Canadian food retailers are being hit by a wave of activism over depleted seafood stocks, and in turn, they’re pressuring seafood producers to obtain certifications that show their fisheries are sustainably managed.
In June, Greenpeace activists targeted eight leading Canadian retail chains in a campaign to urge them to adopt more ethical seafood procurement policies. As a result, Loblaws has already announced plans to offer 15 private label seafood items by the end of 2008 that are certified to the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) sustainability standards, and more supermarkets are expected to seek certifications in the future. “Canada’s a bit behind Europe in this, but it’s definitely coming,” says Christina Burridge, executive director of the Vancouver-based British Columbia Seafood Alliance (BCSA), an umbrella group that represents various B.C.-based seafood industry associations. “You can’t just say your fishery is sustainably managed, you need some kind of mechanism to demonstrate it.”
While seafood suppliers are scrambling to meet demand for sustainable product, there’s a limit to how fast they can scramble. Undergoing an evaluation for each species in its eco-system is a lengthy, laborious and expensive process. Just choosing the right program can be bewildering, as there is an array of lists and eco-labels to evaluate. For instance, Greenpeace offers its Redlist of endangered species, but no certification program. The MSC offers certification with an associated eco-label – but it’s not endorsed by Greenpeace. In comparison, SeaChoice, a consortium of eight environmental groups, offers consumer guidelines with traffic-light scorecards.
The Association of Seafood Producers (ASP), a collective bargaining organization based in St. John’s, Nfld. that represents industry producers such as Ocean Choice and Clearwater, struggled initially to decide which certification program to adopt among the plethora available, says executive director Derek Butler. Eventually the organization decided on the MSC program, because, says Butler, it’s the largest and most recognized eco-label. “About eight per cent of all wild capture fisheries are in the MSC program at various stages,” he says. “That may not sound like a lot, but it has the largest share globally.” Burridge agrees, noting that no other certification is really acceptable in Europe.
In August, the ASP’s northern prawn trawl fishery operating in Newfoundland and Labrador became the first fishery in Canada to earn an MSC certification. But, notes Butler, the association was driven to seek it due to pressure from international retailers, not Canadian ones, as most of its shrimp is exported to the U.K. and Europe. International pressures are also driving the BCSA, as most of B.C.’s fish are exported to the U.S. and Europe as well, says Burridge, adding that the B.C. sablefish acquired MSC certification in October.