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Front. Sustain. Food Syst., 17 March 2022
Sec. Aquatic Foods
Volume 6 - 2022 |

Promoting Sustainable Seafood Market in Japan: Perspectives From MSC and ASC Applicants

Hiroe Ishihara1* Abigayil Blandon2 Juri Watanabe3 Nobuyuki Yagi4
  • 1Graduate School of Frontier Sciences, The University of Tokyo, Chiba, Japan
  • 2Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden
  • 3Graduate School of Science and Technology, Niigata University, Niigata, Japan
  • 4Graduate School of Agricultural and Life Sciences, The University of Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan

Japanese seafood market has witnessed a slow but steadfast increase in the amount of certified seafood circulated on the market despite the fact that there are few incentives to apply for certification schemes such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC). This is because it is difficult for the producers to reap benefits from the price premium as the retailers are unwilling to charge the consumers with a higher price for the certified seafood; at the same time, there are no sourcing codes set by the retailers to ban the access of uncertified seafood. By conducting semi-structured interviews with the applicants of MSC and ASC, this study reveals the motivation of the applicants such as the desire of producers to differentiate their seafood products from similar products on the market and to establish stable distribution channels with large retailers. We argue that this type of motivation poses a unique challenge in promoting sustainable seafood in Japan, that is the certified product needs to remain a small proportion of circulated seafood products.


There is increasing global concern about seafood sustainability. According to an FAO report in 2020, per capita seafood consumption has doubled from 9.0 kg in 1961 to 20.3 kg in 2018 (FAO, 2020) while the human population has doubled over the same period of time (Roser et al., 2013), leading to a quadruple increase in the total volume of global seafood consumption. On one hand, it is obvious that the current level of consumption cannot be supported by wild catch alone. On the other hand, the increase of aquaculture production, at an average of 5.3% per year in the period 2001–2018 (FAO, 2020), raises concerns about its negative impact on the ecosystem, such as discharges of untreated effluents, spreading of aquatic pathogens and invasive species (Diana, 2009).

In addressing these concerns about seafood sustainability, seafood certification schemes, both for wild-catch and aquaculture, has become one of the popular methods of promoting seafood sustainability since the 1990s (Ward and Phillips, 2009). Sutton and Wimpee (2008) say that there are more than 140 certifications covering the wide range of seafood products. Among the most well-known seafood certification schemes are the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), both established by international environmental NGO the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). MSC, which certifies seafood products produced from wild-catch fish, was launched in 1997 by WWF and Unilever and certified its first two fisheries in 2000 (Sutton and Wimpee, 2008; Gulbrandsen, 2009; Ponte, 2012). ASC, which certifies seafood products produced from farmed fish, was also developed by WWF with the collaboration of Dutch social enterprise The Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH), to establish “species-specific” standards. The first standards to be developed were for tilapia and the first farm was certified in 2012 (Bush et al., 2013a; Kalfagianni and Pattberg, 2013; Vince and Haward, 2019). Both MSC and ASC are established as third-party certification schemes1 (Bush et al., 2013b; Vince and Haward, 2019). Currently, 15.0% of wild-catch landings have been certified by MSC (MSC, 2020), while there are 1,142 ASC certified farms in 82 countries producing two million tons of farmed seafood (Holmyard, 2020).

These certification schemes are considered as part of demand-driven or market-based approaches based on neoclassical economic discourses (Jacquet et al., 2010; Pirard, 2012; Vatn, 2015). Certification schemes reward the fisheries and farms by allowing retailers to sell fish or seafood products distinguished by an ecolabel with a price premium (Overdevest et al., 2006; Pirard, 2012). The original efforts to promote seafood sustainability were made by international environmental NGOs like Earth Island Institute and Monterey Bay Aquarium (Kemmerly, 2009; Jacquet et al., 2010; Roheim et al., 2018) in areas where the implementation of state-centered “command-and-control” policies were difficult (Pirard, 2012). The seafood market, where 36% of total fish production is exported and traded globally (FAO, 2020), can be considered one of the areas in which it is especially difficult for government policies to implement conservation (Groeneveld et al., 2017). Certification schemes were seen as an egalitarian way of promoting seafood sustainability because they do not discriminate against specific social groups, countries, or regions and they require both the producers and the consumers to bear the cost of environmental conservation (Gulbrandsen, 2014).

However, there is a discrepancy between the theory based on neoclassical economic discourse and the reality of certification schemes (Stoll et al., 2020). Various studies have shown that rewards through the price premium of certified seafood do not materialize (Overdevest et al., 2006; Stoll et al., 2020). These studies show that consumers often show their willingness to pay (WTP) for certified seafood during the survey (Jaffry et al., 2004; Uchida et al., 2014; Wakamatsu et al., 2017; Blomquist et al., 2020), but are unwilling to pay more when they go shopping in real life (Jonell et al., 2016), or they prefer to buy locally produced seafood (McClenachan et al., 2016). Some critics argue that certification schemes are promoted through “penalties” (the fear of being excluded from the market via NGO-led campaigns) not “rewards” (the price premium) (Barclay and Miller, 2018; Stoll et al., 2020). They conclude that it is not the consumers' awareness of sustainability that matters but the retailers' awareness of campaigns run by international environmental NGOs. These NGOs are willing to “name and shame” the retailers if they do not commit to promoting seafood sustainability (Cashore et al., 2004; Auld, 2006; Gulbrandsen, 2006; Bartley et al., 2015). Some have even argued that these certification schemes are not voluntary standards but a “naked extortion” by these NGOs to transform the market to meet the sustainability that they desire (Wilson, 2011). The claim that “certification is based on penalty not on reward” is true for US and EU seafood markets where many retailers have sourcing codes. For example, Walmart in the US and Sustainable Seafood Coalition in the UK have stipulated in their sourcing codes that they will only purchase seafood products that assure sustainability, such as MSC, ASC, Global GAP, and Fisheries Improvement Project (Walmart, 2017; Sustainable Seafood, 2018).

However, if we turn our eyes to seafood markets in other parts of the world, where there are no sourcing codes to limit the access of uncertified seafood or price premium for the certified product, we also observe the proliferation of certification schemes. In such markets, it begs the question: what motivates producers to apply for certification schemes? The Japanese seafood market is a good example of this. According to the Japanese Fisheries Agency, 500,000 tons of certified seafood are produced domestically (~10% of domestically produced seafood) (Fisheries Agency, 2020). These 500,000 tons include fisheries and aquaculture certified by domestic certification schemes like Marine Ecolabel Japan (MEL) (for details of certification schemes in Japan see Table 1). However, in the Japanese seafood market, on one hand, there are no “rewards” because the retailers are unwilling to charge consumers a price premium for eco-labeled products due to low public awareness of sustainability (Swartz et al., 2017; Blandon and Ishihara, 2020; Hori et al., 2020).2 On the other hand, there is no “penalty” either because retailers have not pledged their commitment to seafood sustainability through their sourcing codes as Walmart did in the US. Even AEON, which is considered as the pioneer for sustainability policies, has only pledged to get all their branches Chain of Custody (CoC) certified by 2020; not to procure 100% of seafood from sustainable sources like in the case of Walmart (AEON., 2014).


Table 1. List of certification schemes present in Japan.

By conducting a case study in Japan, this research reveals motivations for producers who apply for certifications schemes other than the pursuit of price premium or the avoidance of NGO-led campaigns. It focuses on costly certifications like MSC and ASC. By revealing these motivations, the research aims to understand how these certification schemes are leading, or not leading to the establishment of sustainable seafood markets, especially in the non-Western part of the world.

Methods and Backgrounds


Semi-structured interviews were undertaken with the key informants, i.e., the applicants of MSC and ASC in Japan. Regarding MSC applicants, we chose three applicants out of the five MSC certified fisheries in Japan, considering a variety of fisheries (inshore oyster farming, offshore seine net fishing, and high seas pole and line) as well as different time periods of MSC certification (first fishery certified as well as more recent).3 Regarding ASC applicants, the research chose four applicants out of the 11 ASC certified farms focusing on the yellowtail aquaculture.4 Yellowtail aquaculture was the focus for this research because it is fed aquaculture production with ASC standards specifically developed for the Japanese aquaculture farmers. For the MSC applicants, interviews were conducted during May 2019 (see Table 2 for details) by AB and HI from the author list and for ASC applicants, interviews were conducted from October to November 2020 (see Table 3 for details) by JW and HI. All interviews, which lasted from an hour to an hour and half, were conducted in Japanese, and recorded. The key informants were identified either through known contacts or through MSC Japan and ASC Japan, which allowed the most relevant informants to be contacted with low time investment. For MSC the interviews were conducted face-to-face by AB and HI visiting interviewees production sites and offices, whereas for ASC the interviews were conducted virtually using Zoom by JW and HI due to the COVID-19 related travel restrictions.


Table 2. Details of key informants interviewed for each case study and their role within the MSC certification process.


Table 3. Details of key informants interviewed for each case study and their role within the ASC certification process.

The interview questions varied depending on the case study and the informant being interviewed. The same interview protocol (in Appendix A) was used for both MSC and ASC interviews, which was developed using previous papers investigating similar questions (e.g., Potts et al., 2011; Pérez-Ramírez et al., 2012; Pristupa et al., 2016). However, questions were added and taken away ad libitum during the interviews depending on the type of case study and what emerged from the conversation with the interviewee. In general, the informants were asked about the motivation behind applying for the certification, the perceptions of the assessment process, how applicants managed costs, the benefits that emerged and what problems remained. The recorded interviews were then transcribed and coded in Japanese to minimize potential bias using open coding method (Skjott Linneberg and Korsgaard, 2019). The codes centered around three themes that were drawn out inductively: (1) Motivation, (2) Problems, and (3) Impacts. Codes were developed underneath these themes, picking out sections of text that pointed to similar factors, and were refined iteratively over three rounds of coding, until additional attempts did not change the resulting codes. The results, the most common codes for each case study, are listed, discussed, and expanded upon using material from the interviews.


MSC Applicants

Kyoto Danish Seine Fishery

The Kyoto Danish seine offshore fishery operates in the Sea of Japan, off the coast of Kyoto prefecture, currently with 11 vessels of 14–20 tons licensed to use a seine net (15 vessels were in use at the time of certification). The fishery is a mixed fishery, catching snow crab, flatfish species, Japanese sandfish, and deep-sea smelt. The total landing value for 2008 (when MSC was awarded) was 542 million JPY (~4.8 million USD5) and has fluctuated downwards by around 100 million JPY in more recent years. 6 The fishery is co-managed through a complex system of top-down measures from the national and regional authorities and bottom-up measures from the local association. The local Fisheries Cooperative Association (FCA) for the Kyoto offshore seine fishers [Kyoto Danish Seine Fisheries Federation (KDSFF)], is known for its thorough local management measures such as regulation of the fishing season and limitation of catch per trip (TQCSI, 2008). The snow crab and flathead flounder gained MSC certification in 2008 (TQCSI, 2008).

Ishihara Marine Products Skipjack and Albacore Pole and Line Fishery

Ishihara Marine Products is a seafood processor based in Yaizu, Shizuoka prefecture in Japan. Although originally a boat owner which both caught and processed its own fish, the company no longer owns boats but buys from other fishermen in Yaizu and produces processed seafood, mainly from skipjack and other tuna species. It had a revenue of 6,063 million JPY (~52 million USD7) in 2017 (Ishihara Marine Products, 2017). The skipjack and albacore pole and line fishery operates in the high seas, within the Japanese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and, through a fisheries agreement, within the Micronesian EEZ. The fishery is managed by international Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs): the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Committee (WCPFC) and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC). It is also controlled within Japan through ministerial fishery licenses. Ishihara Marine Products applied for and was awarded the MSC certification in 2019 for one of its own supplier boats Eiseimaru, which catches skipjack and albacore in the Western Central Pacific Ocean and Northern Pacific Ocean using pole and line. Eiseimaru is 65 m in length and has a crew of 25–30 people (Control Union Pesca Ltd., 2019).

Maruto Suisan Rope Grown Pacific Oyster Fishery

Maruto Suisan is an oyster processing company based in Fukuyama, Hiroshima prefecture in Japan. Its two main products are raw oysters during the winter and steamed oysters during the spring and summer months, distributed to supermarkets. Maruto Suisan applied for and was awarded the MSC certification in 2019 for the Okucho FCA based in Mushiage, Okayama prefecture, which has been farming oysters in the Seto Inland Sea since the 1960s. There are 67 oyster fishermen in the Okucho FCA (Ministry of Agriculture, 2018), and they supply around a third of the oysters Maruto Suisan handles.8

ASC Applicants

Azuma-Cho Fisheries Cooperative Association

Azuma-cho Fisheries Cooperative Association (FCA), which was awarded the ASC certification in 2019 (Amita Co., 2019a), is the largest yellowtail producer in Japan, established with an investment of 664 million JPY (~6 million USD9) (Azuma-cho Fisheries Corporative Association, n.d.). This FCA has ~370 regular members10, out of which around 120 members are conducting yellowtail aquaculture, and about 250 associate members (Ministry of Agriculture, 2018).11 Most yellowtail farms are owned and run by family. The Azuma-cho FCA provides various services to the producers like technical guidance, joint purchase of feeds, and marketing strategies for farmed fish. It also owns processing facilities which have obtained MSC/ASC CoC certification. Currently, all the ASC certified yellowtail is produced on consignment and purchased by the Azuma-cho FCA. The total number of yellowtails produced by the FCA is about 2.3 million fish annually (including both certified and uncertified yellowtail).

Kurose Suisan Co., Ltd.

Kurose Suisan Co., Ltd. (Kurose Suisan) employs about 220 people. This company is 100% owned by Nippon Suisan Kaisha, Ltd. (Nissui). Kurose Suisan was awarded ASC certification in 2017 (SCS Global, 2017). Out of four ASC certified yellowtail producers, Kurose Suisan is the only one that has obtained multi-site ASC certification. The company owns 200 cages in Kushima, Miyazaki Prefecture, 84 cages in the Kimotsuki, Kagoshima Prefecture, and 140 cages in Nobeoka, Miyazaki Prefecture, for a total of 424 cages. The company's processing facility in Kushima has obtained MSC/ASC CoC certification (SCS Global, 2017).

Global Ocean Works Co., Ltd. and Fukuyama Fish Farm

Global Ocean Works Co., Ltd. (GOW), established with the capital of 10 million JPY (~900 thousand USD12), has a group company in charge of aquaculture, Kagoshima Suisan Co., Ltd., and a company in charge of seafood export, International Marine Products Inc.; however, GOW itself does not farm yellowtail (Global Ocean Works, n.d.). GOW and Fukuyama Fish Farm was awarded ASC certification in 2017 (Amita Co., 2017). Like Maruto Suisan and Okucho-FCA, Fukuyama Fish Farm is engaged in aquaculture production and GOW process and distributes the farmed fish or seafood product. GOW has processing facilities, with the capacity to produce frozen filets, which have MSC/ASC CoC certification. Fukuyama Fish Farm, which operates 11 cages of yellowtail aquaculture, is managed by one president and one employee (Amita Co., 2017).

Maruha Nichiro Corporation

Maruha Nichiro Corporation (Maruha Nichiro), founded in 1943, is established with capital of 20 billion JPY (~180 million USD13) (Maruha Nichiro, n.d.). This company is considered one of the “keystone actors” or companies which dominate global seafood scene through the volume of seafood they distribute. They are also globally connected through subsidiaries and other networks of operation (Österblom et al., 2015). Maruha Nichiro has pledged to commit to sustainability through their mid-term management plan (2018–2021) and the promotion of MSC/ASC certified seafood is part of this plan (Maruha Nichiro, 2018).

The scope of their ASC certification is the farms owned by Aquafarm Co., Ltd. in Saiki, Oita Prefecture, which is a subsidiary of Maruha Nichiro. The farms are managed by Aquafarm under the supervision of Maruha Nichiro. The annual production of yellowtail at Aquafarm is 350,000 fish. The farmed yellowtail is transported to the processing plants owned by Maruha Nichiro group companies for processing. Aquafarm employs 26 people (22 men and 4 women). Maruha Nichiro was awarded ASC certification in 2018 (Amita Co., 2019b). The locations of MSC/ASC applicants are shown in Figure 1.


Figure 1. Location of MSC/ASC applicants.


This section describes the motivation for applying for the certification schemes, both economic and non-economic, and the outcomes of obtaining the certification. Further, it describes the problems and challenges that were faced by the applicants. The results of coding the interviews with the key informants pertaining to motivation and outcome are presented in Table 4. This table shows the codes mentioned during the interviews (AB and HI have already published the result of MSC applicants as Blandon and Ishihara, 2020).


Table 4. Results of coding the semi-structured interviews pertaining to motives.

Economic and Non-economic Motivations and Outcomes

All the applicants except for GOW mentioned that raising awareness of their product was one of their main motivations for applying for MSC and ASC. For example, one of the MSC applicants said:

Even if we can get one product certified by MSC, then that will raise awareness of everything from the bottom - brand recognition [of our company] will rise.”

Even for those who mentioned the price premium amongst their motives for application this was secondary compared to the other motives mentioned. For example, for KDSFF, who were not aware of the fact that it was difficult to benefit from the price premium in the Japanese seafood market as they were pioneers, their main motivations were to communicate their work on sustainable fisheries management to their consumers, and to push neighboring fisheries to step up their management strategies. As for Maruto Suisan, they were expecting to gain benefit from the price premium through exporting their seafood to international markets. These latecomers who applied for both MSC and ASC were more aware of the fact that it is nearly impossible to obtain a price premium in the domestic market. For these applicants, obtaining certification is considered as part of the branding strategy to raise awareness of their product and their brand recognition.

Another major economic motivation for the applicants to obtain the certification was the possibility of increasing their distribution channel or establishing a stable distribution channel to both domestic and international markets. For example, one of the ASC applicants mentioned that:

We thought that we could gain an advantage in terms of sales… The biggest merit [of ASC] is that they [retailers] continue to buy through ASC [certified products], enabling us to have stable sales. Aeon is currently trying to differentiate itself by selling certified products. They don't want to deal with uncertified producers. They also buy uncertified yellowtail from us.”

This shows that top retailers like AEON and Coop are looking for producers with MSC and ASC certification as they are committed to sourcing sustainable seafood. Establishing a distribution channel with these major retailers could add market power to the producers, even when they are not willing to pay the price premium for the certified product. One applicant, who was initially approached by AEON to obtain certification, thought that if they obtained certification, they could gain an upper hand in price negotiation with their retailers. The expectation was that they would be able to diversify their distribution channel not just to domestic markets but also to international markets if domestic retailers did not agree to pay the price premium. In order to penetrate the international markets, the applicants knew that having MSC or ASC certification was critical.

For non-economic motivations, some applicants considered that their application for MSC or ASC was part of their contribution to their community or local environment, or responsibility as an industry. One MSC applicant stated

Just to say that it's not just about [the economic gains], but as you can find in the founding philosophy [of the company], we wouldn't exist if it weren't for the fishermen and the fish. It was a certification that matched that [philosophy] perfectly.”

In similar manner one ASC applicant mentioned that:

For feed companies and aquaculture producers, certification is an obligation, not an added value. We strongly agree with ASC's philosophy [of sustainable aquaculture]. Sustainable aquaculture is something that all stakeholders in the industry needs to strive for.”

The response of ASC applicants may be natural considering the fact that some of the applicants, or the parent company of the applicants are the leading seafood distributors in Japan. These companies have Cooperate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies that states their commitment to sustainability. At the same time, although MSC applicants do not have CSR policies per se, they still aim to fulfill their social responsibility to their local community by contributing to environmental conservation and promoting their efforts (for the details of CSR policy see Table 5).


Table 5. Summary of CSR policy of MSC and ASC applicants.

Moving on to the outcomes of the MSC and ASC certification, all the applicants except Maruto Suisan, which was still under assessment at the time of interview, agreed that it is difficult to gain price premium to cover the cost. A couple of applicants mentioned that Japanese consumers were unwilling to pay the price premium or care about certifications schemes when shopping. Even in cases like GOW, which managed to sell their ASC certified product to the US market with 50% price premium, mentioned during the interview that the price premium was not enough to cover the cost. According to them, ASC certified product costs twice as much as non-certified product due to increased feed price and reduced fish density per cage. They do not think it worth applying for certification if it is only for the price premium.

At the same time, both MSC and ASC applicants mentioned that they were able to have a stable channel for domestic distribution, with AEON especially, which provided some economic returns for the applicants. For example, some applicants mentioned that AEON was willing to purchase not just the certified product but the uncertified product from the certified producer, as mentioned previously in the quotation above, which seems to bring additional benefits. Others also mentioned some non-economic benefits of certification such as capacity building for producers, improved environment and human resource management, and improved knowledge of the workers.

Problems and Challenges

Some of the major differences in the results between the ASC and MSC applicants are seen in the problems and challenges that they faced during the certification process and how they perceive the cost of certification. MSC applicants like KDSFF faced challenges because their fisheries are co-managed by the Fisheries Cooperative Association (FCA) at the local level and the prefectural and the national government at the higher level (Makino, 2011). Some part of the management rules can be changed by the fishers and the FCAs themselves, but others are determined by the national government. It was unfortunate for them that in order to meet MSC standards that focus on governance at the fish stock level, they were required to change the management rules at the higher level that were implemented by the national government. As a regional FCA, KDSFF did not have the power to persuade the national government which led to their withdrawal in 2019. However, this was not the case for the other MSC applicants, Maruto Suisan and Ishihara Marine Product. Maruto Suisan, who applied for Okucho FCA's non-fed oyster aquaculture, had management rules that were decided at the local level and thus it was easy to change if they did not meet MSC standards; whereas for Ishihara Marine Product, which applied for a pelagic skipjack and albacore fishery, their management rules were decided by Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) as mentioned above. Many more fisheries have previously been certified under RFMO management rules, which made the certification process much smoother (for details see Blandon and Ishihara, 2020).

All four ASC applicants faced similar challenges which can be categorized into two issues: one related to feeds and other related to fish density per cage. Firstly, it was difficult to source feeds that met ASC standards. To meet ASC standards the applicants had to increase the ratio of seafood residue in the feed in order to reduce Forage Fish Dependency Ratio (amount of fish meals or fish oil used to produce farmed seafood). At the same time, increasing the seafood residue meant that the applicants were required to establish a traceability for all the fish species present in the residue, and to ensure that the feeds do not include any species that are listed in the IUCN red list. This increased the cost of production, as applicants were required to develop a new feed with the domestic feed company or to purchase a feed from an international supplier. Secondly, the applicants had to take additional precautionary measures to avoid the occurrence of Streptococcal disease. To meet ASC standards, some applicants opted to reduce the number of seedlings per cage which meant the increased production cost for ASC certified seafood.

Another difference between MSC and ASC applicants is how they perceived the cost of certification, especially the payment to the certification body which conducts the assessment against MSC and ASC standards. MSC applicants found it quite expensive to apply for MSC. For example, KDSFF, which is composed of 16 boat owners, felt that the cost of certification was especially high.14 All the MSC applicants used some kind of financial support from NGOs, like Sustainable Seafood Foundation (SSF), in their application process. Further, some MSC applicants suggested that they would reconsider the continuation of MSC certification if it did not result in profits.

However, this was not the case for ASC applicants. They considered the payment to the certification body as a necessary advertisement cost. Except for Azuma-cho FCA, all applicants said they would continue with ASC certification despite the problems and challenges that they faced. During the interview, even the Azuma-cho FCA interviewee responded

Regarding certification, we did not apply for subsidy because it is too troublesome. Considering the amount of fish that we sell, the cost of certification is cheap. It's about half the price of a fish per cage.”

This quotation is in stark contrast with the way the MSC applicants perceived the application cost and the fact that the MSC applicants applied for financial support from NGOs.

Discussion: “Reward” or “penalty”: which is effective for sustainable seafood market?

Our results show that the proliferation of certification schemes in the Japanese seafood market is promoted through “rewards” not “penalty.” “Rewards,” such as enhancement of the product brand and the product competitiveness and improvement in the corporate image and reputation, are enough to motivate the applicant to obtain MSC and ASC certification even when the price premium is elusive. Similarly, Vormedal and Gulbrandsen (2020), who studied the global distribution of farmed salmon, argue that the spread of ASC must be explained by these kind of strategic business motives that go beyond NGO constructed retailer demand based on sourcing codes. These types of strategic business motives are also observed in other sectors such as the garment industry (Merli et al., 2015; Oelze et al., 2020).

At the same time these “rewards,” ironically, pose serious challenges to the establishment of a sustainable seafood market in Japan. Firstly, this type of strategic business motive exists only when the certification scheme has the ability to differentiate their certified product from other products on the market as long as the price premium continues to be elusive. This means that once MSC or ASC certified products saturate the market, as in the US or EU markets, their ability to differentiate products dissipates. For example, some applicants were asked about applying to Marine Ecolabels Japan (MEL), the domestic certification scheme established in 2007 with standards catered for Japanese fisheries (Foley and Havice, 2016). Compared to MSC and ASC, the certification cost of MEL is much cheaper, and its certification process is less-time consuming for the majority of Japanese fishers and aquaculture producers (Japan Fisheries Recource Conservation Association, 2021). However, one of the respondents said, “We did not apply for MEL because everyone (in Japan) can obtain MEL.” These responses imply that the MEL was not attractive to these MSC and ASC applicants because MEL did not have the ability to differentiate their product on the market or enhance their brand image. For certification schemes to be attractive in a market which does not have “penalties,” the certified product needs to remain a small proportion of all distributed products.

Secondly, the common practice for nation-wide retailers, like AEON, to purchase uncertified seafood products from the certified producers, poses another problem for the establishment of a sustainable seafood market in Japan. This practice dis-incentivizes the producers to increase the certified fish species or the proportion of certified product. For example, the percentage of ASC certified yellowtail in the total production remains low, around 3% for each of the ASC certified applicants (for details see Appendix B).15 Similar issues are observed with Fisheries Improvement Project (FIP), especially in developing countries (Deighan and Jenkins, 2015; Sampson et al., 2015; Travaille et al., 2019). This research shows that many FIPs do not achieve improvement in the fisheries management or the status of fish stocks as it guarantees access to EU or US markets at the early stage of the FIP (Stage 216). Once given market access, the applicants lose motivation to improve their management and remain at the same level (Sampson et al., 2015). The fact that the certification schemes are promoted through “rewards” other than price premium may mean that it is not possible to establish a sustainable seafood market through the promotion of certification schemes alone.

Does this mean, then, that it is better to set up a “penalty,” prohibiting or limiting the access of uncertified seafood product, in order to establish a sustainable seafood market in Japan? Prohibiting market access when the seafood product is not certified by MSC or ASC standards is unrealistic as many wild-capture fisheries and aquaculture in Japan may face the same problems and challenges as mentioned in section Problems and Challenges. Further, if retailers are not able to supply certified product from domestic producers, they may opt to buy MSC and ASC certified product from abroad, thus increasing the ecological or carbon footprint which may cause other environmental issues.17 Another solution to this problem is to set a seafood certification scheme with a fair price composed of a minimum price and a social premium as in the case of Fairtrade coffee (De Janvry et al., 2015). However, studies show that even when the price premium is fixed it does not trickle down to the producers; rather, it is concentrated in the hands of the middle men in the supply chain (Valkila and Nygren, 2010; Naegele, 2020). Considering the fact that seafood markets, especially the Japanese one, have long and complex supply chain structures (Wessells and Wilen, 1994; Swartz et al., 2017), it is unlikely that the price premium paid by the consumers will trickle down to the producers. To this end, alternative modes of promoting sustainability are needed in the Japanese seafood market.

One of these alternatives may be to shorten or streamline the seafood supply chain through the promotion of a “relational seafood supply chain” (Stoll et al., 2020). Baines and Edwards (2018) distinguishes between production systems based on “relational” and “transactional” connections. Relational connections refer to relationships based on personal ties, trust, and direct connections. A relational seafood supply chain is a production system of consumers and producers well-connected via geographical proximity and other means (Stoll et al., 2020). This enables consumers to recognize social and ecological costs associated with fisheries and aquaculture that are often “masked, diluted, and drowned out” in the current complex seafood supply chain (Crona et al., 2016). Various relational seafood supply chains are emerging around the world (e.g., Witter and Stoll, 2017; Salladarré et al., 2018; Pascual-Fernández et al., 2019). Japan is no exception as it has a movement to promote “locally produced product to be consumed locally (‘chisan-chisho')” (Kimura and Nishiyama, 2008; McGreevy and Akitsu, 2016) along “ownership programs (‘ona-seido')” (Maeda and Nishimura, 2001; Yamamoto et al., 2001). These movements aim to promote relational connections between the producer and the consumer by posting specific information about the producers or about how the product was produced when they are displayed or hosting events for the consumers to visit the site of production. This is one way to shorten the seafood supply chain; however, there may be other ways, especially with the development of new technologies like traceability systems through blockchain. It is our sincere hope that new research will be conducted to reveal the possibilities of these relational supply chains to promote sustainability in Japanese seafood market.

Data Availability Statement

The raw data supporting the conclusions of this article will be made available by the authors, without undue reservation.

Ethics Statement

The study involving human participants has followed ethics guidelines provided by the University of Tokyo. The participants provided their written informed consent to participate in the study. Written informed consent was obtained from the individual(s) for publication of any potential identifiable images and data.

Author Contributions

HI was in charge of construction and writing of this paper as well as supervising the interviews conducted by AB and JW. AB conducted the interview with the MSC applicants and wrote the corresponding sections Background and Results. JW conducted the interviews with ASC applicants and wrote the corresponding sections Background and Result. NY supervised AB and JW as they conducted their research. All authors contributed to the article and approved the submitted version.


Stockholm University funded AB as a guest researcher at the University of Tokyo (Grant Number: SU FV5.1.2-0300-18).

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher's Note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.


The authors acknowledge all interviewees who kindly gave their time to contribute.

Supplementary Material

The Supplementary Material for this article can be found online at:


1. ^In third party certification schemes, an independent certification body (CB) checks whether the applicant is meeting the certification standard set by the scheme owner. The independent CB is, further, checked by accreditation body (AB), in the case of MSC and ASC, Assurance Service International (ASI). AB checks whether the CB is following the procedures stipulated by the scheme owner (Hatanaka and Busch, 2008).

2. ^There is research that reveals that Japanese consumers have the Willingness To Pay (WTP) to pay a price premium after being notified of the decline of fish-stock and the significance of sustainability (Uchida et al., 2014).

3. ^The two cases that were excluded from our studies are Hokkaido Scallop Fisheries and Japan Pole and Line Skipjack and Albacore Fisheries (Meiho). These were the only other MSC certifications in Japan at the time of interview. The Hokkaido Scallop Fisheries was excluded from the sample because the applicant, Hokkaido Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, is an outlier considering its scale of business. Japan Pole and Line Skipjack and Albacore Fisheries (Meiho) was excluded because Ishihara Marine Product conducts same type of fisheries (Pelagic fisheries managed by a Regional Fisheries Management Organizations).

4. ^The 11 certified farms were assessed against five different farm standards, Seriola and Cobia (Yellowtail), Bivalve (non-fed Oyster), Salmon, Seabass and Seaweed, as ASC has different farm standards for different species. Out of these five different farm standards, five farms were certified against Seriola and Cobia (Yellowtail) standards, composing the largest number of farms. Only two farms each were certified against Bivalve and Salmon standards: and one farm each for Seaweed and Seabass standards. Thus, the study chose to focus on farms certified against Seriola and Cobia (Yellowtail) standard, however, it excluded one farm because its certified status was in the process of cancelation leaving four interviewees in the end.

5. ^According to currency exchange rates in 2008.

6. ^Personal communication, Kyoto Prefectural Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Technology Centre, August 2020.

7. ^According to currency exchange rates in 2017.

8. ^Personal communication, Maruto Suisan, August 2020.

9. ^According to currency exchange rates in 2021.

10. ^Regular members are those who fish for more than 90–120 days annually depending on the FCA regulations.

11. ^Associate members are those who fish for less the FCA regulated days.

12. ^According to currency exchange rates in 2021.

13. ^According to currency exchange rates in 2021.

14. ^This is partially due to the fact that KDSFF thought the cost of certification would be 1,600,000 JPY (around 16,000 USD) but in reality it was 2,800,000 JPY (around 28,000) (for details see Blandon and Ishihara, 2020).

15. ^This low percentage is partially due some technical issues mentioned in section Problems and Challenges such as the lack of feed that meets ASC standards; however, if there were enough ‘rewards', the producers are willing to invest on overcoming these problems/challenges.

16. ^Stage 2 is right after the scoping. It involves stakeholder meetings to develop work plans (Sampson et al., 2015).

17. ^As Madin and Macreadie (2015) rightly mentions, current seafood certification does not factor in the carbon footprint despite the fact that both wild-catch fisheries and aquaculture has significant impact on carbon emissions.


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Keywords: sustainable seafood market, certification schemes, MSC, ASC, market-based approach, Japan

Citation: Ishihara H, Blandon A, Watanabe J and Yagi N (2022) Promoting Sustainable Seafood Market in Japan: Perspectives From MSC and ASC Applicants. Front. Sustain. Food Syst. 6:843184. doi: 10.3389/fsufs.2022.843184

Received: 25 December 2021; Accepted: 31 January 2022;
Published: 17 March 2022.

Edited by:

Erick Ochieng Ogello, Maseno University, Kenya

Reviewed by:

Satoshi Yamazaki, University of Tasmania, Australia
Nicholas Outa, Maseno University, Kenya

Copyright © 2022 Ishihara, Blandon, Watanabe and Yagi. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Hiroe Ishihara,