Certifications and Rating Systems

Over the last several years the number of sustainable seafood certification and rating programs have grown. Both types of programs are meant to help buyers and consumers make good choices by assessing fishery and aquaculture performance against sustainability criteria. Understanding the difference between the programs clarifies how they fit in responsible sourcing.

Unique to certification programs is the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (GSSI) – a collaborative organization with a Global Benchmarking Tool for seafood certification programs. This tool assesses the robustness of seafood certification programs and promotes improvement in certification programs. Essentially, GSSI is a one-stop-shop for credible seafood certification programs, making it easy for seafood buyers to make informed choices. Rating systems do not have a third-party recognition program like this; therefore, seafood buyers must learn and review the quality of rating systems fishery assessments on their own.

COMMON DEFINITIONS

Sustainability

Characteristic of resources that are managed so that the natural capital stock is non-declining through time, while production opportunities are maintained for the future.

Source: Sutinen, J.G. (ed.). 2000. A Framework for Monitoring and Assessing Socioeconomics and Governance of Large Marine Ecosystems. NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-NE-158: 32 pp. http://www.fao.org/faoterm/en/?defaultCollId=21

Sustainable Seafood

Sustainable seafood is seafood responsibly managed to exist long-term without compromising the survival of the species or the health of the surrounding ecosystem. Sustainable seafood is the most environmentally efficient source of protein on the planet. In the United States, both wild-caught and farmed fish and shellfish are managed under a system of enforced environmentally responsible practices.

Seafood Sustainability Certification

Certification programs directly engage with fisheries or farms requiring them to meet the applicable certification standard. Certifications also engage with the supply chain to verify the sustainability of products sold as certified. Certification provides the highest level of assurance that the product is sustainable, is harvested legally, and is traceable back to its source. Certification offers an objective and neutral assessment of a fishery; the group offering the certification isn’t part of industry or government, so their findings are unbiased.

Source, modified in part: https://certificationandratings.org/clarifying-roles-of-certifications-and-ratings/

Examples:

Rating Systems

Ratings systems focus on assessing as many seafood sources as possible in key markets to provide information on the full spectrum of poor-to-excellent environmental performance for fisheries and aquaculture. This information can be used to identify opportunities for producers to pursue improvement projects and certifications, as well as help consumers and businesses evaluate sourcing options.

Modified from https://certificationandratings.org/clarifying-roles-of-certifications-and-ratings/

  • Examples of rating systems: Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. Sustainable Fisheries Partnership FishSource, OceanWise

What’s the Difference Between Certification and Rating?

There are some similarities and differences between certification programs and rating systems. Fishchoice offers a good example of the general differences. A couple key differences to point out:

  • Certification programs offer a chain of custody, traceability standard on sustainability claims, whereas a rating system does not.
  • Fishery assessments in Certification programs are conducted by independent accredited certification bodies as opposed to scientists selected by the rating system body.
  • Wild-capture certification programs offer transparency and stakeholder engagement during the assessment process, whereas rating systems typically do not.
Assessment Element  Certification
Rating
Participation of fishery / farm in question Voluntary, self-identified client, usually a private entity Selected by assessment organization based on importance to market(s)*
Cost to producers Yes, paid by client No cost*
Assessment review Typically an accredited, 3rd party aka 'certification body' - selected by client Scientist(s) selected by assessment organization with peer-review process
Transparency of assessment process Assessment process for wild-capture fisheries are generally made public whereas aquaculture assessments are generally confidential Generally not public until complete
Stakeholder input Yes, typically required at one or more points in the assessment process Limited to no opportunity to provide input
Objection process Yes, usually through some form of pre-defined arbitration process at a cost to objector(s) Not formalized
Publicly available final reports Final certification reports for wild-capture fisheries are generally made public whereas aquaculture certifications are generally confidential Generally made public
Geographic & harvest method scope of assessment Client identifies the fishing / farming geographic area and corresponding harvest method; usually restricted to one or more private companies Identified by assessment organization; geography is generally consistent with a management area, body of water, country, territory, or region and fishing / farming methods are assessed individually or collectively
Wild seafood assessment methodology Typically one methodolgy for all fisheries Typically one methodology for all fisheries
Farmed seafood assessment methodology Some certifications have multiple methodologies by species groups, others have a single methodology Typically one methodology for all aquaculture production
Traceability system Typically chain of custody; certification programs vary in extent of supply chain coverage Not included or required
Products that are eligible for sustainability claims Restricted to the client - typically specific fishing vessels or farms / processors; companies in the supply chain are eligible depending on supply chain requirements of the certification program Generic claims about sustainability about product source generally allowed
Industry marks/labels Usually B2B packaging marks available Rare, if any
Consumer marks/labels On-product marks available, requirements and fees vary Rare, if any
Available programs &/or partnerships Typically not available outside of use of program marks A lot of variation, usually limited in availability and opportunity depending on type of business and program capacity

https://fishchoice.com/understanding-seafood-ratings-and-seafood-certifications

COLLABORATION BETWEEN RATINGS AND CERTIFICATION PROGRAMS

Seafood ratings programs and eco-certifications programs are now collaborating to cover more fisheries and save on costs. For example, Seafood Watch recognizes the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) eco-certification instead of directly assessing the fisheries in that program. Currently, the MSC is the only wild capture certification program benchmarked by Seafood Watch, and Seafood Watch considers any fishery certified by the MSC to be a “Good Alternative or better.” This ranking causes a great deal of confusion for buyers and consumers. First, it fails to recognize that several Alaska fisheries were considered “Best Choices” (green) when directly assessed by Seafood Watch. In addition, Seafood Watch displays the MSC certifications on a separate page making those ratings more difficult to find.  The result is that consumers and buyers can’t easily compare all rated fisheries, and in many cases the well managed fisheries from Alaska do not receive the prominent placement their favorable eco-certifications deserve. 

The Seafood Watch rating system is not providing an easily accessible nor accurate portrayal of seafood from Alaska. Thus, ASMI has provided both a guide to find Alaska species in Seafood Watch and continues to provide recommendations to improve the system (see below). 

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CERTIFICATION AND RATING?

Download

There are some similarities and differences between certification programs and rating systems. Below is a table highlighting some of the key and typical differences between the two types of programs:
  • Certification programs offer a chain of custody, traceability standard on sustainability claims, whereas a rating system does not.
  • Generally, fishery assessments in certification programs are conducted by independent accredited certification bodies as opposed to scientists selected by the rating system body.
  • Wild-capture certification programs offer transparency and stakeholder engagement during the assessment process, whereas rating systems typically do not.
Assessment Element  CERTIFICATIONS (e.g. Responsible Fisheries Management, Marine Stewardship Council, Best Aquaculture Practice, etc.) RATINGS (e.g. Seafood Watch)
Participation of fishery / farm in question Voluntary, self-identified client, usually a private entity Selected by assessment organization based on input from associated(or contributing) NGO’s and the importance to market(s)
Cost to producers Yes, paid by fishery client No cost*
Assessment review An accredited third party certification body selected by the fishery client Scientist(s) selected by assessment organization with peer-review process
Transparency of assessment process Assessment process for wild-capture fisheries are generally made public whereas aquaculture assessments are generally confidential Generally not public
Stakeholder input for Certification and in program/standard development Typically solicited during both the assessment and standard development processes Limited to no opportunity to provide input
Publicly available final reports Final certification reports for wild-capture fisheries are generally made public. Aquaculture certifications vary on public availability of reports. Generally made public
Wild seafood assessment methodology Typically one methodolgy for all fisheries Typically one methodology for all fisheries
Traceability system Typically requires traceability through chain of custody Not included or required
Eligibility for Certification Claim Only for companies with chain of custody certification No chain of custody requirements for sustainability claims
Industry marks/labels Usually B2B packaging marks available. RFM charges no logo licensing fees; MSC has logo licensing fees Permitted, but not often used
Consumer marks/labels On-product marks available, requirements and fees vary, e.g. RFM charges no logo licensing fees; MSC has logo licensing fees Used by retail partners

*Some assessment organizations offer a fee-for-service assessment

This table has been adapted from FishChoice https://fishchoice.com/understanding-seafood-ratings-and-seafood-certifications