The MSC Label

Logo: MSC 

Last updated: April 2017



The MSC label: Conservation or ‘Bluewashing’?


Should we trust the MSC label as a certification scheme for seafood?


What is the MSC?

The London-based Marine Stewardship Council is known to consumers through its blue logo found on the packaging of wild-caught seafood products labelling them as ‘sustainable’.

The MSC is an international, not-for-profit organisation that was created by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Unilever in 1997 as a sustainability standard and ecolabel.



Its blue logo is intended to influence consumer choice and shift aggregate consumer demand away from unsustainable sources of seafood towards more sustainable ones. The logo was designed to communicate to consumers the three main principles of the MSC:

  • That the target seafood populations are healthy
  • That fishing happens in a way that does not impact on the environment unnecessarily
  • That the fishery involved is managed effectively and responsibly


Since its inception, it has had a meteoric rise, according to the Ethical Markets Report 2016 published by Ethical Consumer. In 2003, MSC-certified fish sales were valued at £10 million while, in 2015, that figure had grown to over £1.5 billion. In 2015, 76% of wild-caught seafood sold in Sainsbury’s supermarkets, 53% in Lidl and 51% in Waitrose carried the MSC logo, according to the same report.



The controversy around MSC

In recent years, the MSC has come under severe criticism from a range of environmental groups and marine scientists.

In 2013, scientists based in US, Mexican and Dutch research institutions, and environmental groups including Greenpeace USA published a review of all the formal objections raised against fisheries proposed for MSC certification between 2000 and 2012. The authors concluded that:

“An analysis of the formal objections indicates that the MSC’s principles for sustainable fishing are too lenient and discretionary, and allow for overly generous interpretation by third-party certifiers and adjudicators, which means that the MSC label may be misleading both consumers and conservation funders”.

Of a total of 19 formal objections raised to proposals for certification, only one was ever upheld. Objections accounted for 12% of the number of fisheries certified. However, the size of these fisheries was large and they accounted for more than a third of all MSC-certified seafood by tonnage.  


Image: MSC label


James Simpson from the MSC argues that the results of the objection process are more nuanced:

“This analysis argues that the only outcome from an objection that is considered ‘successful’ is for the fishery to fail its MSC assessment. In fact, quite a lot of objections have been upheld and resulted in additional measures to protect stocks and the environment. In many cases, NGOs such as WWF have used the objections process to convince fisheries to agree to new measures to protect the environment. These have been hugely successful.” 

He added that a more recent analysis in 2016 provided information on 31 objections, two of which led to a fishery failure and 16 of which led to a change in scoring (which usually results in new conditions and, thus, further changes at sea). Therefore more than half of objections were successful in influencing certifications.



Six main criticisms


The MSC has been criticised on six main fronts:

1. The MSC will certify all fishing gears and methods including ocean floor dredging and gill nets which many environmental organisations regard as inherently unsustainable and destructive.

Contrary to that the MSC argues that “to be certified, stocks must be within safe biological limits. Stocks deplete and recover as part of their natural cycles, they are never static.  The key issue for sustainability is how that change is managed.  It is considerably easier to get a low-impact fishery MSC certified (eg  rope-grown mussels) than for a high-impact fishery to clear the MSC bar.”


Image: Dredging



“The only MSC certified sustainable dredge fishery in the UK is a dredged scallop fishery.  None of the others have met the MSC standard. Solid, peer- reviewed science like an MSC assessment is useful to highlight those exceptions and can provide a blueprint for other high-impact fisheries to improve their performance.”


2. The MSC criteria allegedly allow for depleted fisheries to be certified provided that the fishing operators commit to measures to rebuild the fisheries. Critics argue that stocks are certified as sustainable before there is evidence that the fish stocks are recovering. 

The MSC responds that “Many stocks rebuild before MSC assessment, and occasionally some rebuild as part of their certification, eg. New Zealand hoki and South Africa hake”.


3. The MSC standards allow certification of fisheries that have high levels of bycatch and do not use all proven mitigation methods. In January 2017, more than 40 environmental groups, in a public letter to the MSC, expressed the view that MSC-certified fisheries do not adequately protect non-target, non-commercial species such as sharks, dolphins, turtles, porpoises and whales from ending up as bycatch.


Image: Turtles and FADs


The authors of the letter wrote this with regards to the Atlantic Canadian Swordfish Longline fishery:

“At the time of certification, this fishery was acknowledged to kill 35,000 endangered, vulnerable and near-threatened sharks per year, as well as impacting 200-500 endangered sea turtles annually. Despite the knowledge that this fishery has a very high bycatch to target catch ratio, and that the quantity of bycaught species can even exceed that of the target species, MSC granted certification.”


4. Further, the authors of the same letter note that the MSC certification fails to reward and differentiate the fisheries with no bycatch. They offer the example of Canadian swordfish fished with harpoons, a method that produces no bycatch, which carries the same certification as the aforementioned long-line fishery. Consumers have no way of distinguishing on the basis of the ‘eco-label’ and the harpoon fishery derives no commercial advantage.


5.The MSC certifies fisheries that are destined for fishmeal which critics consider as an unsustainable and wasteful end-use of seafood.

James Simpson from the MSC counters that “many of these fisheries catch fish that humans are not prepared to eat. With the population set to reach between 9 and 11 billion people by 2050, fish farming is necessary and –  compared to land-based proteins – a low-impact protein.  The volume of seafood going to fishmeal has been static for a considerable amount of time (decades).  Certification of these fisheries is a key step to ensuring the practice is sustainable.”


6. The MSC process is said to favour large-scale industrial fisheries over more sustainable, small-scale ones.

The MSC, on the other hand, argues that “Small scale fisheries are not automatically more sustainable than large-scale.  While the individual small boats may have lower impact than their larger rivals, it is important to consider the cumulative impact of a large number of small boats operating in a small area of coastline.”

Additionally, the MSC emphasises that it is a not-for-profit, mission-driven organisation that invests its surplus back to conservation activities. It points out that its governance structure engages a diversity of stakeholders including NGOs, scientists, fishing companies, retailers, and processors.

It maintains that “fisheries that meet the MSC Standard have the independent science and peer-reviewed evidence-based reports to demonstrate their sustainability. Certified fisheries have invested heavily to become sustainable...”.

Finally, the MSC points out that its standards are performance based, i.e. certified fisheries must not only have the right processes and documents in place but they must also demonstrate proof of application through on-the-ground audits.


Lee Switzer of Fish 4 Ever had this to say about the MSC certification:


“We see the MSC certification as being an industrial approach. It is the industrial boats that have caused the damage, so of course it is good that they are sorting themselves out, but it is not the best version of sustainability. For us, the MSC’s standard or description of over-fishing is set quite low. … The fundamental problem with the MSC is that it is being promoted by its users as the last word in sustainability and because it has so much power behind it, that idea has taken root, drowning out and excluding a myriad number of better approaches and initiatives.”

See our full Q&A with Fish4Ever. 


How MSC’s critics explain these problems

Critics attribute the weakened certification standards to the funding structure of the MSC. The MSC charges a licensing fee on the wholesale value of the quantity of seafood that carries the MSC logo.

Over the years, the importance of this fee revenue has increased substantially going from 7% in 2006, to 49.4% in 2011 to 73% of total revenue in 2015/16.7 The rest of its revenue comes mainly from charitable donations.

The MSC does not conduct the fishery assessments or audits itself. These are carried out by third-party companies who are paid by the fishery operators who voluntarily apply for MSC certification.  

The fishery operators are free to choose the assessment company (certifier). Critics argue that certifiers have an incentive to inflate the performance scores of a fishery as successful certification guarantees income from the required annual audits and from the re-certification process which must occur after five years of initial certification.  Fisheries can also be expected to prefer those companies likely to produce a positive result both for the initial assessment and the subsequent audits.

However, James Simpson from the MSC points out that “10% of fisheries have failed the MSC assessment process”.

He goes on to say that “Independent assessments are intellectually, the most robust mechanism for auditing sustainability. This is the  mechanism used for ISO compliance, and all of the major certification schemes  including Fairtrade, Soil Association Organic and FSC.”  

The performance of independent certifiers has nevertheless been a source of concern for campaigners across these other schemes too and remains a genuine problem in the field.

Critics also claim that raising a formal objection to a certifier’s proposal for certification carries a financial cost to the objector and can only happen within a prescribed window of time. This means that small organisations may not be able to afford to bring an objection forward. And even if all or part of an objection is upheld, it is the certifying company that ultimately decides whether to recommend certification for the fishery.

According to the MSC, this is not the whole picture: “Under FAO rules, MSC is allowed to pay for small organisations to make objections and has done so in the past. However, most objections are made by large, well-funded NGOs and the FAO rules mean that they have to pay part of the cost. Given the choice, MSC would cover these costs for all objectors, but that is not the MSC’s  decision.” 



Is the MSC logo meaningless then?

The advocates of internationally agreed and enforced limitations on fishing volumes point out that the MSC reflects the inherent weaknesses of market-based systems. However, there is a pragmatic question as to what happens in the absence of such agreements between states.

The MSC system has strengths and weaknesses. These are summarised by the US Seafood Watch which offers information to consumers in the manner of the Marine Conservation Society in the UK.

When, in 2013, Seafood Watch assessed the MSC certification against its own Fisheries Criteria, it rated the MSC criteria as good at minimising impact on fish stocks, adequate at both minimising impact on habitat and resources and at promoting effective management of the fishery, but poor at minimising the impact of the fishery on other species (e.g. through large levels of bycatch).

The MSC offers a different picture. According to the MSC Global Impacts Report 2016, an analysis of MSC certified fish stocks in Northern Europe shows that they are now more abundant than prior to certification. Uncertified stocks show much greater variability, with average fishing remaining too high to ensure productive fish stocks.

On our scoretable on our product guide to Tinned Tuna, we have, for many years, awarded a mark for product sustainability to products that carry the MSC certification and we did so in this product guide as well.


Table: Tinned Tuna Scoretable


The MSC system, despite its weaknesses and contested effectiveness, is transparent. As well as the Global Impacts Reports, you can go onto the MSC website and read in detail the assessments for each of the individual certified fisheries.  But prepare for a long read as many assessments are more than 300 pages long before you even get to the peer review documents.

This transparency allows the debate on marine conservation to continue on an informed basis. This must be considered alongside the shadowy practices of large parts of the global supply chain of seafood.

And, according to the MSC, the bar is being ratcheted up rather than down:  

“This year, we introduced the latest upgrade to the MSC Standard. Five years of work with scientists and NGOs around the world that raises the bar even further, has now incorporated new tougher protections for the oceans and vulnerable habitats. The world’s top 10% of fisheries which are now certified are already working towards these new standards. And there’s maybe another 10% trying to join them.”

The controversies regarding all ethical certification schemes, such as the ones around the Forest Stewardship Council and Fairtrade, will be familiar to Ethical Consumer readers.  As they become more important, such schemes rightly become new sites for political debate and activism.

The emerging critiques of the MSC are just part of this process and are, inevitably, a key element in the new way politics must be done in unregulated globalised markets until such time as meaningful regulatory regimes can be agreed and enforced.




Product Guide


Ethical Shopping Guide to Tinned Tuna

Ethical and environmental ratings of 15 brands of Tinned Tuna. Best buy recommendations and we ask whether a truly sustainable tin of tuna exists. 

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