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Does Sustainable Seafood Deliver on its Promise?

April 24, 2012

There is a great article up in the Washington Post on seafood certification schemes. Not surprising given the author is Juliet Eilperin of Demon Fish fame.

Here are is a choice excerpt:

The most stringent and commonly used certification is that of the Marine Stewardship Council, which has certified 148 wild-caught fisheries, or between 6 and 7 percent of the global supply. It uses independent reviewers to determine whether a fishery earns an MSC-certified label and can be classified as sustainable — meaning that the fish is relatively abundant, the fishery is well managed, and catching it does not harm other species or ocean habitats.

It is a measure of the attention focused on the world’s fish stocks that the council’s work has come under scrutiny.

A study published online last week in the journal Marine Policy showed that, for fish stocks where there was sufficient information, 31 percent of MSC-certified stocks were overfished and subject to continuing overfishing.

“Certifiers must sharpen their criteria and close any loopholes,” said Rainer Froese, a senior scientist at the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research and lead author of the study, who said consumers should still buy certified seafood. “Given that there are thousands of [fish] stocks, there needs to be some guidance on which ones you can eat and have a good conscience.”

MSC officials have questioned the Marine Policy analysis, saying it exaggerated the rate of overexploitation by not adequately accounting for year-to-year fluctuations in fish stocks. “The MSC standard is consistent with best practice and specifically excludes fisheries that are overfished,” David Agnew, the council’s director of standards, said in a statement.

I’d have to agree partly with Froese.  If a certification scheme isn’t perfect, we shouldn’t junk it, but improve it.  We shouldn’t go about tossing out the baby with the bath water.

As for the new study, which is fantastically available online?  It’s pretty solid, showing that 31% of MSC certified fisheries are overfished and subject to overfishing.  But rather than show me that the MSC needs higher standards, it ends up showing me that the MSC is the right model.  New information and fishery events can come up any time, so the system has to not just certify for biological results, but expected biological results through good management.

I saw this by digging into the story behind the data.

Digging into the Froese dataset, which he generously provides, I saw that this underpeforming “31%” of MSC-certified fisheries is really just 19 stocks.  This is a small number of fisheries. So, I wondered, what is the detailed story behind the numbers?  Would it explain why a stock is certified, overfished, and subject to overfishing?   At least in once case study, it really does.

I took the case of Rock Lobster off the coast of Western Australia from Cape Leeuwin to Shark Bay, the very first fishery to be certified by the MSC.  It was certified in 2000, recertified in 2006, and again recertified in 2012. Froese’ study suggests that it is a sore spot for the MSC, which really doesn’t seem to be the case (especially since new information reveals that the stock is now relatively secure).

First, I looked at the issue of overfishing.  The available information did not indicate that the stock was being overfished or subject to overfishing in 2000.  In 2006, this possibility came up with more information, but the validity of various assessments were questioned by the reviewers.  And since they saw that an effective harvest management plan was in place to respond to new information ,and a study was underway to update the status of the stock with better information, they recommended certification with a key condition: Resolve identified inconsistencies between time series of data and the various methods employed to assess the status of the stock. 

In 2009, an annual review showed a “major nonconformance” that must be addressed “immediately”.  Specifically: “the breeding stock may have declined to a point where it is impairing recruitment. The uncertainties regarding these factors represented a high risk to the fishery and to the continued MSC certification of the fishery.”  A follow up found that management had responded with measures that were adequate to maintain the breeding stock at or above target levels, but more conditions were set forth to account for continuing uncertainty.  In 2011, the annual review found most of the conditions had been met, but two related to stakeholder participation and improving research (i.e. not the immediate biological status or prospects) were not met and they were then marked for immediate attention.  If they weren’t met, the MSC certificate could possibly be revoked. Again, these conditions were met.

And then?  Well, the 2012 recertification found there is a “high degree of certainty that the stock is above the point where recruitment would be impaired.”  And once again, conditions were set, but this time very clearly because the rising standards of the MSC.

Second, I looked at the MSC’s resolve in requiring conditions for improvement to be met. Both the first and second assessments and their associated surveillance reports put forward conditions and the MSC appeared to push fairly hard to get them met.  The first assessment in 2000 set a condition for an Ecological Risk Assessment to be conducted within 14 months.  That never happened and in fact the MSC had to threaten revocation of the certification by 2005.  Eventually, a study was underway by the time of the re-certification assessment, and so the re-certification was approved.  It does seems weak that the original condition went unmet for so long and then re-certification was allowed before a 2000 requirement for continued certification still wasn’t met, but on the flip side, it was clear that the condition was going to be met at the time of re-assessment and other good management measures were in place.  With the MSC not having the force of law, I think this is a reasonable, flexible approach.  Follow up reviews show the ERA was completed, revealed more meaningful problems with the stock, and led to yet more management requirements (as discussed above).

So what do I think of the MSC?  At least by this case study, the MSC showed itself to be rigorous, scientific, and highly flexible to changes in the fishery.

You can read more on the Rock Lobster fishery here.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Mark permalink
    April 25, 2012 5:16 pm

    I think more disturbing is MSC’s response that the Froese and Proelss study is “irrelevant” because the authors take issue with the standard definitions for “overfishing” and “overfished” and propose and use in their study different definitions than those used by MSC. A better defense would be an analysis as you have done (if indeed, there were similar back stories for most or all ) of the other 18 fisheries. I think MSC’s response is intellecually weak.

    • Mark permalink
      April 25, 2012 5:17 pm

      Actually I meant to leave this comment to the newer blog post — sorry.

    • April 25, 2012 6:14 pm

      Yeah, I agree. ‘Irrelevant’ is not at all the word that should be used. I’m surprised the MSC hasn’t put together case studies showing under what circumstances overfishing has occurred and what was done ab it.

      I wish I had more time to look into all these fisheries. It’s fascinating stuff!

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