“Certification is just a tool”: The honest thoughts of an MSC assessor on certification programs

“Certification is just a tool”: The honest thoughts of an MSC assessor on certification programs

MSC certification, a seafood eco-label, seeks to certify “wild caught seafood that has come from a sustainable fishery that is appropriately managed in view of its impact on fishery resources and the environment.”* Of the 415 fisheries worldwide that have obtained MSC certification, only 10 are located in Japan (as of February 2021), a figure that suggests Japan’s adoption of MSC certification is still far from adequate.

MSC certification is an essential part of the transition to sustainable fisheries, but it has hardly taken hold in Japan. What issues does a certification program like this have? What kind of action needs to be taken for such certification to be more widely adopted?

We spoke to Dr. Reiko Omoto, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Regional Sciences, Tottori University, who has worked for the Marine Stewardship Council Japan (MSC Japan) in the past and continues to serve as an MSC assessor.



The frustration of not being able to conduct assessments internally

―You have worked for MSC Japan previously and is one of a handful of Japanese people who are currently MSC assessors. How did you become involved in MSC certification?

I had originally worked on gender issues in fishing villages before I obtained my master’s degree. There is a stereotype that the fisheries industry is a male-dominated industry, but women often play an active role in fixing fishing nets and processing fish.

For my doctorate, I had studied abroad in Canada and conducted research on shrimp farming in Vietnam, which was my Ph.D. supervisor’s specialization. My first foray into international seafood certification was when a family-run aquaculture business obtained “Naturland”, a famous European organic certification.


Dr. Omoto working with researchers specializing in human ecology and marine resource management


After seven months of fieldwork in Vietnam, I returned to Canada but could not finish my dissertation. It was as if I did not want to work on my dissertation anymore. Around this time, I found a job posting for MSC Japan by chance. Part of me wanted to leave everything behind, so I decided to work full-time at MSC Japan while I was still enrolled in graduate school.

At the time, MSC only had a two-person team comprising the head of the Japan team and me. This allowed me to gain a variety of practical experience, including organizing outreach activities aimed at the fisheries industry,* translating certification standards, and providing interpretation during a visit by the head of MSC London. However, I also agonized over what we could do to make MSC certification more widely adopted. Although MSC had developed the certification standards, it was actually external organizations that assess whether fisheries fulfill these standards. In other words, although we had created these certification standards for fisheries, we could not conduct assessments on our own. Most of the assessors at the time were foreigners, and there was no one who could conduct assessments in Japanese, which was really frustrating.

However, my dream was still to become a researcher, so I departed MSC Japan, finally obtained my degree, and began to pursue my goal of becoming a researcher. As I was conducting research as a researcher, I received an invitation from an international assessment organization to work as an MSC certification assessor. Now that I am actually assessing fisheries as an assessor, I no longer feel the frustration that I experienced during my time at MSC, but the work I am doing now is one that requires being quite sensitive.

*Outreach activities involve proactively delivering information and support to individuals who require such support but lack access to it.


An assessor’s take on the issues with certification assessments

―What do you find challenging when you are conducting MSC certification assessments? Do you feel any issues with the certification itself?

Roughly speaking, I think there are two major issues. The first is the difficulty in consolidating the data. In Japan, official data such as catch volume and species is stored in several different locations, and these locations (which include the Fisheries Agency, fishery cooperatives, and the fisheries themselves) vary depending on the region and fishing method in question. As this data is scattered, it is a challenge for us to consolidate the data required for conducting the certification assessments.

The second issue is the difficulty in collecting data in the first place. Although fisheries have taken the initiative to establish their own stock management rules in many cases, they may determine that the data in their possession is irrelevant when they interpret the certification standards, which leads to the data being largely withheld. However, assessments proceed more smoothly when more supporting data and documents are furnished, so fisheries are encouraged to provide as much information as possible, regardless of its format.

―Some have argued that the reason MSC certification is not widely adopted is because the certification program is incompatible with Japanese culture and fishing methods. For instance, some people claim that fisheries that practice set netting, a fishing method that is popular in Japan, cannot be certified as it is difficult to conduct stock assessment due to the large variety of different fish species that are caught.

That is not true. The fishing method itself does not matter as long as the fishery can provide data on the fish species and catch. Therefore, there is no reason why a fishery is unable to undergo a certification assessment just because it uses set netting or catches a large variety of different fish species.

If there are days with extremely heavy bycatch and almost all the fish in the net are endangered species, the fishery may find it difficult to obtain certification, but it can still undergo an assessment as long as it has the necessary data. In fact, fisheries can be assessed as long as they meet the basic requirements, such as not engaging in the use of dynamite or the practice of shark finning,* However, in the case of set netting specifically, the cost of assessment may be higher as there is a larger number of fish species involved, resulting in more man-hours required to conduct the assessment.

―Is the cost of assessment a major issue?

Yes, it is. The cost of assessment is not cheap from the perspective of fisheries. However, from the perspective of assessment organizations, MSC certification is not a lucrative business either. This also means that MSC certification assessors do not earn much. It is difficult to make a living as an assessor, not only in Japan but around the world as well.

Having said that, fisheries may have even less incentive to get certified if the cost of assessment is raised further. This is a real dilemma for us.

*Shark finning is the practice of removing the fins of sharks from their body and discarding the rest of the shark back into the ocean. There is growing criticism of this practice around the world, and it has been banned or regulated in some countries and regions.


Certification is ultimately just a tool

―While certification programs are necessary, it is difficult for them to be widely adopted. What are your thoughts on the necessity of international certification, as well as the challenges in growing its appeal?

Certification is undoubtedly effective, but it is not enough for us to simply promote its adoption. If a certification becomes widespread and companies that procure ingredients stop visiting production sites because they feel that a product is fine as long as it is labeled or that they will not be criticized as long as they are using a labeled product, the certification would have failed to accomplish its goals.

Certification is ultimately just a tool. We may know a production site directly, but because the site is too far for us to visit regularly, a certification label is useful as indirect confirmation of its standards. When it comes to food certification in particular, certification labels ought to remind us of the face of the producers and the unique characteristics of the region.

In reality, however, most people do not understand certifications well or misinterpret them as sales promotion labels. I feel that this is why the certification culture has failed to take root in Japan so far.

Because of this, I often give the students in my university classes assignments to look for eco-labeled products across the city. Although it is not easy to educate consumers, I believe that making a steady effort to encourage every individual to accurately understand what certification entails will lead to the widespread adoption of certifications. Having said that, only 50 students attend my lectures every year, so their impact is not very significant.

―Most people probably lack the experience of looking out for eco-labels on their own. Indeed, once someone learns more about eco-labels, they will likely continue to pay attention to them. It is really important to accurately understand what certification seeks to achieve.

Also, I believe that certification can serve as a tool to connect products with the production areas, so there should be more diverse kinds of certifications besides international certification. For instance, the “Konotori Hagukumu Okome” produced in Toyooka City of Hyogo Prefecture utilizes a form of local certification that is rooted in the local community.

Toyooka City has established standards for rice cultivation in a way that supports the release of storks (konotori) back into the wild. In order to rehabilitate this population of storks, which had been extinct in the wild previously, it was necessary to maintain the paddy fields in a pesticide-free or low-pesticide environment where frogs and loaches, which are a vital source of food for storks, could thrive. In addition to standards that govern permissible pesticides and fertilizers, the fascinating thing about this local certification is that it even includes a provision that requests farmers to ensure that the tadpoles have developed legs before draining the paddy fields so that the adult frogs can be a source of food for the storks. Although compliance with this standard is left to the discretion of producers, they will naturally pay more attention to the tadpoles when they have been told something like that.


Along with transforming paddy fields into a feeding ground for storks through the use of local certification, artificial nesting towers have been built to allow storks to nest and raise their young in peace. Today, more than 200 storks are flying freely in the sky.


In addition to science-based evidence which shows the fact for meeting the certification standards, local certification makes it possible to codify certain guidelines that make producers chuckle or instinctively watch out for something as part of these standards. At the same time, consumers can learn more about the story of producers from local certification labels. Local certification is thus a wonderful way to connect products with the producers through stories.

Currently, local certification is used in many areas, especially for rice, but I believe it can be adapted for fisheries as well. I hope if we could achieve optimal fishery resource management by taking advantage of both international and local certifications concurrently in the fisheries sector, while connecting fisheries and consumers.



This set-net salmon fisherman in Hokkaido, whom Dr. Omoto had accompanied on a fishing trip, is also actively involved in the conservation of the Blakiston’s fish owl, an endangered species that preys on fish.


Toward a future where certification is a standard and straightforward process

―There is a sense that international certification is gradually disseminating as part of the impact of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Has there been any change in existing attitudes toward international certification?

The main concern for fisheries in the past was whether obtaining MSC certification would be profitable for them. Many fisheries were willing to be certified as long as major mass retailers would carry their products. For a business owner, it is understandably very important to know if embracing a change like this would translate into financial gain.

However, international certification is now drawing attention as a common rule across entire regions. More and more fisheries have found other reasons besides monetary profit to obtain international certification.

For instance, ASC-certified oyster farms in Minami-sanriku use certification as an indicator for the appropriate number of rafts deployed. This is because the international certification obtained by the group imposes certain restrictions that prevent individuals from arbitrarily increasing the number of aquaculture rafts. Limiting the number of rafts deployed prevents overbreeding* and helps to ensure the quality of the region’s marine resources.

As our marine environment continues to deteriorate, there is a growing trend of multiple fisheries working together and establishing rules for the entire region so that fishing and aquaculture continue to be possible. In such cases, the acquisition of international certification does not differentiate one fishery from another but serves as a common platform for mutual collaboration.

*Overbreeding refers to breeding more fish than what is appropriate for a fishing ground, resulting in malnutrition and a decline in the quality of the farmed product.


―What do you think should be done to make certification more widespread in the future?

Ultimately, I believe that lowering the hurdle for obtaining certification will lead to certifications being more widely adopted. There are now several companies in Japan that coordinate the certification process. Obtaining certification can be very daunting for a single fisherman, so they need to rely on the support provided by these coordinating organizations.

Dr. Omoto posing with the owner of Hooked, a famous fish store in Canada. Fishmongers are also at the forefront of the sustainable seafood movement in other countries.


In terms of cost, it can be rather expensive to maintain certification, so I believe that it may be unnecessary in some cases to force fisheries to maintain their certification after they have obtained it. Everyone should first pool their money together to acquire MSC certification. After they have been successfully certified, it may be possible for them to opt against maintaining their certification after the five-year validity period has elapsed. I think if someone already understands what international certification really entails and what level of compliance is required, they can actually give up their certification in a positive way. Making an effort to be certified in the first place is thus very important.


As more fisheries acquire MSC certification in the future and the majority of fisheries become certified, certification as a whole will probably become obsolete. The MSC certification program was launched in the 1990s, but I think it will take some time before certification is no longer necessary, even though the system itself already has a long history. How will the sustainability of fisheries be maintained in a world where certification has been widely adopted? I can’t help but look forward to the emergence of a new framework for the next generation of certification programs.


All I can do to make this future is to share accurate information about the certification and conduct certification assessments. I will continue to do everything I possibly can to achieve these goals.


Reiko Omoto
As a Ph.D. candidate in geography, Reiko Omoto conducted research on the process of generating value for small-scale family-run shrimp farms in Vietnam through international certification programs. From 2009 to 2013, she served as a fisheries certification manager at Marine Stewardship Council Japan (MSC Japan), where she was involved in work concerning international certification and eco-labeling programs for sustainable fisheries and seafood. Following her stint at MSC Japan, she conducted research on distribution mechanisms that she calls “local certification,” which concurrently address environmental and social issues in local communities through locally produced food. She has held the appointment of Associate Professor at the Faculty of Regional Sciences, Tottori University, since October 2017.