Why the Marine Stewardship Council needs an independent review

Amy Hammond and Professor Callum Roberts from the On The Hook campaign argue that loopholes and a lack of accountability put the credibility of the MSC accreditation mark at risk.

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is a UK-based charity which operates an eco-labelling scheme often described as the ‘gold standard’ for sustainable seafood. The MSC may be a more reliable indicator of sustainability than rival seafood accreditation schemes but scratch the surface and it is not clear that the MSC’s reputation stands up to scrutiny.

An ‘ecolabel’ which certifies, for example, dredge and trawl fisheries and fisheries where shark finning takes place – is that really what a sustainability-conscious consumer would expect?

As such, the MSC is facing increasing questioning, including during a recent inquiry by the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), as to why these practices are still permitted under its Standard.

It is unrealistic to expect every consumer to have a detailed understanding of the complexities of fisheries science, of different fishing methods or the current state of stocks around the world. However, a growing number of consumers do want to make more environmentally sustainable choices and the role of the MSC scheme must be to guide them.

The MSC therefore has to crack down on loopholes and be proactive in preventing poor certifications which threaten to undermine the whole scheme. It must ensure that retailers or consumers picking up products carrying the blue tick can be 100% sure that they are not unknowingly endorsing unsustainable practices.

Fishing activities exist on a spectrum of sustainability, influenced by various contextual factors, and it is not as simple as saying X is sustainable but Y is not. Therefore, ever since the MSC’s creation, there has been continual debate regarding the level at which the bar for sustainability is set.

The MSC Theory of Change,  a low bar?

The MSC’s model is based on a Theory of Change which holds that, as consumers select MSC-labelled fish, market demand for sustainable fish increases. Fisheries then look to improve their practices to put themselves forward for MSC assessment. Proponents argue that setting the bar too high makes the scheme inaccessible to fisheries genuinely looking to improve their sustainability standards. 

On the other hand, critics suggest the bar has been dropped unacceptably low in order to satisfy ever-growing market demand by getting more (generally large industrial) fisheries into the program. Meanwhile, the financial cost of assessments means certification remains broadly unattainable for some of the world’s most environmentally and socially sustainable small-scale and artisanal fisheries.

Concerns around lowering of the bar have resulted in several objections to recent fishery certifications and in published critiques of the MSC’s Standard and its application. In August 2017, the On the Hook campaign formed to press for action on one particular loophole that allows MSC-certified products to be caught by vessels also using unsustainable methods. 

Same ships different methods

Fisheries artificially ‘compartmentalised’ on the basis of fishing practice have been allowed to enter the sustainable bit of their operations into the assessment process, while continuing to fish using methods proscribed by the MSC.

Compartmentalisation means that these tuna fisheries can fish sustainable on free-swimming shoals and receive MSC certification for fish caught that way, but the same vessels and crews, often on the same trip, also fish unsustainably on Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) hauling up turtles, sharks and juvenile tuna alongside their target catch.

This issue mainly affects tuna purse seine fisheries, such as the one operated by the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, the world’s largest tuna fishery, which spans the waters of eight island nations in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean.

A false distinction

Treating sustainable and unsustainable practices as separate is a dishonest, artificial distinction. On the Hook urges that a vital reform required from the MSC is to require that all fisheries be assessed holistically, considering the impact of all fishing activities associated with the target stock.

In April 2018, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) launched a Sustainable Seas enquiry, one session of which discussed the MSC and criticisms raised by stakeholders, including On the Hook.

The Committee’s report urged the MSC to address criticisms through a ‘transparent and ideally independently evaluated’ review process. In light of the MSC’s non-committal response to this suggestion, On the Hook and another MSC reform campaign group Make Stewardship Count publicly called on the MSC to commission a truly independent review of its Standard, to be undertaken by a panel of experts on topics identified by all interested stakeholders.

Weak government response

So, where are we now? Unfortunately, the government’s response to the EAC report was weak, merely urging stakeholders to continue to engage with consultations. The MSC has not taken action beyond opening further consultations on issues that have long been identified and discussed, including on shark finning (the cutting off of shark fins) which has been banned by the MSC for 6 years yet continues in certified fisheries. On that issue in particular, now is the time for action, not further discussion.

The MSC label was established to be a tool for good in protecting fish stocks and marine ecosystems. Many MSC-certified fisheries do represent best practice, and broadly speaking, it is still advisable for consumers to buy MSC-labelled fish. However, there are certified fisheries that are a long way from sustainability where seriously harmful practices continue. 

These examples undermine consumer confidence in the label, and it is primarily the responsibility of the MSC to fix this so that a consumer does not have to be an expert themselves to make a sustainable choice.

A full independent review, clearly advertised to and accessible for the full range of stakeholders, represents the most efficient route for the MSC to understand and address sustainability concerns.

Professor Callum Roberts is a marine biologist in the Department of Environment and Geography, University of York and a member of the On the Hook campaign.

Amy Hammond is Head of Research at Seahorse Environmental Communications, which coordinates the On the Hook campaign.