DEAR John (1.0) I beg to disagree: “Retailer buyers and partners” do not decide what seafood sustainability is… (Feb. 2012)

DEAR John, I beg to disagree: “Retailer buyers and partners” do not decide what seafood sustainability is…

An open letter by Bertrand Charron, SeafoodIntelligence.com Editor, to John Sackton, Seafood.com editor, following his February 3, 2012 editorial/video. First posted on February 6th 2012.

Dear John,

I have seen with interest your video editorial of Friday, and please allow me to disagree with some of your comments (but not all) relating to “seafood sustainability” in the aftermath of the Alaska salmon industry’s decision to pull out from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) independent third-party eco-certification programme.

You are right to identify that one of the core-issue at the heart of this unfolding series of events is “who decides?” what sustainable seafood is. You are also right to state: “we’re all in favour of seafood sustainability, and we should be able to have some better cooperation and understanding as to how to bring that about.”

But when you are fast to answer that “the ultimate people who decide in this case are the retail buyers and the partners who want to express their sustainability commitments to their customers.”

This is where I’ll beg your pardon: you are wrong!

Retail buyers and partners are a indeed a means to an end: selling seafood! It may be them who decide to buy & sell seafood under sustainability criteria, but it is NOT them who decide what sustainable seafoods – wild and farmed, and sustainable fisheries – are. This is a very broad issue, with no clear absolute definition of what and how one can gauge and establish the sustainability of a particular fishery. The MSC provides a set of answers, ones to be held in high regard, yet to be questionned. No two ecosystems, or commercial fisheries, are however similar and the MSC eco-certification is not without its flaws, granted.

But the MSC is in its current shape and form a transparent third party eco-certification programme with can be scrutinized by the public, and whose certification decisions can be appealed to, and withdrawn if and when warranted.

The MSC: just a “Market Tool“?

The Alaskan salmon industry’s decision re. the MSC is and always was market-led. Alaskans (though many are Washington-headquartered companies) never hid from the fact that the MSC’s attraction lied in its selling appeal (to consumers). As the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI)’s Executive Director Ray Riutta said in January, and in the past: The Alaska seafood industry understands that 3rd party certification is a market tool that provides assurance to retailers and foodservice operators that seafood is responsibly managed.”

Retailers do indeed play an enormously decisive and powerful role in the (sea)food chain, particularly in the ‘Western’ world where only a few players account for well over half of all (sea)food sales to consumers.

But they don’t “decide” – anymore than you and me and the next trolley-pusher out there – what sustainable seafood is. They decide and follow all at once, they are advised and guided along the way; reconciling those advices with their own commercial and corporate needs.

The ‘sustainability’ movement which has taken hold over a decade ago in the seafood realm is driven by wide societal concerns regarding what our modern society is and has been doing to our environment, what the careless and exponential (over)exploitation of our (eg. marine) resources has done to throw fragile ecosystems off balance, and how we are now gearing ourselves to – at best – attempt to mitigate some of the impacts of the (partly human-induced) environmental and climatic changes we are destined to face in coming decades.

Retailers and industry players have had ‘no choice’ but to, themselves, address those concerns. Corporate and social responsibility (CSR) has and is becoming an unvoidable part of business life.

This is about selling seafood” – Yes, but not any how…

John, I think you misconstrued the means as an end. You said: “This is not about NGOs. This is about selling seafood.” This is obviously said by having the interest of the commercial US and Alaska seafood industry at heart. The MSC and more and more retailers believe that seafood sustainability aims to promote the idea of selling seafood, only if it is sustainable (and to encourage that shift), not the other way around…

Many NGO-informed people/consumers now believe that “selling seafood” shouldn’t occur at all if the seafood source is not sustainable. Don’t you see that the dynamics have changed? You can’t take environmental and sustainability concerns out of the business equation anymore; and hope to steamroll consumers by sole use of advertising and industry-led and controlled measures. No more than you can take the ‘environment’ out of ‘sustainability’, especially when it comes to seafood!

You said: “[companies like WalMart are] not going to be swayed by MSC statements in the press.But everything isn’t black and white, is it? Wasn’t it that flurry of meetings and ‘behind the scenes’ representations in Bentonville & elswehere since the mid-2000’s in the C-suites of WalMart & co. that helped convince many of the world’s top retailers and food service providers to make the MSC (and similar, third party independent) certification scheme the condition without which they will not buy seafood from suppliers?

The market-approach brought about by WWF, MSC and other environmental NGOs which appeal somewhat to consumers cannot lightly be ignored, even by Walmart! The WWF needs the MSC (and now also the Aquaculture Stewardship Council – ASC) – which it helped co-found with Unilever – to press its environmental sustainability message to retailers. And retailers need the WWF/MSC logo to sell. This is a dynamic which is not exclusive in all its facets, but one which can’t be underestimated as being simply a “market tool”; and particularly: not one to be ignored.

Consumers, also, can are no fools (or “less so”): they can and will make the difference between an industry-designed “eco-label” and a blue or green independent third party-designed, NGO and multistakeholder-backed “eco-label”… Retailers, too, need those green and blue credits!

Of Negative Campaigning…

Your editorial illustrates also one thing: The Alaskan salmon industry had not fully anticipated the implications and the backlash re. its decision to withdraw from the MSC.

Did ‘Alaskans’ truly think they would be calling all the shots without any consequences, and that nobody would notice or care about the [future] lack of blue eco-label on Alaska ‘wild’ salmon? Did Alaskans (and/or decision-makers in Seattle) really think no purchaser would react? Certainly, if they did, they made the gamble that their money would achieve more in the market spent on marketing and advertisers than by trying to meet the MSC fees and fisheries management requirements.

The Japanese supermarket chain Aeon, and now Walmart (world’s #1 retailer), are now ‘[re]considering’ whether or not they will sell Alaska salmon. Other retailers may also follow, in Europe and elsewhere… Didn’t Alaskan seafood processors think that retailers, too, could withdraw their support? Of course, it would be better from Alaska’s viewpoint that any debate remained behind closed doors and not be advertised in public… But that would be to ignore commercial, business, competing interests and media realities…

You are worried that “a negative campaign by the MSC trying to vilify Alaska and/or Global Trust as not meeting the requirements of sustainability is a very dangerous and damaging thing to the industry.” […] “the MSC is in danger of starting a negative campaign in the global seafood arena which is going to damage all people who care about seafood sustainability.”

Whether or not this is the result of a “negative campaign” or the logical consequence of the debate provoked by Alaska seafood processors’ very own action is a matter for debate indeed, but it seems that some of those set to loose include the now-concerned Alaskan fishermen, i.e. but not necessarily the “global seafood arena”.

As for “vilifying” and “negative” or ‘de-marketing’ campaigns: one doesn’t hear much condemnation in the US media on the many such vilifying or demonizing comments targetting the global farmed salmon industry in the past decade. Such campaigns often result in putting in opposition the wild salmon (commercial and angling) and farmed salmon industries. But you are right: no negative campaign which distorts facts and science, particularly when obviously to the benefit of a competitor, should take place!

When you say: “It’s really time for the MSC to stop sort of going behind the scences and trying to get supermarkets to make public statement that they will no longer buy Alaska salmon.You are right: no dirty trick should take place. But is it not just normal “business”? Those MSC-certified fisheries are usually proud to hail their eco-certification and using it as a “marketing tool”. Alaskan salmon marketers certainly did this extensively in their own time. Now that MSC and similar eco-certifications/labels serve as a sustainable seafood purchasing benchmarks to many retailers, don’t retailers owe it to their clients to communicate also the fact that they may or may not continue to sell non-MSCed Alaska salmon?

Finally, and as you know John, I have often pointed to some of the flaws of the MSC certification of Alaska salmon fisheries: considering so many fisheries, stocks, populations, species under one ‘blanket’ certification which in my view does not adequately reflect the ‘sustainability status’ of AK salmon fisheries. My words here, are thus not intended to ‘defend’ the MSC in any way.

You are probably aware of my opinion that no “one and unique” eco-label (eg. MSC) can reflect the diversity and reality of (for instance) both the sometimes-truly-wild AND sometimes-truly-aquaculture-reliant (ranched) Alaska salmon fisheries; which are all sold under the same ‘wild’ banner (and so, until October 2012 with the blue ecolabel). US and European consumers are led to believe that all Alaska salmon are truly ‘wild’. This is not the case. Much (about of third of the substantial total number of salmon caught) of the Alaska salmon fisheries and their harvests would not occur if it was not thanks to aquaculture technologies, hatcheries, and the rearing of Akaska salmon juveniles fed with commercial feeds in facilities identical to the oft-‘vilified’ farmed salmon industry’s…

As I wrote in an earlier editorial, I do think that – just as Alaska salmon processors believe they made a better-value-for-money decision – this withdrawal is the best thing to have happened to the MSC in long time; and a chance for the MSC to put ‘its house in order’ (surely the MSC will disagree, but hey)…

The MSC, also, is not without its critics for some of their more fisheries-specific decisions. Nor are some of the interpretations of MSC eco-certifications – or not – by organisations issuing seafood advisories to consumers, without flaws.

Equally, there is a danger that exclusively following-to-the-letter simplistic and simplifying seafood advisories, based on simplistic and arguable eco-certifications can lead to paradoxical purchasing decision and bans. For instance, there is the very real danger that exclusive reliance on some fee-paying eco-labels will be detrimental to many poorer, or less documented – but equally (or more) sustainable – fisheries.

Furthermore, there is a risk in the medium/long-term that the MSC’s strong business and ‘fairly agressive’ market-led approach could be the first one to suffer from its own success. As the marketing premium implicitely presented to entice fisheries considering certification becomes ‘diluted’ due to more and more fisheries and products displaying the “coveted” blue ecolabel (and thus more indistinguishably so), this could arguably ‘weaken’ the marketing premium actually delievered in the long-term. Some fisheries could then reason, as Alaskan salmon processors seemingly did, that their money would best be spent ‘elsewhere’ to achieve the same – or higher – premium, without the MSC’s red-tape and demanding scrutiny.

However, this would arguably be the best demise one could wish for the MSC: ‘Made redundant due to all the world’s fisheries having become ‘sustainable’ – RIP

Whether or not the MSC is even coming close to reaching this level of market saturation (with 10,000+ seafood products labelled world-wide) is a(nother) matter for debate (the answer is ‘no’ in the short-term).

To conclude…

Suffice to say here that there is more to “seafood sustainability” than the retailers and Alaskan salmon processors and marketeers’ take on the topic…

None of the above has really ventured in any details on the very broad, complicated and multi-faceted topic of “seafood sustainability”. This is an issue which can not be broached lightly and many tens of thousands of words would be needed to explore ‘it’ objectively and lay out the multiple challenges and viewpoints.

That said, one may also not completely exclude the possibility that Alaskan salmon processors may in the future (…) decide to regain the ‘MSC fold’, and/or that the MSC may or not decide to create a new ‘considering seeking re-certification’ category to iron-out differences… The WWF indeed has set a precedent with such ‘new category’ when back-pedalling, in December 2010, from an earlier decision to red-list Vietnamese catfish.

And this is where I finally agree with you John: retailers may indeed decide on what happens next re. Alaska salmon sales, but not on “sustainability’ itself…

As Fortune Magazine/CNN titled in July 2006: “Wal-Mart has unsentimental business reasons for promoting sustainable fishing practices”… 2006: That was the year Walmart announced it wanted all of its fresh and frozen seafood products for the North American market to come from certified MSC fisheries… Speaking in Ireland during the World Seafood Congress 2007 on the topic of “Sustainability as a Business issue, Mrs Mary Mehigan – Head of Corporate Affairs CSR for Wal-Mart & ASDA, UK – had said: “The world must change how it produces and consumes[…] “Profit is okay, but not profit for doom

Your pertinent question thus remains: “Who decides?”

Perhaps it may, or may not, be for some time the MSC, WWF-”informed” consumers and/or other powerful foundation-funded eNGOs lobbying and advising governments, politicians AND retailers…

One thing is certain: it is not just “about selling seafood”.

And – if only for the sake of credibility – it won’t be the Alaska fisheries industry, retailer and marketing lobby alone – and in a vaccuum – who will decide for consumers in Europe and elsewhere on the planet, what a sustainable fishery is, no matter how unpleasant that very thought may be to US ears…

Yours Sincerely,

Bertrand Charron

Editor of SeafoodIntelligence.com

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Read also, previously on SeafoodIntelligence.com, a non exhaustive selection of a few relevant articles and headlines re. Alaska salmon marketing, MSC labelling, politics, broodstock and ranching issues since 2004..:

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