'Small is beautiful'; the use of ecolabels in small-scale fisheries

Dr Ingrid Kelling, IPNLF Market Outreach Director, discusses the impact of eco-labels on small-scale fisheries.
Dr Ingrid Kelling presented at the University of Tokyo about the use of eco-labels in small scale fisheries

What’s the worst thing you can imagine happening after travelling halfway around the world to present at a conference? In early February, I travelled to Japan on my first work trip with IPNLF to speak at the symposium “Designing the Future for Fisheries Certification Schemes”, hosted by the University of Tokyo. The symposium aimed to explore the challenges and possible solutions to issues related to seafood ecolabels, particularly for countries in Asia. Using examples from the small-scale tuna fisheries that IPNLF works with I hoped to explain where and how ecolabels have been a powerful tool for driving both environmental and socio-economic improvements. Whilst my aim was to share some of our ecolabel ‘success stories’, I also wanted to highlight that ecolabels aren’t the only way to drive positive environmental and socio-economic change in a fishery. I had my presentation and notes at the ready, only one thing was missing: my voice… 

A little context on the current use of ecolabels in Asia

Countries in Asia are among the world’s top importers and consumers of fish. However, Asian consumers lag well behind European and North American consumers in their awareness of seafood sustainability issues, as does their demand for certified fish. Japan – the world’s top importer of fish and fishery products – is home to the world’s largest pole-and-line tuna fishery and a great diversity of other fisheries. However, only two fisheries in Japan are currently Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified (a small pole-and-line skipjack/albacore fishery and a scallop fishery) while 23 MSC certified products are imported and sold. Japan’s own ecolabel, Marine Eco-Label Japan (MEL), has 23 participating fisheries, despite being an industry-run programme without chain-of-custody certification. 

How have ecolabels supported one-by-one tuna fisheries?


I thought, as my first ‘case-study’, I’d go back to the start of IPNLF’s journey, to when we began in 2012 with the MSC certification of the Maldives one-by-one tuna fishery. Through my raspy voice, I explained how the Maldives was the first country in the Indian Ocean region to receive MSC certification for its pole-and-line skipjack fishery. Certification is costly, so industry support was necessary to finance the assessment, as is often the case. Today, the Maldives supplies its sustainably caught tuna to a global market; major international retailers like M&SSainsbury’s and Woolworths source all of their own-brand skipjack products from this fishery. This increase in market share has both contributed to the economy of this small island nation and placed it on the map as an emblem of sustainability. Under MSC requirements, the fishery is still continuing to improve; in 2016 the Maldives Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture launched the Fisheries Information System (FIS), a digital platform to improve catch traceability and documentation. 

The Maldives certification has also supported management improvements at a national and regional level. Supported by IPNLF, the Maldives took a leading role in the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission’s (IOTC) adoption of a harvest control rule (HCR) for skipjack tuna in 2016. This was a monumental achievement and the first time a precautionary management measure has been adopted to avoid, rather then react to, the over-exploitation of a tuna stock. Maldivian fishing communities benefit from the value that sustainable tuna fisheries bring. Their futures are more secure now that safeguards are in place for the primary source of protein, employment and income.

Other certification schemes, such as Fair Trade USA, have different mechanisms in place that enhance the benefits feeding back to the local fishing communities. The Fair Trade label helps to support community-cohesion, preserve a unique and historic way of life, raise employment and local ownership, control income and profit sharing, and underpin local economies. IPNLF Member Maldives Quality Seafood (MQS) supplies handline-caught yellowfin tuna to an international market and was the first Maldivian company to obtain Fair Trade USA certification for its product. More recently, a partnership between IPNLF Member Horizon, Blueyou Trading and Fair Trade USA saw the launch of the first ever seafood product, canned skipjack tuna, carrying dual certification (MSC & Fair Trade). Through a Fair Trade workers fund, all Horizon factory workers and the associated fishing communities benefit from the ecolabel. 


Another fishery to have obtained Fair Trade USA certification is the handline yellowfin tuna fishery in Maluku, Indonesia. This initiative was supported by IPNLF Member Anova LLC and a local NGO Masyarakat dan Perikanan Indonesia (MDPI) (another example of a privately-funded project). When consumers buy Fair Trade certified product, the fishermen’s association receives a fixed premium. This can be spent directly on community developments such as improving local water infrastructure, waste management and recycling or GPS units for fishers. The Fair Trade USA certification both demonstrates and enhances the social value of these responsible fisheries, ensuring that they get the recognition they deserve.

The Indonesian pole-and-line and handline tuna fishery is currently involved in a fishery improvement project (FIP) working towards achieving MSC certification. The pole-and-line and handline FIP, which is making ‘exceptional progress’, has driven many improvements across the supply chain, from improved traceability through the development of a web enabled vessel registration and catch reporting system, to improved national management measures for tuna and baitfish. Again, this project has been supported by various avenues including market investment, philanthropic foundations and NGOs.

Are ecolabels the only answer for fishery improvement?

For small-scale, one-by-one tuna fisheries, the market incentives created by the ecolabel model have played a distinctive role in helping to drive policy changes, enhance working conditions and improve traceability – but I had to question whether certification against the well-known standards is the only way to get results. The Asian market has encountered particular challenges with ecolabels, due to regional and local conditions, consumer demand, and management practices. So with this in mind, I thought I would draw on a case study of responsible fisheries that haven’t used the MSC or Fair Trade ecolabels to drive improvements and gain international recognition.

The Azores pole-and-line fishery is a fantastic example of a responsible, traceable fishery that has strong access to market and brings benefits back to the local community. It is one of the most well monitored pole-and-line fisheries in the world, with between 50-100% of the larger vessels carrying observers. IPNLF Member Fish4Ever sources the tuna for its canned products from this fishery, supplying it to an international market. Further, the skipjack caught in this fishery go to local canneries, which provide employment for significant numbers of women in the Azores.

Next steps for the Asian market

Something that became evident from the case studies I presented, and from others that I heard during the symposium, is that for small-scale fisheries in developing world countries, certification ‘success-stories’ require funding, partnership, and committed participants. IPNLF is a strong advocate for collaboration and to that end works closely with our Members, fisheries associations, funders and external NGO partners to drive forward the development of these small-scale fisheries. In Asia, a number of organisations are already working to increase consumer awareness of these important issues and galvanise support for ecolabel assessments. IPNLF stands at the ready to amplify these calls and to work with others to ensure that the fishing communities are rewarded for their commitment to socially and environmentally responsible fishing methods.