Ecolabels and fish trade: Marine Stewardship Council certification and the South African hake industry

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Protecting consumers from unsafe food, the environment from overexploitation of resources and pollution, and workers and producers from unjust labour and trade relations are generally considered objectives worthy of intervention whether through regulation or, increasingly, through the establishment of voluntary standards and codes of conduct. Yet, abstract principles are eventually applied in concrete situations and have a variety of effects on differently endowed countries, groups and individuals. Developing countries have been generally reluctant to participate in ecolabelling initiatives. They have highlighted the embedded protectionist elements of some of these initiatives, and the naiveté of some standards in assuming that certain models of environmental management can be exported tout court to the South. This reluctance has been countered by assurances of transparency, non- discrimination and technical assistance. In essence, ecolabels are assumed to be good for the global commons and their justification has been offered within a discourse of science, objectivity, independent certification, transparency and systems management. If shortcomings arise, they can be fixed technically and managerially. Yet, the case study of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification of the hake industry in South Africa illustrates that ecolabelling is sought in the context of competitive pressures, political economies, and specific interpretations conservation, not simply on the basis of value-free science or systemic management alone. Although couched in impartial readings of conservation and competition, MSC certification in South Africa was employed as one of the tools against the redistribution of fish quotas away from white-owned companies to the possible benefit of black-owned companies. Developing country fisheries, and small-scale ones in particular, have been marginalised in the MSC system. This is not surprising if one looks at comparative evidence from other new wave sustainability initiatives in timber and coffee. Entry barriers to sustainability entail economies of scale and scope that require managerial resources and access to networks. Because managerial and systemic objectives are harder for developing country actors to match, this creates a hidden imbalance in favour of the better-endowed participants. The paper concludes that independent auditing, transparency of standard-setting, accountability, and the need for standards to be based on good science, are not enough to facilitate certification 1 of in small-scale developing country fisheries. What is needed are special systems of compliance and verification that cater to their needs. Until this happens, and until premiums are not paid at the producer level, MSC and similar initiatives will keep putting sustainability at the service of commercial interests.

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  • Stefano Ponte

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