Does MSC certification protect the marine environment?

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

MSC certification requirements under fire ©iStock
MSC certification requirements under fire ©iStock
A group of sixty-six stakeholders have criticised the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) for its “failure” to improve “environmental and ecological impacts” standards.

In a joint letter to MSC chair Werner Kiene, conservation groups and academics condemned the MSC for awarding an increasing number of certifications to fisheries that catch “thousands of vulnerable and endangered animals”​ and cause “irreversible harm” ​to ocean habitats.

Non-target species overlooked

A key issue raised by the letter is that the MSC does not pay enough attention to the protection of species that are not being specifically targeted by fisheries.

“The cumulative impacts of fisheries on all species caught, including non-target or bycatch species, must be assessed,”​ said Dr. Cat Dorey, a fisheries specialist at non-profit organisation Heavens Beneath. “If fisheries interfere with the recovery of endangered species, they should not qualify for sustainable certification, regardless of whether that species is the target for the fishery. We think most consumers would agree.”

Too often, the MSC assessment and audit process ignores the impact of a fishery on vulnerable species, accepting “minor”​ changes to mitigate harm, the critics suggested.

“Lobster and trap fisheries, which overlap with the range of North Atlantic right whales, have been responsible for a number of deaths of these critically endangered animals,”​ said Kate O’Connell, marine wildlife consultant for the Animal Welfare Institute. “Yet these fisheries remain MSC certified, a clear sign that the standards as currently written are failing.”

The letter calls on the MSC to forego assessment of fisheries involved in the “deliberate”​ setting of nets on marine mammals; adhere to a “find naturally attached”​ policy for fisheries that interact with sharks; and deny certification to bottom fisheries within valuable marine ecosystems.

Undermining credibility?

The signatories argue that insufficient standards serve to undermine the MSC’s credibility and mislead consumers, who are willing to pay a premium for sustainable fish.

“None of the issues we’ve raised are new, nor is the MSC unaware of our concerns. What is new is the urgency we feel, given the Council’s stated goal of certifying 20% of global fisheries by 2020,”​ said Dr. Iris Ziegler of Sharkproject. “Without swift changes to its standards and processes, the MSC runs the risk of being identified as contributing to the problem of unsustainable fishing and misleading consumers, rather than being a solution and a truly sustainable choice.”

Other signatories include Greenpeace, the Fair Fish International Association, the Shark Research Institute and the Living Oceans Society.

MSC by the numbers

The MSC programme has 296 certifed fisheries, 17 suspended fisheries and 67 fisheries in assessment as of 31 December 2016.

"Hundreds of fisheries are not yet ready for assessment and are engaged in pre-assessment activities,​" the MSC said in its 2017 Global Impact report.

MSC ‘strengthening model’

The MSC insisted that it is already taking action, with new initiatives to “strengthen”​ the organisation’s assurance model and initiate a process for review of its fisheries standard.

A spokesperson for the certification body explained that the MSC’s board held its twice-yearly meeting last week, when plans to review its fish standards were agreed.

“This review takes place every five years under the best practice guidelines from the UN FAO and ISEAL Alliance,”​ the spokesperson noted. “As you can imagine, with five years of advances in fisheries science, not to mention the issues involved, there’s a lot in here… I think it shows the direction MSC is already taking, using the broad stakeholder engagement model that has catalysed change in fisheries around the world for the past two decades.”

Announcing the review this week, the MSC insisted it is a “listening organisation”​ that “works hard”​ to meet “evolving expectations of sustainability”​ while also maintaining a programme that is “practical, accessible and science-based”.

Next steps

The MCS said it is committed to examining “real or perceived”​ issues in its assurance system.

In order to achieve this, the MSC will launch a roundtable dialogue in the first half of 2018 to review the assurance system. “The initiative aims to improve understanding of the measures certification bodies currently have in place to ensure impartiality and robust fishery assessments, find where improvements can be made, and explore alternative assurance models,”​ the group said.

The MSC has also commissioned an analysis of progress being made by fisheries on conditions of certification, requiring the implementation of time bound improvements. The analysis will be carried out by Accreditation Services International.

Additionally, the group is bulking up its peer review process, with the establishment of a Peer Review College in 2017.

Part of the fisheries review will also focus on impact assessments for endangered species. “The MSC recognizes the importance of providing robust protection for these species, and the need to address the cumulative impacts of a fishery on them,”​ the MSC said.

Changing certification standards

The MSC also detailed a number of “key changes”​ it will make to its certification requirements.

Specifically, the sustainability body said it is extending existing provisions to address forced labour in the seafood supply chain. Currently, fishing and supply chain companies and their subcontractors that have been successfully prosecuted for forced labour violations in the past two years are not eligible to participate in the MSC program. The MSC proposes to extend this provision to require that high risk supply chain companies pass an audit against the forced and child labour provisions.

In August this year, the MSC also plans to tighten its regulation of fishing practices. Currently, vessels are allowed to catch fish from the same stock using both certified and uncertified fishing gear or catch methods on a single trip. Under new requirements, certified seafood will only enter MSC certified supply chains if it comes from fishing trips on which all activities on the target stock are certified.

Another change to come into force in August will see the MSC release a “streamlined”​ assessment process. “This new process aims to frontload stakeholder input into a fisheries assessment, increase the amount of meaningful input periods for stakeholders, and help to focus the third-party assessment team at site visits on the right questions, leading to more robust assessment reports.”

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