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Third-party labels are not the solution to IUU. Actually they are part of the problem

by Campaign for Eco-Safe Tuna
February 5, 2014

Third-party labels are not the solution to IUU. Actually they are part of the problem

The road to hell...

Third-party labeling started as a genuine effort to empower environmentally conscious consumers to exercise their buying power and stop marine-deadly fishing methods. Today, however, as a result of a lack of Government oversight certain third-party certifications, like Earth Island's so-called "dolphin safe" label, have become the means to profitable and unscrupulous ends that do nothing but confuse and deceive consumers. So while the history of the "dolphin safe" third-party labeling scheme was bathed in our highest environmental ideas, it's just not protecting dolphins anymore. Or any other marine wildlife for that matter.

Good intentions aren't enough

The real problem with third-party labeling is that some of the organizations that manage the labels often charge companies to use their branding. That cost is effectively a market disincentive. And without real government oversight keeping other third-party labels in check, consumers end up on their own, having to learn whether each new certification really means what it says...a role that is supposed to be the responsibility of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection. There has to be a better solution, beginning with the FTC doing the job Congress directed it to do in the "dolphin safe" labeling law back in 1997.

Congress is starting to wake up

In September 2013, the U.S. Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard held a hearing on seafood certification programs to look at this issue in depth. The hearing was led by Alaska Senator Mark Begich, who opened proceedings with a statement that read, in part, "reliance on any single group can be a problem. Alaska's Salmon industry dropped MSC last year because of the shifting goal posts and increasing costs." In other words, even the credible MSC label comes with costs that many sustainable fisheries cannot afford.

As representative of one of the largest U.S. fish producing states, Senator Begich has long championed Alaska's sustainable fisheries. And he is right to be concerned. Truth-in-labeling is becoming a major concern for consumers and the trend of third-party consumer labels has shown signs of fading. Trust in these labels is down, and there is a growing consensus that any certification program should be objective, scientific and transparent.

Evidence continues to show Earth Island Institute's so-called "dolphin safe" label and the FAD fishing it promotes is devastating to almost every non-dolphin species that swims near tuna. This includes the indiscriminate capture and death of the wildlife in those ecosystems.  Clearly it is well past time to put Earth Island's labeling program to bed and find an alternative that not only means what it says, but reflects true ecological stewardship.

More than just a sustainable label

We have the benefit of decades of experience working with consumer labeling and fisheries stewardship. We have seen what works and what doesn't. Let's take our lessons from the fisheries stewards who manage their ecosystems sustainably for the long-term. And let's continue to push companies to recognize and reward that stewardship with something more than blind faith and an old label. There are leaders like Senator Begich taking a stand for the better angels of the world's fisheries. One easy solution would be to authorize the use the AIDCP dolphin-safe label, which is currently the only label that consumers can be 100% certain certifies the tuna as dolphin- and eco-safe. Since the United States is a party to the AIDCP Treaty, consumers and, we believe, Senator Begich, should be comfortable with this approach.

Now it's time for the rest of the U.S. Congress to wake up to this issue. It's time for all of us to make sustainable seafood, and marine mammal protection, more than just an expensive label giving a false sense of security.