Seafood labelling sure is confusing. While some labels carry weight and offer assurance that a product is sustainably sourced and fully traceable, others are a prime example of greenwashing and pure marketing hyperbole (think: claims such as “ocean-friendly,” “responsibly sourced,“ or “responsible fishery”, which are non-specific and unverifiable).
At their best, seafood labels and environmental claims can help shoppers make more informed choices and help to indirectly influence fishery and aquaculture practices. At their worst, these labels are misleading, create confusion, and can undermine genuine efforts by fisheries and aquaculture to improve their environmental performance.
Eco-labels typically fall into three camps: self-declarations, non-governmental endorsements, and third-party certifications. The first are worth very little and are often misleading, with little to no evidence to back up their claims. The second are also lacking in scope, accuracy, and transparency. Only genuine third-party, independent seafood certifications can be considered reliable, with the evidence required to back up claims.
A 2020 report by SeaChoice found that in the Canadian seafood market, only 35% of self-declarations could be verified, and only 57% of endorsements could be verified. In contrast, 100% of certifications were verifiable.
Why does it matter? Well, to cite the SeaChoice report again, more than 200 rockfish species can be sold as snapper and 58% of rockfish sampled from Canadian retailers was mislabelled. In the European Union, all retailers are required to label products with the species’ scientific (Latin) name, country of origin, whether it is wild or farmed, and the type of gear or farming method used in harvesting.
What is a Seafood Certification?
The most prominent seafood certifications that are global programs used in the US are:
- Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)
- Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC)
- Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP)
MSC covers wild fisheries while ASC and BAP cover farmed seafood. These certifications rely on compliance with specific, publicly available criteria that are devised internally or through an external multi-stakeholder process. Certifications generally encompass governance structures, standards for sustainability and chain-of-custody, auditing, and the use of logos.
A company has to pay for certification and goes through the same process as every other company applying for that certificate. This enables consistency in certification and easier comparison for consumers looking to make responsible choices when buying seafood.
In contrast to seafood certifications, endorsements are usually rankings or recommendations based on a specific methodology devised by a conservation group or other special interest party. Fisheries and farms don’t have to apply for inclusion in these rankings (usually), and criteria aren’t always as transparent as with certifications.
Some of these endorsement programs partner with businesses to endorse certain seafood products or harvest practices or locations. These include:
- Ocean Wise Recommended
- Seafood Watch “Best Choice” and “Good Alternative”
- Earth Island Institute’s Dolphin Safe label
- Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s origin claim: Alaska Seafood “wild, natural and sustainable” label
The Most Common and Reliable Seafood Certifications
While there are hundreds, if not thousands, of self-declarations and endorsements, there are actually very few reliable and commonly used seafood certifications. We’ll look at the top four, starting with MSC, by far the most widely recognized of the catch.
Marine Stewardship Council
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) fishery certification program and seafood ecolabel certifies wild capture fisheries as sustainable and provides suppliers with a chain of custody certification for seafood traceability.
The aim of the MSC program is to safeguard the world’s oceans and to guarantee seafood stocks for future generations. To do this, the ecolabel recognizes and commends sustainable fishing practices, hoping to encourage more consumers to choose these products and push other providers to adopt similar practices.
MSC is an independent, third-party certification that is uncompromising on environmental standards. Their full assessment process is rigorous and scientific and looks at fisheries based on three principles:
1: Sustainable Fish Stocks
To qualify for MSC certification, a wild capture fishery must operate at a level that is sustainable for the relevant fish population. This means the fishery must be able to continue indefinitely, without overexploiting the fish stock.
2: Minimizing Environmental Impact
MSC certification means that the fishery operates in such a way as to maintain the structure, productivity, function and diversity of the ecosystem on which the fishery depends.
3: Effective Management
To meet standards for Principle 3, a fishery has to meet all local, national, and international laws and must have a management system in place to respond to changing circumstances and maintain sustainability.
MSC certification is a seven-step process with the final three steps comprising:
- Public review of the draft assessment report
- Final report and determination
- Public certification report and certificate issue
These steps mark out the MSC as different to self-declaration and endorsement labels because they involve considerable transparency and allow consumers to verify sustainability claims by any given company.
The MSC’s scoring system awards a score up to 100 for a variety of criteria. If the fishery has any criteria score below 60, they automatically fail assessment. If the average score for each principle is 80 or above, they are eligible for certification. But, if any criteria score within that principle average is between 60 and 80, they fishery has to agree to certain conditions to increase that score to 80 or above.
MSC certificates last for five years, require annual audits, and are fully assessed if the company reapplies at the 5-year mark.
Chain of Custody Certification
The MSC also oversees a Chain of Custody certification standard. This ensures traceability throughout the supply chain for seafood products. To qualify for use of an MSC certification, a company also has to have MSC Chain of Custody certification for every species they sell.
Chain of Custody certifications are also completed by an independent, accredited third-party certifier. They are valid for three years and encompass four principles:
- The Organization Shall Have a Management System
- The Organization Shall Operate a Traceability System
- There Shall Be No Substitution Of Certified Product for Non-Certified Product
- There Shall Be a System to Ensure All Certified Products Are Identified
These principles govern traceability from source to plate, offering the best current standards for seafood sustainability and safety.
Aquaculture Stewardship Council
The Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) is an independent, international non-profit organization. It oversees the world’s leading certification and labeling program for responsible aquaculture and aims to promote environmental sustainability and social responsibility in aquaculture systems. This is accomplished in large part by encouraging consumers to choose certified fish farmers and thus create a market mechanism for investment in sustainability across the industry and the supply chain.
The ASC certification program uses independent, third-party certifiers to assess fish farms against environmental standards created by the ASC. The ASC also governs an outreach and marketing program to create demand for sustainable seafood products.
To qualify for ASC certification, a company must have standards in place to ensure the preservation of the natural environment, biodiversity, and water resources, as well as providing good working conditions for employees. The ASC label encompasses:
- Legal compliance (obeying the law, the legal right to be there)
- Preservation of the natural environment and biodiversity
- Preservation of water resources
- Preservation of diversity of species and wild populations (e.g., preventing escapes which could pose a threat to wild fish)
- Responsible sourcing and use of animal feed and other resources
- Good animal health and husbandry (no unnecessary use of antibiotics and chemicals)
- Social responsibility (e.g. no child labour, health and safety of workers, freedom of assembly, community relations)
The ASC certification covers 17 species groups currently, with 11 ASC standards. The species covered comprise:
- Bivalves (Clams, Mussels, Oyster, Scallop)
- Freshwater Trout
- Seriola And Cobia
- Tropical Marine Finfish
There is also a joint ASC-MSC standard for seaweed.
To become ASC certified, a fish farm has to go through a 5-step process including a public farm audit announcement, on-site auditing and information gathering along with stakeholder meetings, public review of the draft assessment, final report and determination, and a public certification report and certificate issue.
ASC certificates last for three years and require annual audits.
To qualify for use of the ASC label, companies must have a valid Chain of Custody certificate. ASC uses the MSC’s Chain of Custody Standard to verify the origin of ASC certified seafood. This allows both the ASC and MSC to do joint audits. The CoC certificate is valid for three years and requires annual audits. This certificate certifies that products are traceable and volumes are recorded.
Best Aquaculture Practices 4-Star
The Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA), founded in 1997, developed and maintains the Best Aquaculture Practices certification standards. BAP encourages the use of responsible aquaculture practices, meaning it’s another fish farm certification, this time for hatcheries, farms, processing facilities and feed mills.
GAA also works to promote effective, coordinated regulatory and trade policies and the alliance’s overarching mission is to further environmentally responsible aquaculture to meet global food needs. The GAA supports technological research and provides this information to membership and research facilities.
The BAP program is designed to reward farms operating with responsible production systems that are sustainable both in terms of the environment and community needs. For the GAA, responsible aquaculture means operating under numerous guiding principles, including, but not limited to:
- Using only those sites for aquaculture facilities whose characteristics are compatible with long-term sustainable operation with acceptable ecological effects, particularly avoiding unnecessary destruction of mangroves and other environmentally significant flora and fauna
- Designing and operating aquaculture facilities in a manner that conserves water resources, including underground sources of fresh water and in a manner that minimizes the effects of effluents on surface and ground water quality and sustains ecological diversity
- Taking all reasonable measures necessary to avoid disease outbreaks among culture species, between local farm sites and across geographic areas
BAP standards address environmental and social responsibility, animal welfare, food safety and traceability. This is a voluntary certification program for aquaculture facilities and outlines standards for each facility type. The GAA recently introduced new multi-species farm standards for finfish and crustacean production, opening up the program to a number of new species. Similarly, seafood processing plants can now be certified to a broader range of species.
BAP operates with a star system, with each star representing a part of the aquaculture production chain. The BAP 4-Star certification is the highest level and covers processing plants, farms, feed mills, and hatcheries, meaning that the product was BAP-certified through the entire process.
GLOBAL G.A.P. IFA
One other seafood certification is also worth noting. GLOBAL G.A.P. is an organization offering an Integrated Farm Assurance (IFA) standard for aquaculture. This standard aims to bring farmers and retailers together to produce and market safe food, protect scarce resources, and build a sustainable future. The IFA’s focus is mostly on food safety, but there is also an element of environmental sustainability as well as animal heath and welfare and workers’ safety, health, and welfare.
The IFA applies to a diversity of fish, crustaceans, and molluscs, and all hatchery-based farmed species, as well as seedlings in the planktonic phase. It covers the entire production chain, from broodstock, seedlings and feed suppliers to farming, harvesting, and processing.
GLOBAL G.A.P. also has a Chain of Custody standard that gives fish farmers a documented way to demonstrate transparency and integrity throughout their supply chain and production process. The IFA is the only aquaculture farming standard recognized by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) for scope A2 farming of Fish.
The standard has also been benchmarked against the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative’s Global Benchmark Tool Version 1 and is recognized by the GSSI Steering Board.
Final Thoughts on Seafood Certifications
MSC is by far the best seafood certification available as it covers wild caught seafood that is more likely to be eco-friendly and sustainable. MSC also operate the Chain of Custody certification program that other certifications such as ASC rely on for completion of their own certification process.
For farmed seafood, the ASC and BAP are the most common and are both robust and reliable. The GLOBAL G.A.P. IFA is less common currently but is also robust and operates with its own Chain of Custody standard which may, in time, make it more popular with companies looking for a more streamlined way to achieve certification.
BAP does not use the MSC Chain of Custody standard, which may also make it more attractive to some companies looking for a more streamlined, simpler certification process. For consumers, the overlapping ASC and MSC CoC offers extra assurance, so, given the choice (and if I weren’t vegan!), I’d err towards seafood certified by ASC.
Finally, if your main focus is the safety of your seafood and want to ensure full traceability, safe handling, and testing for food-borne pathogens or high levels of methylmercury and other potential contaminants, the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) certification is just the ticket. The HACCP conducts seafood product testing for full FDA compliance and a range of microbiological and chemical tests, including for salmonella, histamine, and methylmercury, antibiotic residues, and other hazardous chemicals that can accumulate in or contaminate fish and other seafood.