I’ve been asking myself this question for a long time now. Whether or not you eat fish, most of us will have spotted the MSC Certified Label when passing through a supermarket or looking at a restaurant menu at some point in our lives. Having grown up in the North of England I vaguely heard news of overfishing from a young age, mainly in the North Sea, but didn’t fully understand the issue until much later in life. Now, living in Cornwall, once again fishing is very much a part of the local culture and landscape I’m surrounded by.
It got me wondering about how one truly deems a fishing venture to be sustainable. And, seeing as the MSC label is so frequently spotted around supermarkets and large businesses, how trustworthy is it really? I started delving deeper out of genuine interest and almost no concrete knowledge, and so I thought I’d share my findings with all of you as well.
What is the MSC?
The title MSC stands for Marine Stewardship Council. The MSC is an international non-profit that describes itself as using a labelling system and fishery certification program to recognise and reward sustainable fishing practices, influencing how people buy seafood and working with partners to make the industry more sustainable. A 2012 report from the United Nations warned that almost 30% of the world’s wild fisheries are overexploited, and over 57% are ‘at or very close’ to their limit. As the last major food to be caught in the wild (although fish farms do also exist, which also contribute to pollution of wild habitats), how fish are caught and managed is incredibly important, and this is where the MSC identifies their role.
The organisation was founded in response to the collapse of the cod industry off the Canadian coast in 1992. The industry was worth around $700 million each year, but cod fishing was banned when the cod population plunged, putting thousands of people out of work and proving that the government wasn’t monitoring and regulating fishing properly. Other fish populations, such as tuna and swordfish, were also dropping. Michael Sutton, then vice president of the World Wildlife Fund, and his colleagues decided to convince industry executives that the ocean needed to be protected. In 1995 representatives from WWF met with Unilever, one of the largest producers of frozen seafood at the time, to discuss the problem. They banded together to set up the MSC in 1997, and the ‘Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Fishing‘ was drafted. In 2000 the first fisheries began to receive MSC certification, and the blue fish label appeared on its first products. Unilever eventually sold its seafood subsidiary and left the program but MSC continues today, attempting to bridge the divide between the industry and the environment.
Nowadays the MSC is the most influential organisation in the world when it comes to defining what seafood is sustainable or not. It is reported that 10% of the world’s wild caught seafood comes from MSC certified fisheries.
How does MSC certification work?
As well as recognising that the fishing industry wasn’t being monitored as well as it could be, the MSC also recognised that many food companies want to adopt more sustainable practices (whether that is for marketing reasons or genuine desire is another topic entirely). However these companies don’t have the ability to discern which fishing companies are trying to do good, so the MSC is designed to do the work for them. It’s similar to how I do all the blog research so you don’t have to, except it’s just for fishing.
The MSC does not actually certify fisheries itself, however. A fishery that wants the label hires a commercial auditing company (there are around twelve to choose from) who then decide whether its practices meet the MSC’s standard of sustainable operation. The criteria that define this standard are categorised by three principles:
- The status of the fish: whether the population of the fishery’s target species is healthy
- The ecosystem which the fish is part of: if the fishing practices don’t cause harm to other life in the sea area including accidentally catching other animals, which is known as bycatch.
- The management of the fishery itself
Each of these principles is evaluated in relationship to Performance Indicators and scored out of 100. 60 is the minimum acceptable performance, 80 is the global best practice, and 100 is near‑perfect. A fishery will get certified if its overall score is 80 or above on each Principle, and no single score is less than 60 for any PI. If the auditors give the fishery a passing score, then the fishery is allowed to use the blue “Certified Sustainable Seafood” label on their products. The process of getting certified can be long and expensive, some certifications have cost more than $150,000 and have taken years to acquire.
What are the problems?
While all of these intentions sound great, a little digging will also reveal that the MSC system is not perfect. There have been some real issues over the years when it comes to their certifications.
Although the MSC is a non-profit, only some of its budget comes from foundation grants. The rest of their revenue comes from the licensing fee they charge businesses for the right to sell seafood with the certified sustainable label. This immediately puts them in an ethically murky/conflict of interest territory, as it means it is in their financial interest to get larger businesses certified, in order to bring more money in. Before 2006 75% of their money come from grants, with only 7% coming from label licensing fees. However, in 2006 Wal-Mart pledged that all their seafood sold in the US would be MSC certified by 2012. Although they didn’t hit this 2012 target, the knock-on effect of this pledge was huge. Other major retailers followed suit, and the MSC system has certified seven times as many fisheries as it did during the same period before, according to analysis from NPR. Alongside this growth, the MSC’s financial structuring has also changed, and nowadays their label licensing fees generate more than 50% of their revenue.
Since Wal-Mart made their pledge the Walton Family Foundation has also now become one of the MSC’s largest donors. This foundation was created by Wal-Mart’s founder and is governed by his descendants. The combination of these financial facts has led many to believe that the MSC has both compromised on sustainability standards, and caters more to the interests of the industry, rather than looking out for the environment
Critics say that the day Wal-Mart embraced sustainable seafood, it was a blessing for the MSC system — and a curse. The critics charge that the MSC system has compromised its standards to keep up with the booming demand from Wal-Mart and other chains that followed suit. Fuller, of the Ecology Action Centre, says she has watched the MSC system “struggling with meeting the demands of the system that they helped create … They have ended up having to lower the bar.”
When ocean specialist Daniel Pauly, a fisheries professor at the University of British Columbia, talks about the MSC today, he sounds dispirited. Pauly took part in early meetings in London that helped create the MSC and now says he has lost faith in the system. “The MSC is doing the business of the business community,” Pauly says, not the environment.
DNA testing has proved that MSC certified seafood is kept separate from uncertified options all along the supply chain, so if you receive something with the label you’re likely to be getting something that has truly been audited and is what it says it is. However, a major criticism of the MSC labelling system comes from environmentalists who say that the label is misleading in suggesting that seafood with the blue MSC label is currently well managed and sustainable, which may not actually be the case.
If the label were accurate, Fuller says, it would include what she says is troubling fine print: The MSC system has certified most fisheries with “conditions.” Those conditions spell out that the fishermen will have to change the way they operate or study how their methods are affecting the environment — or both. But they have years to comply with those conditions after the fisheries have already been certified sustainable.
In fact, people have been asking for the label to be changed for at least 15 years. In 2004 more than two dozen representatives drafted a list of reforms for the MSC in order to establish credibility, including removing the word sustainable from its claim and replacing it with positive but vaguer terms such as ‘well managed’. Environmentalists and scientists agree that the MSC has made progress, but is also misleading consumers into thinking that their individual choices are having more of an impact, and are more sustainable, than they actually are, a situation made even more problematic by the fact that MSC labelled seafood is often more expensive.
Take a look at scallops from eastern Canada, which were certified by the MSC system in 2010 — with conditions. The labels don’t tell consumers that the fishing industry harvests most of those scallops by dredging, a method of dragging giant rakes across the ocean floor.
Some environmental groups argue that the MSC should flatly refuse to label any seafood sustainable if it is harvested with dredges. Studies show that using dredges can cause drastic changes in the ocean, disrupting the balance of species in the water and transforming the ocean floor.
MSC executives counter that some boats can dredge carefully, without causing serious damage. So they agreed to label Canadian scallops sustainable with conditions. The fishing companies will have to study how their use of dredges off Canada’s coast impacts the environment.
Fuller says that’s backward — like telling a child, “You’ve been really bad, but I’ll give you a lollipop, and then I want you to show me how much better you can be,” she says. “It just doesn’t work, right? You’ve already got the lollipop.”
Over the years there have also been multiple instances of other fisheries receiving MSC labelling and meeting backlash from environmentalists. Some examples include the Ross Sea Antarctic toothfish fishery, as the species is so little understood that researchers don’t even know the basics such as where the fish spawns, krill in the Antarctic, tuna and swordfish off the US coast, pollock in the Eastern Bering Sea (where stock levels fell 64% between 2004 and 2009), Pacific hake (which suffered an 89% fall in biomass since 1989) and the Western and Central Pacific fishery, who provide around 50% of the world’s skipjack tuna and have been found to use unsustainable methods to catch uncertified fish.
A notable example to me is the case of Canadian Swordfish. On average swordfishermen catch five blue sharks for every swordfish, which have been identified by the Canadian government as threatened, endangered and of special concern. While swordfishermen generally release the sharks, there have been studies on what happens after they are set free. These studies found that up to 35% of sharks caught by swordfish boats die straight away or within days of being set free. They estimate that for every swordfish caught two sharks are killed. Despite this seemingly violating the second rule of MSC principles (that practices don’t harm other life in the ecosystem) these fisheries were certified MSC sustainable in 2012. People buying MSC certified swordfish from Wholefoods may think their dinner is responsibly sourced, when in reality it may have led to the deaths of endangered sharks.
The idea is spreading fast throughout the food industry. Megachains like Target, Costco and Kroger are selling seafood with the MSC label. McDonald’s says you are munching on “certified sustainable” wild Alaskan pollock every time you eat a Filet-O-Fish sandwich. The fast-food company has used MSC-certified fish since 2007 in the U.S., and as of February, they are putting the MSC logo on their fish sandwich boxes.
Something that stands out to me is how many huge chains the MSC has worked with. In fact, it’s what drew me to ask these questions in the first place. In my mind, it’s almost impossible to achieve true sustainability at a scale this large. This has led to the argument that the MSC deems some fisheries as sustainable when they aren’t in order to meet the demands of corporations like Wal-Mart (who, let’s not forget, provide a lot of their income), in response the MSC has argued that to create change you have to engage with the large corporations in order to drive industry shifts. This is true, at least to some extent, as we can see by the increased awareness and uptake of the MSC label after Wal-Mart pledged to source sustainably in 2006.
The MSC also argue that it’s impossible for them to incorrectly deem something sustainable when they use science and data to evaluate scores, however I do think that data and science can be inherently biased and influenced by outside factors, so I’m not sure this is enough of an argument. The question remains: how sustainable can something ever be when the demand is this huge and multinational? For me, I am wary to trust anything implemented on such a massive scale over small-scale, localised businesses. That doesn’t mean the MSC is inherently unsustainable, but I do think there are other approaches that may be more effective.
In my research one thing that I couldn’t seem to find much information on was the MSC’s approach to waste. As I have discussed before, most of the plastic waste we have in our oceans comes from the commercial fishing industry. According to Bloomberg and scientists from Ocean Cleanup 46% of ocean plastic waste comes from fishing nets cut loose, and other fishing equipment makes up a lot of the rest. Countries belonging to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation have already agreed on guidelines for how to change this, which involves marking gear so that those responsible for anything abandoned at sea are held accountable. I searched online, but couldn’t see any specific mention of responsible waste and plastic management mentioned as part of the MSC’s guidelines or sustainability criteria, which seems like a large oversight to me.
So what can we do?
Many of my readers are vegetarian or vegan already, so this topic doesn’t really apply to them. However if you are someone who eats fish, there are still some ways you can consume a little more sustainably:
- The Marine Conservation Society (or MCS, which is very close abbreviation wise to MSC, but is not the same) has a Good Fish Guide that rates seafood from green to red in terms of sustainability. It goes into a lot of detail as to why it has rated fish in certain ways and is a really informative and transparent resource.
- Buy from community-supported fisheries (CSFs), where local fishermen sell their catch to individual consumers (it’s the equivalent of the urban farm share). Because the fishing is on a much smaller scale they’re likely to use low-impact catch methods that lessen harm other ecosystems. You can visit localcatch.org to find a CSF near you (currently only available in the USA).
- If you don’t have access to something like a CSF, try and buy from a trusted fishmonger or business with a higher standard for seafood. Try shopping with local businesses or eating at local restaurants when sourcing your fish, as it’s likely to be better quality and more sustainably sourced.
- In terms of catching methods, the Seafood Watch app is also dedicated to spreading more information in this area. In general, more people are willing to buy line-caught fish because of its sustainability credentials, however there is still differentiation within this label. Long line fishing creates a lot more bycatch than pole and line fishing so, if you can, opt for the latter.
- You also want to ensure that your fish doesn’t contain too much mercury, which can be harmful to your health. Typically, bigger fish contain higher levels of mercury because they feed on smaller fish, you can find a guide to mercury levels in different species here.
Ultimately, the easiest way to create a more sustainable fishing industry is simply to consume less. The problems of overfishing and subsequent issues with elements of MSC labels are all caused by too much demand and not enough supply. So, if you can, try cutting back on the fish you do eat, and sourcing responsibly when you need to, instead of making it a go-to food that you eat on a very regular basis.