FAO's Committee on Fisheries adopts guidelines for "ecolabelling" of fish caught at sea
Efforts to ensure the sustainability of the world's marine fisheries got a boost earlier this month when the FAO Committee of Fisheries (COFI) adopted a set of voluntary guidelines for the ecolabelling of fish products during its 26th session, held 7-11 March.
An ecolabel is a tag placed on a product that certifies that it was produced in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way. Such tags let consumers make informed choices about what they are buying, so that those who wish to can support responsible food production. In essence, they create a market mechanism that promotes sustainable production methods.
The new guidelines are aimed at providing guidance to governments and organizations that already maintain, or are considering establishing, labelling schemes for certifying and promoting labels for fish and fishery products from well-managed marine capture fisheries.
The guidelines outline general principles that should govern ecolabelling schemes, including the need for reliable, independent auditing, transparency of standard setting and accountability, and the need for standards to be based on good science.
They also lay down minimum requirements and criteria for assessing whether a fishery should be certified and an ecolabel awarded, drawing on FAO's Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries to do so.
With trade in fishery products at an all-time high and concern over the status of wild marine stocks growing, ecolabelling offers a way to promote responsible fish trade -- crucial for many developing countries -- while preserving natural resources for future generations.
Need for strong science, transparency
Over the last fifteen years, a number of countries and private organizations have put ecolabelling programs into place for a wide range of products -- from coffee and bananas to beef and fish -- some with more success than others.
Indeed, establishing fair and viable ecolabels is a challenge. Who sets the standards? Can food producers be sure they are balanced and grounded in good science? Are the benchmarks within the reach of poor producers in the developing world? How can consumers know a label can really be trusted?
"We have seen a proliferation of ecolabels on various products, including food and wood products, some of which have little credibility, confused consumers, caused unfair competition in the market place, and did not promote sustainable practices," says Ichiro Nomura, FAO Assistant Director General for Fisheries. "These are the kinds of challenges that the guidelines on ecolabelling of marine capture fish products recently adopted by COFI can help address."
By producing the guidelines, FAO hopes to forestall such problems for labels on fish and fishery products and create equal opportunities for all honest ecolabelling schemes, he explains.
Particular challenges for developing countries
While intended for application in all countries, whether industrialized or underdeveloped, the FAO guidelines acknowledge the hurdles that poorer countries face in responsibly managing their fisheries due to a lack of financial and technical resources as well as the particular challenges posed by the small-scale fisheries common in many developing nations.
The guidelines, therefore, call for financial and technical support for poorer countries to help them implement and benefit from ecolabelling schemes.
However, adds Mr Nomura, it should be noted that some of the world's better managed fisheries are, in fact, found in developing countries. Ecolabelling offers these countries better market opportunities and the possibility of larger export revenues, he says.
The export value of fish and fishery products has soared from US$15 billion a year in 1980 to $57.7 billion/yr today. For developing countries -- whose market share of those exports in value terms is just over 50% -- this trade offers a vital source of income. In fact, net revenues from fish trade (exports minus imports) by developing countries have reached US$17.7 billion -- a figure larger than that earned from their exports of tea, rice, cocoa and coffee combined.
The FAO ecolabelling guidelines were drafted in 2003 and 2004 with the participation of a number of experts and governments during a series of FAO Expert and Technical Consultations.
COFI also instructed FAO to continue to refine the guidelines and to develop ecolabelling standards specific to inland fisheries. FAO will report on these efforts at the next COFI session, to be held in 2007.