Marine Stewardship Council in Deep Water with Animal Rights Groups

marine stewardship council
iStock/Global_Pics

The Marine Stewardship Council is one of the oldest and most reputable sustainable fishery NGOs, but is it trustworthy? According to a group of 50 animal protection groups, maybe not. In a letter to the MSC on January 19, the groups expressed concerns over the Council’s certification of fisheries with high amounts of bycatch – a major sustainability faux pas.

Bycatch refers to fish or other marine species that are unintentionally caught while targeting other species. According to the letter, penned by Kate O’Connell of the Animal Welfare Institute and Friederike Kreme-Obrock of Sharkproject Germany, more than 650,000 marine mammals and millions of sharks die every year as bycatch.

The letter accused the Marine Stewardship Council of being subjective in its interpretation of evidence for bycatch, thus allowing certain fisheries wearing the MSC label to perpetrate this problem.

“It is our view that many of the fisheries that have been assessed via the MSC certification process have not been subject to an adequate review of information available on bycatch of non-target species,” reads the letter.

What’s the Trouble with the Marine Stewardship Council?

In 2013-2014, MSC launched a project devoted to bycatch management, with a regular review of “alternative mitigation measures to minimize mortalities of unwanted catch or of ETP species.” The requirements were revised at the end of 2014 and became effective for all certified fisheries in April 2015.

But according to experts, the issues continue and are linked to four major factors.

1. The organization got too big, too fast.

According to O’Connell, the bycatch issue is not linked to purposeful negligence on the part of the MSC, but is rather a case of an organization that grew too quickly to remain diligent.

“Obviously, the MSC started out with a very high-minded, positive aim,” she says. “They wanted to do something to combat unsustainable fisheries, and I think they’re almost a victim of their own success, because they’ve grown so rapidly.”

2. The MSC doesn’t always call in all the appropriate experts.

The complex process of checking each fishery is time-consuming and requires a myriad of experts who O’Connell says the MSC sometimes neglects to call in when appropriate.

A group of NGOs made the same accusation in December of last year after the MSC certified New Zealand orange roughy, noting that the MSC “ignores the scientific evidence [that] this fishery is at the extreme end of the spectrum of sustainability” and that this certification rendered the MSC a “sham.”

Pat Caleo, Asia Pacific director at the MSC, responded to these claims, noting that fishing operations were changing for the better and that “some fisheries with bad reputations are becoming sustainable.”

NGOs, however, worried that the MSC was being swayed, perhaps by its partnership with New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries, which “invested heavily” in rebuilding orange roughy stocks. Frédéric Le Manach, scientific director of the Bloom Association, a non-profit working to preserve the marine environment from fishing-related issues, said that the decision to certify the stock “reveals how biased and dysfunctional its evaluation system and its objection procedures are.”

3. Certified fisheries don’t have to do much to hold onto their certification.

Not only is the MSC certifying fisheries without enough evidence, but it is also letting certified fisheries float pretty easily.

O’Connell notes that once fisheries are certified with the MSC, they have to do something “particularly egregious” to lose the certification, meaning that once a fishery is certified, it’s pretty much in the clear. This leads to problems, both with fisheries that weren’t properly vetted at the outset and with fisheries that let their standards slip once they have the certification in hand.

4. They’re not looking at the whole picture.

Another major issue the letter cites is that the MSC is addressing each fishery on a case-by-case basis, something that O’Connell calls “a real oversight.”

Fisheries need to be examined with regard to how they fit into the overall ecosystem, she says, not just as individual entities.

“Fishery management is incredibly complex, and it’s not just numbers,” she explains. “There are also impacts of climate change, ocean acidification – and so I think there really needs to be a long, hard look at how the system is functioning and bring in additional experts.”

The Marine Stewardship Council told Undercurrent News that it was considering the contents of the letter carefully, and that its sustainable fishing standards included recent updates to “reduce the risk of cumulative negative impacts on bycatch species including endangered, threatened and protected (ETP) species, and to introduce processes to regularly review and improve their actions to reduce unwanted catches of ETP and species.”

What Can We Do?

If you care about bycatch and sustainability, there are several things that you can do.

Firstly, you can write to the Marine Stewardship Council and let them know that you’re aware of the problem and want changes to be made.

“I think that if more people engage directly with MSC and not just through organizations of which they might be members,” says O’Connell, “I think that will have an impact.”

Secondly, steer clear of the certified fisheries and fisheries recommended for certification that were cited in the letter, including:

  • Atlantic Canadian swordfish longline fisheries.
  • Antarctic krill fisheries (used for fish food, chum for sport fishing, krill oil, and in certain medications).
  • New Zealand orange roughy deep-sea bottom trawl fisheries.
  • Gulf of Maine lobster fisheries.
  • Spanish North and South Atlantic swordfish fisheries.
  • Northeastern Pacific Ocean purse seine yellowfin and skipjack tuna fisheries.

Lastly – and most important – do your research. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s list of eco-certifications it trusts is a good place to start, but buying local and staying regularly informed are also vital ways to keep abreast of what seafood is sustainable.

“Honestly, I think that any consumer of seafood nowadays needs to do a little bit of digging,” says O’Connell.

Related on Organic Authority
Get Ready to Fall in Love with Chef Rob Ruiz, The Master of Progressively Sustainable Seafood
Save Our Oceans: Avoid the Top 5 Most Unsustainable Seafood Choices
New Rules Crack Down on Illegal Fishing and Seafood Fraud

Emily Monaco
Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.