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Seafood: Bringing Fair Trade and Sustainability Concerns Together

Seafood isn't sustainable if the fishermen producing it are unable to make a decent living.

That's the conclusion reached by organic certifier Naturland, which has launched a wild-caught fish certification scheme and eco-label incorporating social responsibility.

"In many parts of the world, fishermen are among the poorest parts of the population," Stefan Bergleiter, Naturland's section aquaculture manager told Sustainable Food News. "Through our work in many developing countries, we felt it would not be justified to certify a fishery which does not offer fair and decent working or living conditions for the fishermen employed in [the fishery]."

Consumer perceptions of sustainably harvested wild fisheries and organic management of farmed seafood are ushering new species to the marketplace and spawning alternative certification and eco-label programs.

As the public's understanding of sustainability matures, assessments of land-based and marine food systems seeking sustainable certification are including more aspects of the triple bottom line: people (social responsibility), planet (environmental protection), profit (economic viability).

Germany-based Naturland is one of the largest organic certification bodies in the world managing over 34,000 farmers or co-operative groups.

The vast majority are coffee growers in Mexico and Peru, but it also includes members from Italy producing organic meat and organic milk producers in Austria.

The group has also certified as organic dozens of farmed seafood operations including shrimp in Indonesia, farmed salmon in Ireland, and tilapia in Honduras.

For the first time, Naturland will leverage its network and experience in remote areas of South America, Africa and Southeast Asia to engage coastal and artisanal fisheries in developing countries in its sustainable certification program.

"That's where we come from," Bergleiter said.

Naturland's capture fishery certification standards are comprised of two parts.

First, are general, Naturland social standards and principles, which form the baseline of capture fisheries certification; secondly, specific social standards are drafted by local leaders and officials and experts and organizations helping the fishery become sustainable.

These specific social issues can range from access to fresh drinking water to medical service for fishermen and their families.

"We are quite excited about this new strategy," Bergleiter said. "We have received positive feedback from market players. The social or fair relationship aspect is something that is really increasingly important to everybody."

The significant influence of social responsibility on business operations was evident to Bergleiter after he conferred with some of Naturland's members including importers, wholesalers and supermarkets.

Naturland is the first certification body to bridge the gap between assessments of sustainable wild-capture fisheries and organically certified aquaculture operations.

The group's members already have operations certified under Naturland's organic processing standards. Naturland was accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an organic certifying agent in 2002.

New Naturland processing standards would allow members to process a wild salmon and sell it with the Naturland Fishery eco-label, he said.

"We have processors and smokehouses that are dealing with organic salmon and processing and curing and smoking under organic standards," he said. "Such smokehouses also have an interest in dealing with sustainably-caught, wild seafood."

The new certification scheme could be seen as competition by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which administers the world's largest, third party independent sustainable fisheries certification program.

"You can say [the Naturland program] is similar to MSC's program, but we don't see ourselves as a competing program," Bergleiter said, adding that Naturland would no more exclude industrial fisheries from participating in its eco-label program than MSC would exclude artisanal fisheries from its sustainable seafood scheme.

In addition to the fair labor component, Naturland's certification program will evaluate the health of targeted fish stocks and assess the effectiveness of fishery managers in limiting the fishery's impact on the ecosystem.

While Bergleiter said shoppers could soon see seafood products from wild fisheries certified by both Naturland and MSC, he said the Naturland program has a different focus.

One divergence from MSC certification standards is the inclusion of other fish stocks in assessing sustainable, wild-caught fisheries.

Naturland's scheme would allow certification of mixed-species fisheries and fisheries that do not cover a whole stock of a certain species, such as small, coastal fisheries that may only target a portion of a stock of a fish species migrating past.

There are about "a half-dozen" fisheries in various stages of implementing the new capture fisheries certification program, but Bergleiter would not disclose the names or locations of the fisheries.

He expects it could be "several months" before retail shoppers get their first glimpse of the Naturland Wildfish logo affixed to packaging of wild-caught fish products.