Published 3 years ago.
About a 7 minute read.
Image: Arek Socha/Pixabay
/ This article is sponsored by
Marine Stewardship Council.
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
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
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
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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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
Published May 21, 2020 2pm EDT / 11am PDT / 7pm BST / 8pm CEST
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.