The increase in the amount of sustainable seafood sold in the retail grocery perimeter has been significant, but there’s still ample room to grow, industry experts say.

In its 20 years of existence, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), whose U.S. headquarters is in Washington, D.C., has logged about 1,200 cases worldwide of fisheries improving their sustainability records as they move toward earning MSC certification, says Brian Perkins, the group’s regional director for the Americas.

The MSC is an international non-profit that certifies fisheries that meet stringent sustainability standards aimed at protecting fish populations and the health of oceans. Fisheries approved by MSC can use the group’s blue oval-shaped seal on their products.

That tally of improved sustainability records represents a big success story. But the success hasn’t been evenly divided between the two sides of the Atlantic, Perkins says.

“Certainly in Europe, there’s been incredible success. The U.S. has been slower to respond,” he says. “There’s a challenge in persuading retailers and processors to use the MSC label on their packs.”

Bill Carvalho, founder of McKinleyville, California-based Wild Planet Foods, whose tuna is rated No. 1 for sustainability by Greenpeace, says sustainable seafood’s gains at retail have been a mixed bag. 

“Offerings claiming sustainable sourcing are increasing, but many of these are ranked only yellow by Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, instead of green,” he says. “This creates a counterproductive environmental equivalence between best choices and those with a much lower standard.”


More than a commodity

For many years, Perkins says, fish was basically a commodity, with little differentiation from one source to another. That began to change around the time MSC came into existence. Brands began to assert themselves in an effort to transcend the commodity label.

Many of those companies were hesitant to add a third-party label like the MSC’s for fear of diluting their own brand message. Or maybe it was simply a case of not enough room on the packaging. Perkins says other producers worried that if some of their products bore the MSC label but others didn’t, it could have a negative impact on consumers’ overall impression of the brand.

Part of the MSC’s charge is to overcome those concerns by stressing the positives of packaging that proudly carries the MSC seal. “The bottom line is, what we’re doing is trying to come up with positive messaging that clearly indicates to processors and retailers that there is ROI in putting our label on their packs.”

One of the ways the MSC is doing that is through consumer-facing communications — a relatively new tool for the organization.

“We originally believed that simply building on a B2B model would be sufficient,” Perkins says. “It certainly worked in Europe. But in the last three or four years, we realized that to really move the dial (in North America), we needed to do B2C as well.”

An agency hired by MSC created an ad shown on billboards and digital screens in the Toronto area. The result was a significant increase in consumer awareness of the MSC label.

More recently, in October — National Seafood Month — MSC put messaging on trolleys in San Francisco and Seattle with the tag line “Good for the Oceans, Good for You.”

“We’re trying to tie seafood back to fisheries and communities, and to make consumers understand that they can affect positive change with their shopping dollars,” Perkins says.

MSC is optimistic that the gains that have already been made in North America will continue. Consumers are definitely on board. A recent study cited by Perkins found that 64 percent of seafood consumers are concerned about sustainable sourcing.


The Alaskan model

Alaska’s robust and transparent fisheries management process results in sustainable seafood and is a model for the world, says Susan Marks, sustainability/certification advisor for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI).

“Alaska boasts having one of the world’s few governments that is truly dedicated to sustainability,” Marks says. “It’s a commitment that dates all the way back to Alaska becoming a state in 1959, when Alaskans wrote sustainability into their Constitution—calling for all fisheries to be sustainably managed.”

That, she says, will guarantee that Alaska will provide wild caught and sustainable seafood for generations to come.

Alaska has a variety of comprehensive management methods in place, Marks says – every aspect of its fisheries are strictly regulated, closely monitored and rigidly enforced.

Alaska’s fisheries management practices benefit from close collaboration among the state, federal, and international organizations charged with protecting fisheries. This, Marks says, is bolstered by strict laws and enforcement policies and procedures that ensure public participation and transparency.

ASMI is the standard owner of Alaska Responsible Fisheries Management (RFM), a third-party certification program for wild-capture fisheries. RFM is a voluntary and internationally accredited assessment of whether a fishery meets strict criteria to be certified as meeting “responsible fisheries management.”

Like other wild-capture seafood certification programs, Marks says, RFM provides credible standards for sustainable or responsible fishing and supply chain traceability.


Retailers get on board

Retailers are responding to the increase in sustainable sourcing. MSC’s first retail partner was Whole Foods Market, whose fresh fish products have featured the MSC seal for two decades. In the past three to five years, the number of retailers selling product bearing the blue oval has increased significantly, Perkins says. Kroger, Target, Walmart, Sam’s Club, Safeway and Albertsons are among the group’s current industry partners.

ASMI also reports an uptick in the number of retailers calling attention to their sustainable seafood offerings, Marks says.

They do this in a variety of ways, she says, including labeling the source of origin for seafood, using Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch recommendations, educating consumers via certification, ecolabels and retailer proprietary standards.

“The importance of sustainability of seafood as a category has increased,” she says.

Some retailers will start with a commitment to source 25 percent to 50 percent of their seafood sustainably, Perkins says. Over the course of their partnership with MSC, they typically commit to increasing that percentage, Perkins says.


Varietal variations

The percentage of product that’s sourced sustainably varies widely depending on the species of fish, says Brian Perkins, regional director for the Americas for the Marine Stewardship Council. About 85 percent of one category of white varieties that includes cod, pollock and haddock, for instance, is sourced sustainably in North America. That’s because those fish are caught in federal waters.

Wild Alaska pollock is sourced from the largest certified sustainable fishery in the world, says Susan Marks, sustainability/certification advisor for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI). Through careful management, landings of wild Alaska pollock have averaged 2.7 billion pounds per year over the past 20 years.

For highly migratory species like tuna, Perkins says, it’s a much different story. Tuna is fished outside of federal waters in high seas fisheries, which are overseen by a multi-national group, the Regional Fisheries Management Organization (RFMO).

“It’s made up of different countries, and decisions have to be made by consensus,” Perkins says. “If one country doesn’t want to play along, it can be very, very difficult to get management systems in place to ensure that it’s conducted in a sustainable fashion.”

As a result, only about 25 percent of tuna sold at retail in the U.S. is sustainably sourced. But Perkins is optimistic that that will change. A leading tuna industry association recently stated its commitment to getting all of the fisheries under its umbrella MSC-certified.