Project Domino – a Proposal to Quicken the Pace of Fisheries Conservation in Europe

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) provides the best opportunity for better protecting Europe’s fish. The MSC was established to encourage brands to compete with each other. From our perspective at HLC, this process has stalled, or at least could be encouraged to move more quickly. The case for so doing has in our view become stronger, with the news that the European Commission is planning to investigate a European ecolabel for fish products. Such a move will be jumped on by those interested in a lower standard, a lengthy process and a lack of clarity in the marketplace. We at HLC propose a project which would rebuild momentum around retailer adoption of the MSC before there is more momentum behind the Commission’s scheme.

It is a common feature of campaigns to ‘split the pack’ – moving beyond arguing on principle to a compare and contrast of brands.

This is eminently possible in Europe on fish. Wal-Mart and other retailers have made commitments to move to 100% MSC fish.
Structurally, it is surprising that the move of Wal-Mart and others has not been leveraged to encourage the others to move. This is especially true given the focus of the leading European retailers on sustainability and the role of the private sector – ERRT work in Brussels, the initiatives of Tesco, moves on palm oil. Any retailer connecting its brand to sustainability is vulnerable if their actions on fish sustainability do not match up. Others, have not.

There may be a number of reasons why the pace has not been pushed – a focus on the technicalities of certification ahead of campaigning, incrementalism, environment groups not wishing to tread on each others’ toes and the issue falling into the gap.

Further, industry has managed to be convincing that supply will drive demand. This is clearly self-serving and untrue – it can only be that demand will drive supply, as in every other ‘scarcity’ issue.

This has not previously been urgent, as one assumed the pace could be picked up at a time of campaigners’ choosing.

However, the European Commission is now discussing a possible future ecolabel on fisheries products in the EU. Any commercial interest focused on preserving the status quo now has a wonderful banner around which to congregate, a scheme endorsed by the authorities in Europe. In reality, this gives a process with a long timescale – feasibility studies and the like; the possibility of a label with lower standards than the MSC; confusion in the market place; and the endless opportunity to demand to wait ‘for the results to be in’.

We at HLC  propose a short sharp campaign to increase the momentum of European retailer brands committing only to stock MSC certified fish. The campaign remains achievable; it has just become more desirable.

May 2010