ASMI seeking comments on newest version of seafood standard

Jun 16, 2016

Four years in, Alaska’s new sustainable seafood standard is gaining traction – and getting updated. 

Credit Courtesy ASMI/Earl L. of Port Townsend 2013 Best Action

Alaska’s sustainable seafood standard is gaining traction – and getting updated. A public comment period is open this summer to get some feedback on the newest version.

Sustainability has become a buzzword in many industries over the past decade. The seafood world is no exception, and that’s created a whole new industry around who gets to decide what fish is sustainable.

A couple of years ago, Alaska decided it was time for a label of its own. In 2012, the Alaska Responsible Fisheries Management standard was launched. That’s owned by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

Susan Marks has worked with the label in multiple capacities – including currently, as ASMI’s sustainability director.

“RFM was started because our industry and our customers felt that a choice in certification was important. It was less about the use of an ecolabel, and more about letting the businesses in Alaska brand their own seafood with their own marketing messaging,” Marks said.

Alaska RFM is an independent third-party certification where fisheries are assessed by approved certification bodies against six key principles. Those principles were developed by the RFM program, with feedback, and set the standard for the program. The way that it works is that the client has to hire an independent reviewer. Once certified, the certificate is valid for 5 years with annual reviews.

RFM clients can also go through a process to certify the chain of custody for fish; that’s optional, and results in a free RFM logo seal for fish packaging.

Third party certification is a requirement to sell seafood into certain markets. In parts of Europe, the Marine Stewardship Council’s blue label is necessary. But the MSC charges a licensing fee just for the logo, and the process can be expensive. RFM was meant to offer companies another option.

But it was slow to take off initially. There were questions raised about transparency, and credibility.

Over the last two years, the program has undergone changes, including establishing a formal governance structure, developing a quality management system and improving its standards.

“So now, everything is transparent,” Marks said. “We have three advisory committees that are listed on our website. In the past, there were many questions about how are decisions made. And how certain things were handled, for example, appeals and complaints. Previously there was not a place where a stakeholder could go and get those questions answered. Now we have our quality management system, or QMS, which is like our policies and procedures manual. That’s publically available on our website. If you want to know, what is RFM’s appeal and complaints procedure, we have a procedure written for that that you could go and look at. We’ve also created new processes and improved our existing ones.”

Now ASMI is now taking comments on version two of the RFM standard. A 60-day comment period opened June 6, and runs through August 4.

For Alaska salmon, the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation is the client for all of the state’s salmon fisheries. That organization hires an RFM-approved company to audit the fishery. Some companies use a free RFM-seal on their fish, others choose not to.

AFDF executive director Julie Decker said the choice in certification programs is good for the industry. And even though an RFM label doesn’t appear on many packages of salmon, it’s helping it sell behind the scenes.

“I think a lot of times the RFM program, as well as MSC and any others, sometimes they’re working in the background,” she said. “The logos not necessarily being displayed on packaging and stuff but when retailers go to purchase from companies, they want the assurance with documentation that that purchase is from a sustainable source. They may not show that to the consumers who are purchasing, but they want to know, and the message we’re getting, is that the consumers want the retailers to do the work for them basically to make sure that that is from a sustainable source. So a lot of times these certifications are working in the background.”

Although it’s less common, an increasing number of companies are putting the RFM logo on the salmon they sell.

“I think it’s just beginning to be used that way,” she said. “I’ve heard of a couple companies just in this winter season working with other retailers to do just that.

The RFM label is also going through the process of being recognized by an international standard, called the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative. That is a global benchmark for certification schemes, developed to try and set one common goal for varying standards. To be recognized, a label must meet all essential components in governance, operations and fisheries and/or aquaculture certification. Alaska RFM has completed the seven-month audit process and a final announcement will be made in July. 

Decker said she thinks that recognition could help the RFM program for salmon participants.

“My personal way I view seafood certification is that, we really don’t have, no one has a crystal ball to see where this whole global movement for seafood certification is going,” she said. “I think having options at this stage is really valuable. I think just continuing to try to do our best to showcase the work that Alaska and particular our Fish and Game managers do to have a sustainable fishery is positive, as we go into territory sort of unknown.”