer impacts on the environment than functionally or competitively similar products. The goal of ecolabelling initiatives is to promote sustainably managed fisheries and highlight their products to consumers. Product claims associated with ecolabelling aim at tapping the growing public demand for environmentally preferable products. Usually a claim appearing on a product must be preceded by a chain of custody exercise that documents that the product was derived from, for example, a fishery certified as being sustainably managed.
Important institutional aspects of ecolabelling schemes are: the scope of the certification process; its procedures to assure chain of custody; the standards for accreditation of certifiers; standards for the certification process; accountability of certifiers; and the costs of certification. This paper illustrates these aspects and refers to existing schemes and proposals such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the Nordic Technical Working Group as examples where appropriate. The criteria that are used for the accreditation process will reflect a compromise between the demands of the consumers and the capabilities and willingness of the producers, and intermediates, to meet those demands. The following matters should be explored when developing criteria: are we assessing the process or assessing the result; what is the consistency with the existing legal framework (domestic and international); is there an appropriate institutional framework for fisheries management, are stocks monitored and assessed; is there consultation and joint decision-making; and are management measures selected and implemented in an appropriate way.
Fisheries managers are using product certification to support their management and conservation efforts. Product certification is being used as an extension of the normal monitoring and enforcement activities. In some circumstances, managers realize that control in the post-harvest sector is also necessary. Where there are particular problems in regulating access (e.g. high value international fisheries), product certification schemes offer possibilities for reducing illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and rewarding fishers that comply with conservation and management rules. If product certification information is passed onto consumers, then prices may also increase.
Product certification schemes also impose a burden on sector participants. To minimize such burden and reduce incentives for non-compliance, governments should try to keep product certification schemes simple with minimal compliance costs. To give security to those later in the process who need to comply with the certification requirements, schemes should be closely connected, from the outset, to the activity of fishing. Important characteristics of product certification schemes include: the linkage with management objectives; their mandatory nature; the level of government involvement; their validation procedures; and, in the international context, how they deal with non-participants of regional fisheries management organizations and arrangements.
Some countries and industry groups have expressed concern that ecolabelling schemes in importing countries add another layer of constraints and competitive challenges. There is recognition nonetheless that ecolabelling can be a useful tool to bring about better resource management. Furthermore, it may create market access opportunities in premium markets as well as making it easier to get development finance and technical resources. But concerns about ecolabelling remain, in particular about the lack of transparency and opportunity for participation in the development of standards that might play a role in the later sustainability assessments. For developing countries that are exporting to developed countries, there are concerns that ecolabelling schemes: are an attempt at disguised protection of domestic industries; restrict market access; and erode national competitiveness for those less able to meet or afford foreign labelling and certification standards.
There is no unanimous view on how ecolabelling schemes fit within international trade rules, including the WTO Agreements. An important area of divergent opinions is the extent to which WTO rules encompass production processes and methods that are not product-related. There are also concerns associated with the establishment procedures and characteristics of international standards. Ecolabelling will affect international trade. The concerns of developing countries foreshadow the impact of these schemes. The key will be to ensure that the only effects are positive ones: those that converge with the objectives of sustainable fisheries and healthy aquatic ecosystems.