In times of crisis, how much does traceable and sustainable seafood matter to consumers? These are some of the issues we discussed recently with Nicolas Guichoux, Chief Program Officer at the Marine Stewardship Council.
The Coronavirus pandemic has affected nearly all aspects of life across the globe. And while the highest priorities are reducing hospital admissions and minimizing loss of life, the monumental economic and social impacts will unfold for a long time to come — especially in relation to food security.
The crisis has inevitably impacted the seafood industry — lockdown restrictions and the closure of restaurants have resulted in a peak in demand for easy-to-store products such as canned tuna and frozen fish. At the same time, new safety measures and social distancing regulations have created problems for operational logistics across the industry.
In times of crisis, how important is it to consumers that the food they buy is traceable and sustainable? These are some of the issues we discussed recently with Nicolas Guichoux, Chief Program Officer with the Marine Stewardship Council.
The Coronavirus pandemic has had a huge effect on all industries, including the seafood industry. How will producers be able to continue to supply sustainable seafood in the current climate?
Nicolas Guichoux: First of all, it is worth noting that the impact is not equally distributed, as it depends very much on the type of supply chain. Those that supply the retail sector have seen a lot of interest in buying seafood with a longer shelf life — for example, frozen fish and canned tuna. As a result, this sector has seen rapid growth in sales. On the other hand, because the restaurant sector has closed down, fisheries that primarily sell to restaurants and provide more of the high-value species have been more severely impacted. There has been increased demand for MSC-certified seafood because a large majority of these products are sold in supermarkets, rather than in restaurants and cafes.
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Many of the producers have had to adapt by reducing the number of product lines and focusing on the most high-demand products. One example of this is Walkers Seafood — a relatively small producer in Australia who normally supplies restaurants, but decided to open a retail outlet on their premises to get their product into the supply chain. Now, consumers come to the premises and can buy MSC-certified yellowfin and swordfish.
What are the biggest challenges facing fisheries operations?
NG: We have found that most of the fisheries we work with — there are more than 400 certified as sustainable to the MSC’s international standard — have been impacted in some way. A rapid analysis conducted by our local teams to identify how we could support these fisheries showed that about 45 percent are experiencing medium to high levels of concerns.
These can be categorized into three groups:
Harvesting operations have stopped or been severely restricted — these typically impact producers that serve the fresh seafood market for the restaurant sector or the wet seafood counters of retailers which also have been affected. Unfortunately, it is often smaller-vessel fisheries that have been the most affected and severely curtailed. So, even if there were no restrictions on their operation, lack of market demand would still be a problem. On top of that, those fisheries often find it difficult to meet social distancing rules as well as having to deal with crew members being off sick.
Harvesting has been slightly restricted with reduced capacity — we often see that large-vessel operations are less impacted. They are often the ones that produce canned or frozen seafood, which is in high demand at the moment. The fisheries that serve these markets are really under pressure to continue. However, they are still impacted by physical distancing and logistical challenges, making it harder for them to meet the demand.
The impact is due to more complex operational issues — for example, where the plants are working at reduced capacity. Although they continue operations, there may be fewer staff working. Restrictions on labor movement impacts on those who depend on seasonal workers during a short season, such as Alaskan salmon production.
What impact has the pandemic had on consumer behavior and choices?
NG: As well as the shift from buying in restaurants to buying seafood in the supermarket, the other change for consumers is that they are thinking more about where the food is coming from. In China, the pandemic has brought the issue of food security to the fore, as well as the health aspect of seafood.
Customers want to know that their food is safe and healthy, because there is much more concern about their own health. They also want food that they can store to ensure they can count on it in case there are other problems.
But it is not only consumers: Governments have also shown a renewed interest in the journey that food takes to get from source to plate. And ensuring that those sources are future-proof and sustainable suggests to us that the interest in sustainable seafood will continue to grow.
To what extent are the principles that underpin your seafood sustainability program helping the industry deal with this crisis?
NG: People want to know more about where their food comes from — not just fish, but fruit and other produce, too. So, it was already a trend that has been reinforced by the current situation. More than ever, they want guarantees that the food they buy is safe, healthy and sustainable.
No doubt there will be an economic downturn, and this will affect consumers’ purchasing power. But we have seen that in the past. And we find that even in these circumstances, these values are still important to them. So, we don’t expect to see a drop in demand for MSC-labeled products. There was a surge of interest following the crash of 2008, and this seems to be true for other sustainability programs — not just for the MSC.
In China, several domestic processors got in touch with MSC to see if we could help them find more MSC-certified suppliers, because again there was a surge in demand for sustainable frozen and canned fish in China. So, yes there will be an impact on purchasing power, but I don’t think that people will forget about their values.
How important will sustainability be in rebuilding global economies post-coronavirus, and what role will the MSC play in that?
NG: We have taken steps to support fisheries producing sustainable seafood to meet the continued demand. One of our first actions during the crisis was to grant a six-month extension on all MSC certificates and audits. This six-month grace period will allow time for certified seafood companies to focus on taking the necessary measures to ensure that their operations can go ahead safely.
We reached out to about 200 partners across the sector to gain insights that we can share back to the industry and also to inform our future decisions. For example, where it’s no longer feasible for fisheries to have an observer onboard to ensure that work is being undertaken according to the rules, we’ve provided guidance on alternatives such as digital monitoring and surveillance.
We also deferred the licensing fee for small restaurants that are certified to use the MSC logo until later in the year. This is to help them remain certified and come back more easily when things get back to normal.
These measures have been very well-received. It is important that we are practical. But at the same time, we also need to maintain the integrity and credability of the sustainable and traceable claims made on MSC certified seafood.
We hope that these adjustments will help the sustainable seafood sector to get back to its feet quickly once the immediate impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are over.
Seafood is one of the world’s most globally traded commodities, worth more than US$130 billion in international trade. It is an essential source of income to many national economies, with approximately every tenth person reliant on seafood for their livelihoods worldwide. The long-term future of these economies requires that there are still plenty of fish to catch in the future. Therefore, sustainable fishing will play a vital role in rebuilding many economies in the long term. It also offers new opportunities in markets where we’ve seen, and expect to continue to see, increasing demand for products produced with respect for the environment.