The notion of sustainable fisheries is out there and consumers want some kind of confirmation that the fish they consume is safe and comes from sustainable waters, says Ed Frenette, executive director of the Prince Edward Island Fishermen’s Association.

Enter eco-labeling.

The word “eco,” in the new Oxford dictionary, refers to the word ecology. This means a branch of biology concerned with the relations of organism to one another and to their surroundings. So, being assured that fish come from sustainable surroundings is becoming a major worldwide concern.

Eco-labeling has been put forth by major international corporations like Wal-Mart, Marks & Spencer and others. On Prince Edward Island, Wal-Mart has added food to its store shelves over the past year, including canned fish.

Canned fish, and all other processed fish for that matter, will now be scrambling to meet the certification of the Marine Stewardship Council, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that is to be the certification council for the major corporations.

“These major corporations found that the consumer is looking for some sort of guarantee of the quality of the product they are buying, particularly when it comes to foodstuff, says Frenette of the fishermen’s association. “This, of course, also applies to fishing products,”

He says Wal-Mart and many major corporations in Europe have adopted the Marine Certification Stewardship MCS as an eco label and are insisting that more and more species meet these standards of sustainability.

Frenette indicates that the European Union (EU) is the big push behind eco-labeling. To meet its standards, Frenette says, is a complex process and very expensive.

“This MCS label is supplied by a non-governmental agency. They conduct the analysis independently of both corporations, industry and government,” says Frenette and adds that it the primary issue is not just traceability, but sustainability. “They want to know — the MSC wants to know — that the fish came from sustainable waters and are being harvested in a sustainable manner.”

In terms of the consumer, the corporations have done their homework, says Frenette. He says some governments around the world have a problem with NGO independent bodies doing the certification. “They say these NGOs are taking over government responsibility. For example, Iceland has a problem with it. Alaska has a problem with it. They feel they (NGOs) are intruding on the rights of nation states.”

The MSC hires and licenses independent consultants to do the reviews for meeting the standards and regime of the EU. That regime consists of no less than 88 standards that have to be met in an examination, just to get what Frenette terms a temporary label. “That is if they achieve 80 per cent of the recognized standards put forth by the NGO consultants.”

Presently the Gulf of St. Lawrence fishery is going through the process as well as the Maine Lobster industry. According to Frenette’s research, there has been Canadian lobster turned down in England, because it was not thought to come from sustainable waters. “There are major retailers in the UK asking for MSC labeling on Canadian lobster and while it hasn’t touched us (PEI) directly, it is going to happen soon,” he says.

High priced restaurants in New York want the label so they can promote it on the menu. “Fish stocks on Russia and Japan are looking for an eco-label and the fishermen and the processor, at some point, are not going to be allowed in the major market place,” Frenette says.

The executive director of the PEI Fishermen’s Association points out that work has been going in the Canadian province of British Columbia for the past four years on five species of salmon. It has cost the salmon industry, the province and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans over one million dollars. “The major corporations refuse to pay for the process…they refuse to raise the shelf price to the consumer,” he says.

Dana Drummond, director of sales and marketing for Ocean Choice International (OCI) the PEI’s largest fish processor, PEI, has a whole different approach than Frenette.

“We see the value in this from a marketing perspective,” says Drummond, who is on the executive of the PEI Seafood Processors Association. He says he is aware of the cost but believes it to be a value-added investment and should pay off “down the road.”

Drummond says he believes the lobster industry in PEI is very well regulated and says the resource in Atlantic Canada is very much sustainable, already.

“If we look at the resource in the Atlantic region, it appears to be very much sustainable. Every year catches are consistent. It never varies more than five or ten percent,” says Drummond.

He points out that he believes that MSC certification is going to make the lobster industry, not more sustainable, (because it already is) but to be perceived as more sustainable. “That means putting the eco-label on there if it is not cost prohibitive, then I think everybody can benefit.”

Drummond says all parties — processors, government and the fishermen — need to make sure certification is a viable thing. The pre-evaluation will cost about $10,000. But he points out that he is not speaking on behalf of Ocean Choice or any particular fishery. “We are not talking about a particular species here or any particular processor. We are talking about biomass. So that becomes the tricky part. Who’s allowed to pull from that biomass? Who’s allowed to process that product and use that sticker? That’s still very much a gray area.”

That biomass in PEI stood at 16,000 tons (34 million pounds) of mussels, 2,860 tons of oysters with a total landed value of $60 million in 2005. Processed lobster that year was worth $400 million. Not to mention other species that may be fished and processed out of Canada’s smallest province.

The lucrative waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence carry some 700 fishermen, while the Northumberland strait on the South side of the Island, supports 1600 fishermen. And that’s just the lobster fishery.

Ready for eco-labeling?

The sales and marketing director at OCI sees the long-term value of an eco-label. He believes it is up to him to take the discussions to the next step and show the market that the fishery is ready to comply with any requests for certification.

Mike MacInnis, executive director of the PEI Seafood Processors Association (PEISPA) asserts that the PEI fishery is the most highly regulated fishery in the world, fished by conscientious groups of fishermen who fully understand the importance of sustainability.

MacInnis is in completely in sync with Drummond when it comes to having discussions with the provincial government and representatives of local fisheries groups. “We understand that the Marine Stewardship Council’s eco-label is currently leading the way in terms of sustainability.”

The PEISPA executive director says that the island processors understand the importance of communicating these facts to existing markets. “One way we could do it would be through a recognized and widely accepted eco-label,” he says.

With OCI processing lobster for the U.S., the U.K. and Asian markets, Drummond says their international markets are a very important part of the mix. But, he adds that eco-labeling is not driven by the U.S., but the European Union and he notes, “I believe the intention is good. As far as the expense [is concerned] that is what we have to measure as an association and as a business.”

However, he is adamant that this is not an OCI discussion. “We cannot look at it as a company because we can’t afford to get MSC certification. It is just too cost prohibitive,” he says and adds that certification covers an industry not a fish processing plant.

“A lot of fish that is landed in PEI is sold to many, many people. Some is processed in New Brunswick. So if that biomass is certified then there is nothing to say that this New Brunswick packer can use the label. If they do, they have to absorb some of the cost. They can’t just get the benefits [and not share the cost].”

Drummond believes that all parties involved stand to benefit from eco-labeling and that any benefits would trickle down through the whole supply chain.

“We need a complete buy-in from all parties involved,” he says.

Frenette believes that government, as it manages fish stocks, enforces a real effort on methods of harvesting and on management schemes. “So any notions that the fishery is not sustainable, is not coming from government, but a third party…the NGO.”

He is concerned over the obvious faith the public has in these NGO consultants and organizations. “The public seems to have more faith in them then anybody else.” q