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It’s an MSC World (For Better or for Worse)

September 28, 2011

MSC Label

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) continues with its mission to stamp its label on fisheries with top-notch management practices that ensure sustainability.  In fact, it’s now moving at breakneck speed, with enough assessments underway to double its certified fisheries.  That’s a good thing right?  Well, not so fast.

The trouble is, there is growing concern that the MSC has been corrupted.  As the “How Sustainable…” blog points out, there are some issues with transparency and the MSC label has been conferred on some fisheries that fail to pass muster.   And last year, Jennifer Jacquet and some renowned marine scientists – Daniel Pauly, Sidney Holt, among others – called out the MSC for failing in its mission.  They noted that a number of MSC certified fisheries have seen their biomass plummet after assessment.  So what’s the problem?  They explained that a mix of financial incentives and opportunity for loose interpretation have set the MSC up for failure:

In our view, the certification system creates a potential financial conflict of interest, because certifiers that leniently interpret existing criteria might expect to receive more work and profit from ongoing annual audits…

Part of the reason for this [decline in stock statuses] may lie in what we see as loose wording in the MSC criteria. The organization states: “for those populations that are depleted, the fishery must be conducted in a manner that demonstrably leads to their recovery.” We believe that this needs to change to prevent the potential for overly generous interpretations of a fishery’s future sustainability. Certification should not be granted until a fishery is shown to be actually sustainable.

So how did MSC and industry respond?  Moody Marine (an assessor for the MSC), Ray Hilborn, and others all followed up saying that the MSC was doing it’s job.   Interestingly, many of the defenders explained that the rules of the MSC have been followed and that MSC offers great potential, while the critique centered on the insufficiency of the rules.   In other words, I was not convinced by the rebuttals.

I am left wondering if the MSC’s problems are specific to only a few fisheries or are systemic in nature, and I don’t think there’s been a good enough analysis to answer this question.  It may also be that MSC is cleaning up its act.  I was encouraged to see that Dr. David Agnew was hired as the new MSC Standards Director in May, and so far he seems to take seriously allegations of supply chain mis-management.

While I and many others in the conservation community are left wondering about the MSC, the show goes on, bigger and bolder than ever before.  The MSC has certified 131 fisheries that produce around 10% of the world catch, and they have another 131 fisheries undergoing assessment.  And the demand for MSC products is soaring.  For example, McDonald’s has using only MSC certified fish in the UK.  And the word is getting out that the label means higher profits.  A study last year – the first of its kind – found that the MSC label confers a 14% price premium on products in the UK.

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