What is Sustainable Seafood?

Certification and Ratings Defined

Over the last several years the number of sustainable seafood certification and rating programs have grown. Both types of programs are meant to help buyers and consumers make good choices by assessing fishery and aquaculture performance against sustainability criteria. Understanding the difference between the programs clarifies how they fit in responsible sourcing.

Unique to certification programs is the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (GSSI) – a collaborative organization with a Global Benchmarking Tool for seafood certification programs. This tool assesses the robustness of seafood certification programs and promotes improvement in certification programs. Essentially, GSSI is a one-stop-shop for credible seafood certification programs, making it easy for seafood buyers to make informed choices. Rating systems do not have a third-party recognition program like this; therefore, seafood buyers must learn and review the quality of rating systems fishery assessments on their own.

common definitions

Sustainability: Characteristic of resources that are managed so that the natural capital stock is non-declining through time, while production opportunities are maintained for the future. Source Sutinen, J.G. (ed.). 2000. A Framework for Monitoring and Assessing Socioeconomics and Governance of Large Marine Ecosystems. NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-NE-158: 32 pp. http://www.fao.org/faoterm/en/?defaultCollId=21

Sustainable Seafood: Sustainable seafood is fish and shellfish caught for human consumption by fishermen operating under sustainable fishery management systems that conserve fish stocks and the ecosystems that support them. Source: NOAA https://www.fishwatch.gov/sustainable-seafood/faqs

Seafood Sustainability Certification: Certifications directly engage with fisheries or farms and require them to meet the certification standard. Certifications also engage with the supply chain to verify the sustainability or responsibility of certified products. Certification provides the highest level of assurance that the product is verified to be sustainable/responsible, is harvested legally, and is traceable back to its source. Certification offers an objective and neutral assessment of a fishery; the group offering. Source: Certification and Ratings Collaboration

Examples of Certification Programs, all of which have been benchmarked by GSSI:

• Wild Capture: Marine Stewardship Council, Alaska Responsible Fisheries Management, Audubon Gulf United for Lasting Fisheries (G.U.L.F.) Responsible Fisheries Management, Iceland Responsible Fisheries

• Aquaculture: Best Aquaculture Practices, GlobalG.A.P., Aquaculture Stewardship Council, BIM Certified Quality Aquaculture (CQA)

Rating Systems: Focus on assessing as many seafood sources as possible in key markets to provide information on the full spectrum of low-to-high performance for fisheries and aquaculture. This information can be used to identify opportunities for producers to pursue improvement projects and certifications, as well as help businesses evaluate sourcing options. Source: https://certificationandratings.org/clarifying-roles-of-certifications-and-ratings/

• Examples of rating systems: Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. Sustainable Fisheries Partnership FishSource, OceanWise In the case of Seafood Watch – they don’t always conduct their own assessments, but defer to certification programs. In 2012 Seafood Watch began an Eco-Certification Benchmarking Project which changed the way they communicate rankings and seafood sustainability for certain species on their website and app.  Over the years, as their assessment reports for certain species became outdated, instead of updating them, Monterey Bay Aquarium retired the assessment reports and deferred to eco-certifications.

What’s The Difference Between Certification And Rating?

DownloadThere are some similarities and differences between certification programs and rating systems. Below is a table highlighting some of the key and typical differences between the two types of programs:

  • Certification programs offer a chain of custody, traceability standard on sustainability claims, whereas a rating system does not.
  • Generally, fishery assessments in certification programs are conducted by independent accredited certification bodies as opposed to scientists selected by the rating system body.
  • Wild-capture certification programs offer transparency and stakeholder engagement during the assessment process, whereas rating systems typically do not.
ASSESSMENT ELEMENT CERTIFICATIONS (e.g. Responsible Fisheries Management, Marine Stewardship Council, Best Aquaculture Practice, etc.)RATINGS (e.g. Seafood Watch)
Participation of fishery / farm in questionVoluntary, self-identified client, usually a private entitySelected by assessment organization based on input from associated(or contributing) NGO’s and the importance to market(s)
Cost to producersYes, paid by fishery clientNo cost*
Assessment reviewAn accredited third party certification body selected by the fishery clientScientist(s) selected by assessment organization with peer-review process
Transparency of assessment processAssessment process for wild-capture fisheries are generally made public whereas aquaculture assessments are generally confidentialGenerally not public
Stakeholder input for Certification and in program/standard developmentTypically solicited during both the assessment and standard development processesLimited to no opportunity to provide input
Publicly available final reportsFinal certification reports for wild-capture fisheries are generally made public. Aquaculture certifications vary on public availability of reports.Generally made public
Wild seafood assessment methodologyTypically one methodolgy for all fisheriesTypically one methodology for all fisheries
Traceability systemTypically requires traceability through chain of custodyNot included or required
Eligibility for Certification ClaimOnly for companies with chain of custody certificationNo chain of custody requirements for sustainability claims
Industry marks/labelsUsually B2B packaging marks available. RFM charges no logo licensing fees; MSC has logo licensing feesPermitted, but not often used
Consumer marks/labelsOn-product marks available, requirements and fees vary, e.g. RFM charges no logo licensing fees; MSC has logo licensing feesUsed by retail partners

*Some assessment organizations offer a fee-for-service assessment

This table has been adapted from FishChoice https://fishchoice.com/understanding-seafood-ratings-and-seafood-certifications

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