Can Fish Eco-Labeling be Trusted?

Programs that provide sustainable certification for fisheries may be too generous with their accreditation.

By Jef Akst and Edyta Zielinska | May 14, 2012

Em-jay-es" > Wikimedia commons, Em-jay-es


A new report published online last week criticized two major fisheries certification programs, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the Friend of the Sea (FOS), for certifying stocks of fish that may not be sustainable.

Fisheries biologist Rainer Froese of the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Germany and Alexander Proelss of the University of Trier came to their conclusion after examining 71 MSC-certified stocks and 76 FOS-certified stocks of mackerel, swordfish, tuna, and other species. In total, 31 percent of the supposedly sustainable MSC stocks and 19 percent of FOS stocks are not worthy of the label.

“We’re putting [the certification programs] under a lot of pressure and we hope that will work,” Froese told Nature. “I want to improve them, not to kill them.”

FOS responded by saying that the discrepancy was mostly due to the fact that their organization relied on 5-year old data, rather than the newer analyses Froese’s group had done. MSC, on the other hand disputed the investigators’ methodology, saying that the group was changing the definition used for “overfishing.”

This is not the first time someone has raised concerns about the legitimacy of the sustainable labels on seafood. Two years ago, conservation scientist Jennifer Jacquet of the University of British Columbia and colleagues published an opinion in Nature arguing that the MSC was failing to protect the environment and [needed] radical reform.

The analysis by Froese and Proelss “represents not only growing concern among scientists about the effectiveness of seafood eco-labeling in general and the MSC label specifically, but an increasing willingness for scientists to take on rigorous research in response to that skepticism—research that the MSC should probably be doing itself,” Jacquet told Nature. “The results were pretty depressing, even for someone who was already dubious of the MSC.”

As a result of the study, both groups removed or suspended certification for three stocks.

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Avatar of: MSCamericas


Posts: 1

May 14, 2012

MSC certified fisheries are well-managed and sustainable
MSC refutes ‘overfishing’ claims made in Evaluation and Legal Assessment of Certified Seafood
Fisheries that are certified to the MSC environmental standard for fisheries manage target stocks in a way that ensures their ongoing productivity. Stocks in MSC certified fisheries are not overfished; and a fishery must be able to demonstrate this in the rigorous, independent, scientific, peer-reviewed process required to achieve MSC certification.  Certified fisheries that do not meet this globally accepted definition either have their certificate suspended, or withdrawn entirely. 
The definitions of ‘overfished’ and ‘overfishing’ used in the MSC Certification Requirements conforms to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Code of Conduct for Responsible fisheries and Guidelines for the Eco-labelling of Fish and Fishery Products from Marine Capture Fisheries. Under these definitions, a stock should be maintained at a level corresponding to maximum productivity and above a safe biological level.  Stocks are overfished if they are below this safe biological level. The MSC standard also reflects international scientific agreement on what constitutes an overfished stock, which in turn is used in most international and national regulations.  
David Agnew, MSC director of standards, said: “The MSC standard is consistent with best practice and specifically excludes fisheries that are overfished.   MSC certified fisheries are maintained at high levels of productivity. Froese and Proeslss’ assertion that many MSC stocks are overfished is false.â€쳌
In their paper, authors Rainer Froese and Alexander Proelss, use definitions for the term ‘overfished’ that are not accepted in scientific circles, by fisheries management authorities, or by international organisations such as the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) or the FAO. Christopher Zimmermann, Deputy Director of the Thünen Institute of Baltic Sea Fisheries and Chair of MSC’s Technical Advisory Board, comments: “The MSC uses internationally verified and recognised definitions. The definition of ‘overfishing’ used by Froese and Proelss is not globally accepted. The results of the study are therefore irrelevant.â€쳌
Higher stock levels in MSC certified fisheries
All fisheries certified to the MSC standard must have a target stock level that allows the fish population to reproduce at a rate that will maintain the stock indefinitely into the future.  That target level must be maintained as a management objective, and the fishery must adjust its catch levels accordingly.
The MSC standard allows fisheries targeting stocks that have a biomass currently below a level that maximises productivity, provided two conditions are met:
1)      Stock levels are still above a point that allows sufficient spawning and reproduction to sustain the stock into the future i.e above a safe biological level and above the accepted definition of overfished; and
2)      the fishery has an effective rebuilding plan in place, that will bring stock levels back to a higher level, corresponding to maximum productivity level.
An independent study by MRAG Ltd, published in 2011, on the environmental impacts of MSC certification, shows that many fisheries improve their performance prior to certification as well as after certification - for example through increased stock sizes or reducing unintended bycatch.[2] These results add to the growing body of evidence that documents the role of the MSC programme as an effective mechanism for a sustainable improvement of the worldwide fishing sector. 
1.       The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an international non-profit organisation set up to help transform the seafood market to a sustainable basis. The MSC runs the only certification and ecolabelling programme for wild-capture fisheries consistent with the ISEAL Code of Good Practice for Setting Social and Environmental Standards and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation Guidelines for the Eco-labelling of Fish and Fishery Products from Marine Capture Fisheries.  These guidelines are based upon the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing and require that credible fishery certification and eco-labelling schemes include:
·         Objective, third-party fishery assessment utilising scientific evidence;
·         Transparent processes with built-in stakeholder consultation and objection procedures;
·         Standards based on the sustainability of target species, ecosystems and management practices.
The MSC has offices in London, Seattle, Tokyo, Sydney, The Hague, Glasgow, Berlin, Cape Town, Paris, Madrid and Stockholm.
In total, over 274 fisheries are engaged in the MSC programme with 148 certified and  over 120 under full assessment.  Another 40 to 50 fisheries are in confidential pre-assessment. Together, fisheries already certified or in full assessment record annual catches of close to nine million metric tonnes of seafood.  This represents over 10 per cent of the annual global harvest of wild capture fisheries. Certified fisheries currently land over five million metric tonnes of seafood annually – close to six per cent of the total harvest from wild capture fisheries.  Worldwide, more than 14,500 seafood products, which can be traced back to the certified sustainable fisheries, bear the blue MSC ecolabel.
2.       The MSC commissioned the first study to examine performance of fisheries participating in the the MSC certification programme throughout the entire assessment process: Researching the Environmental Impacts of the MSC Certification Programme. The research, carried out by expert marine science consultancies MRAG Ltd, Poseidon Ltd and Meridian Prime Ltd is based on eight key outcome performance indicators that the MSC assessment process regularly measures and monitors: stock status, population reference points, stock recovery, retained species, bycatch species, endangered, threatened and protected (ETP) species, habitats and ecosystems. An associated paper was published online in the peer reviewed journal, Reviews in Fisheries Science in February 2011.

Avatar of: Teri Shore

Teri Shore

Posts: 1457

May 15, 2012

The MSC has gotten way off track, certifying any fishery that buys and pays for it. The worst examples are the two longline fisheries for Atlantic swordfish in Florida and Canada that have been given an eco-label even though the fisheries capture and kill significant numbers of endangered leatherback sea turtles and declining loggerheads. Not to mention the shark, bluefin tuna and other bycatch. And yet Whole Foods is beating down the doors to get this fish; and Seafood Watch of Monterey Bay Aquarium says that this turtle-deadly swordfish is a "good alternative." You can argue all you want about scoring and definitions and people's "need" to eat more fish, but the bottom line remains that longlining for swordfish is not sustainable. 

Avatar of: Gary Williams

Gary Williams

Posts: 1457

May 18, 2012

If their definitions and/or methodology are so "irrelevant", why then did MSC  remove or suspend their prior "certification" for 3 fish stocks?
Y'know.... Using quotes and data compiled by orgs. that exist simply to serve the interests of the world's fisheries demonstrates, for those of us watching at least, that given your gut instinct was to assume a position of intransigence and denial, few reactions on your part could better demonstrate for all concerned that concern is first and foremost simply to keep the world's fisheries fishing rather than accepting the science on its own grounds and responding accordingly and appropriately.

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