This study has included a review of environmental certification schemes, social certification schemes and branding initiatives of relevance to marine capture fisheries.
With respect to environmental certification, the review suggests that some are mandatory, some just guidelines/codes of conduct, some assessments made by others, e.g. consumer guides, supermarkets and those that are specific to the Asia–Pacific region are environmental schemes that are strongly focused on manufacturing products without the involvement of fisheries products. There are therefore relatively few third party voluntary environmental certification schemes with which Asia–Pacific producers/exports could choose to engage. Certainly the volume, value and number of products that are MSC-certified are growing rapidly, but the MSC and other schemes such as the Friend of the Sea still represent a small proportion of the total global sales of fish products.
With regard to social certification, there is even less involvement of fisheries with existing social certification schemes, and no global schemes which are specific to fisheries. A number of recent attempts to involve fisheries in social certification have not been successful due to a lack of consumer demand and various logistical problems, perhaps compounded by the fact that attempts at social certification have to date not been supported by sufficient funding levels.
With respect to branding of fisheries products, trends appear to suggest greater levels of branding over time, as producers strive to be competitive in an increasingly competitive business environment, and an environment in which retailers have increasing economic power.
The study has also considered demand by different interest groups for environmental certification, social certification and branding. The demand shown by different interest groups is based on expected or actual benefits that do, or might, result, and are typically related to expectations about: price increases; improved/continued market access; increased market share; better knowledge of the provenance/source of products; public relations and improved client relationships; improved quality; and/or improvements in the characteristics of production (e.g. more sustainable, more socially equitable). A key finding is that generalizing about both the demand for such schemes/initiatives, and the benefits, is problematic. For retailers for example, demand for environmentally certified products differs between retailers in any one country, between retailers in different countries and for different products they purchase and sell, based on both their own demands and the expected demands of their consumers. Demand also differs between retailers and the food service/catering sectors and between/for environmental and social certification. Therefore, to a considerable extent, the potential benefits to any interest group (producer, exporter, retailer, or consumer) will depend on the specific product being sold to a specific market in a specific country. Having said this, the literature review completed for this paper does seem to suggest that:
In considering the costs of certification or branding, again a key conclusion is that generalizing is difficult. Costs of certification can vary considerably based on the scheme chosen, the complexity and location of the fishery concerned and potentially unknown costs associated with management improvements that might need to be made for the fishery to pass the assessment process (in cases where improvements would otherwise not be made and costs not incurred, i.e. in situations where the certification process itself would act as the reason for improved management). Likewise, the potential costs of branding fishery products will depend on the volumes being sold, the particular characteristics of the destination market and the specific marketing/branding initiatives most appropriate for the destination market. But certainly it appears that costs involved in branding exercises can be very considerable and necessary over a long period of time so as to re-enforce the brand identity.
It should be stressed that this publication does not attempt to "judge" or rank different certification schemes in terms of their impact on environment or on social conditions, or in the case of environmental schemes against compliance with the FAO (or any other) guidelines on ecolabeling. Rather the publication attempts to provide decision-makers with facts, scarce as they are to date, about the evidence for the costs and benefits of different types of certification schemes. While there are questions about the extent to which the MSC and the Friend of the Sea schemes actually result in management improvements as opposed to certifying fisheries in which good management practice is already in place, the objectives of such schemes should of course be commended. And it is taken for granted that improved fisheries management with all the resulting benefits, whether as part of a certification process or not, should be the objective of all producers/governments. However, it is important to remember that improved management and all the resulting long-term bio-economic and social benefits, can be achieved without necessarily needing to embark on a certification processes. If improvements can be made irrespective of certification, then the benefits of certification in such cases are likely to be limited to market issues of improved access and/or price (and other factors such as public relations, client relationships and niche marketing, which would themselves be expected to result in better access/price). Only where these market benefits exceed the costs, should certification then be pursued. However, there may also be cases in which certification itself acts as the stimulus to better management; improved management would otherwise not result. In such cases, the assessment of benefits of certification can/should include the longer-term bio-economic and social benefits, and wider non-quantifiable benefits resulting from sustainable production, as well as any market-related ones.
Given that this study considers branding as well as certification, one could also ask the question whether successful branding initiatives might have the potential to result in unsustainable fishing practices through increased demand. This may also apply to some certification schemes. The Friend of the Sea scheme for example provides no certainty that fishing practices will not become unsustainable as a result of market demand following certification.
What does seem clear is that there is often a failure to consider the benefits and costs together, to estimate the net benefits (if any) to profit/value-added. There certainly seem to be very few studies which quantitatively assess the net benefits to the fisheries sector of either certification or branding. This is only partly because of business interests wishing to protect commercially sensitive information. Equally important is a failure by many to consider costs and benefits in a quantitative manner (to the extent that is possible and acknowledging the importance of non-quantifiable factors). It is imperative for any government, producer, exporter or retailer in Asia and the Pacific to base decision-making on whether to engage with certification or branding, on a rational assessment of the relative costs and benefits over time. This paper has therefore presented some guidance on how to conduct cost–benefit analysis.
Cost–benefit analysis however only represents one step in a number of steps that must be taken when deciding whether to engage with certification or branding, and then actually doing so. Therefore this paper also presents a decision-making tree to assist those in the Asia–Pacific region with the decision-making process. It is suggested that the APFIC workshop in Viet Nam could undertake an initial assessment of the suitability of individual fisheries/products for different certification or branding initiatives. The paper also stresses that there are practical problems in relation to both certification and branding that could potentially face those in the Asia–Pacific region wishing to engage with such initiatives and that decisions about whether to proceed must include a proper investigation of the risks. The decision-making tree could usefully be tested in selected countries, with appropriate market research and cost–benefit analysis.
In conclusion, it should be noted that certification and branding only represent aspects of a wider range of possible product promotion initiatives as far as Asia–Pacific producers and exporters/marketers are concerned. It is almost certainly more important to comply with the basic mandatory requirements of food safety and hygiene (i.e. in terms of HACCP compliance), and certainly many countries in Asia and the Pacific still have plenty of room for improvement in this regard. But there are also many other ways (e.g. quality improvements, pricing strategies, new product ranges and packaging and improvements in logistics to meet client requirements) that may be at least as effective as certification or branding in helping producers and exporters to improve the net value-added of their business operations. Improving traceability of fish products is expected to become increasingly important in this regard.