Understanding aquaculture certification
When consumers select seafood products from displays or from restaurant menus, they can easily base their choice on a quick assessment of key attributes such as price, quality, convenience and origin. But refi ning their choices further, based on food safety, ethical, environmental or animal welfare grounds, is more diffi cult because of a shortage of reliable, independent information (Wessells et al., 1999). In essence, it is this information gap that opens the way for seafood certifi cation and eco-labelling schemes. Such schemes have the potential to link a consumer’s responsible choices with a producer’s responsible practices and to deliver market rewards accordingly (Wessells et al., 2001, Philips et al., 2003, FAO/NACA 2007).
Well, at least that is the theory. In practice it is not clear if consumer choice alone is enough to drive and sustain all certifi cation schemes. For example, as Mathew (2004) notes for fi shery products, there is as yet no clear signal from the market that the price for eco-labelled fi sh could more than offset the costs of certifi cation. In the absence of consistent market incentives, the question remains as to what is actually driving the current proliferation of aquaculture certification programs? Of course there are underlying environmental and economic pressures that support the logic of certifi cation, and these are discussed below in Sections 3 and 4. Some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have adopted prominent roles as catalysts, mounting successful campaigns to draw public attention to negative environmental, health and social consequences of some aquaculture systems. Yet these groups, on their own, are not suited to establishing certifi cation schemes because they lack the technical expertise and resources needed to deliver regular, reliable and independent assessments of aquaculture ventures.
Typically their campaigns are sporadic and, in the media attention they generate, important information is often lost among unsubstantiated or exaggerated claims. Although consumers are free to ignore messages from NGOs the same cannot be said of managers in the retail and food service sectors. The companies and brands they manage are highly sensitive to negative messages so they constantly strive to reduce vulnerability to external shocks, whatever the source. In addition, leading corporate players, rather than simply reacting to consumer concerns or NGO campaigns, actively encourage responsible and sustainable practices among their suppliers as part of their CSR (corporate social responsibility) agendas.
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