Certified Sustainable Seafood, really?

Through globalization consumers have become aware that the choices they make  in the grocery store matters. If you buy a certified organic, fair-trade, or sustainable product you may well pay more – but, you can rest easy knowing you are doing your best to spark a change in the way we manage our resources.

There are several seafood products on the shelves of our grocery stores that boast “sustainable” eco-labels. As consumers, we usually trust these eco-labels. We trust that there is a rigorous process in place and that this sustainable seafood product is something we can buy without a harsh rebuttal from our conservation conscience. But, is this true? What is the certification process behind these eco-labels: or is there one at all?

One well known example of an eco-label is the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). MSC is a non-profit organization whose eco-label is displayed on many seafood products in our grocery stores and offered as a choice in some restaurants. MSC‘s eco-label applies only to wild caught fish and fish products. It does not apply to farmed fish and fish products. Aquaculture products are assessed and labelled through the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC). MSC believes that through the eco-labelling process consumers will become aware of their sustainable seafood choices and support/reward those fisheries that are managing stocks sustainably by buying their products.  This could translate into more fisheries vying to become certified sustainable, and result in an overall improvement to our global fishery resources.

So how does a fishery become certified sustainable with MSC?


Becoming A Certified Fishery

The MSC does not certify a fishery itself. The MSC sets “sustainable” standards and an applicant fishery hires a trained, certified third-party assessor to compare the state of the fishery to the standards set by the MSC. If the fishery meets the standards it may use the MSC eco-label on its products. The cost to obtain an independent third-party certifier can be very high.  You might be wondering how rigorous the assessment of the fishery is; the MSC website states that the fishery must score at least 60% (80% aggregate for all Performance Indicators) for each performance indicator of the Core Principals (below).

The Core Principals of the MSC fisheries standard are:

1) Sustainable fish stocks  – fishing can continue indefinitely because the stock is harvested at a sustainable level

2) Minimizing environmental impact – fishing should maintain the structure, productivity, function, and diversity of the ecosystem

3) Effective management – the fishery must meet local, national, and international laws with management that is adaptable to changing situations to maintain sustainability


The Core Principals were developed by MSC in consultation with experts in many fields, and to be consistent with the best management practices of the world’s international organizations:

1) The Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing – (UN FAO)

2) Guidelines for the Eco-labelling of Fish and Fishery Products from Marine Capture – Fisheries (UN FAO)

3) The Code of Good Practice for Setting Social and Environmental Standards (ISEAL)

4) World Trade Organization Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement.

A fishery that meets the MSC standards of sustainable fishing may use (or purchase* the right to use) the MSC eco-label on their products. Audits are performed every five years on a certified fishery to ensure it still meets the standards.

(*Supply chain and restaurants using the MSC eco-label may pay a licensing fee)

Stakeholders play a key role in the assessment process and they and the public have ample opportunity to comment on the progress of the certification process and assessment.

It appears that MSC indeed has a very rigorous process to certify a fishery. So, when you see the MSC eco-label on your next fish food purchase you can rest easy…right?

Are Certified Fisheries More Sustainable?

A recent comprehensive assessment of MSC certified fisheries found that up to “ 74% of certified fisheries were above biomass levels that would produce maximum sustainable yield, compared with only 44% of uncertified fisheries.”In other words, fisheries that are certified by MSC are managing their fisheries well, so that the stock is considered healthy. It is important to note though, that the study also found that 44% – almost half!! – of the non-certified fisheries are doing OK too. See our blog on maximum sustainable yield (Over fishing: How can Scientist Tell?) to help understand this measurement.

That is a pretty big difference,  30% to be exact. That is great news. However, not everyone agrees.  Many conservation groups think that the MSC is too lenient; that far too many fisheries are certified despite their destructive nature to the environment and to non-target species.

Sea turtle advocates have fought against the certification of long-line fishery for swordfish because of the high turtle by-catch.

I am not suggesting, nor are many of the opponents to MSC, that the MSC program is of no value. Rather, the MSC certification process may be too lenient. One article found that up to 31% of MSC certified fisheries were not “sustainable”. The MSC responded by stating that the article used a different, and more stringent, definition of the term “overfishing” than what is used to define the MSC standards and if a fishery is “sustainable”.

Right now, there is not a lot of literature out there to say for sure, one way or the other, if certifying a fishery will result in an overall benefit to our global fisheries resources. The only thing we know for sure is that our management strategies over the last century have not always worked. It is our management system and how we value our fisheries resources that needs an overhaul.  Until then, I’ll be buying MSC products.

So, where do you stand on the MSC issue? I suggest, as with many green, sustainable, or eco-friendly labelled products out there, consumers still need to do their own research. Many of SUFB’s articles feature great apps and websites that can be used to help educate yourselves on the issue of sustainable fish products, and understanding the MSC eco-label is a great start.

Here are two great sources of information for more on fisheries ecolabelling and its potential effectiveness:

http://aquaticcommons.org/1551/1/EcolabelsSmallScaleBarcelonaFINAL.pdf – A presentation by the FAO

http://center.sustainability.duke.edu/sites/default/files/documents/ecolabelsreport.pdf – An Overview of Ecolabels and Sustainability Certifications in the Global Marketplace

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