By Mike Urch, SeafoodSource contributing editor
Published on 25 November, 2012
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) sets a standard for sustainable fishing that is known throughout the world and to date has certified 184 fisheries as being responsibly managed. Its blue eco-label, which appears on more than 15,000 products, is generally recognized by retailers as providing the best evidence that this seafood comes from a sustainable source.
However, there is now evidence that standards for some fisheries are being allowed to slip in order to swell the MSC’s coffers. Much of its income derives from logo license fees which are payable as a percentage of the value of the final product on supermarket shelves. Therefore it is in the MSC’s interest that more and more seafood products are so labeled.
Assessments of fisheries are carried out by teams of experts employed by independently accredited companies. An assessment against the MSC standard is a relatively lengthy and complex process where the fishery is evaluated for the management of the target stock, wider environmental impacts and the robustness of the management system.
Recently, however, several of these experts are privately expressing their concern that the MSC is allowing its standard to be diluted in order to bring lucrative tuna fisheries into its fold.
Concerns focus particularly on the element of the standard which requires that a system be in place to control catches in relation to the status of the stock. This type of system is generally referred to as ‘harvest control rules’. Basically, if scientists report that a species population has declined below a given level, the rules set out in advance how catches will be reduced so that the population can recover.
However, some Indian and Pacific Ocean tuna fisheries have been accepted as sustainable by the MSC simply on the basis that scientific evaluation of the stock by the relevant regional fisheries management organization (RFMO) suggests that its status is good without any formal certification having been carried out.
Some RMFOs, such as the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, can’t be relied upon to provide sound scientific advice since they have to get the many member countries involved to agree and this rarely happens.
For example, putting a harvest control rules system in place can take many months or even years of difficult negotiations, particularly when the stock is shared between many countries and fishing fleets, as it is with tuna in the Indian Ocean. So waiting until a stock is already declining before it is eventually decided to institute such a system can mean that agreement on management actions is taken too late for the stock to recover.
“If they [the RFMO] wait to decide what to do until the stock is in decline, it will be in worse decline by the time they’ve agreed,” an independent assessor told SeafoodSource. “What needs to happen is that a decision on what to do if the stock goes into decline needs to be taken in advance — while the stock status is good.”
Ironically the WWF, which was instrumental in setting up the MSC along with Unilever in 1997, has raised numerous objections to this apparent change to the MSC standard. So far the MSC has not commented, beyond saying that it is preparing a full review of the whole part of the standard relating to the stock status in due course. It is not clear, however, when this review will be concluded.
Meanwhile, the independent assessment companies are asking whether all fisheries are really equal under the MSC standard, or whether some of the “big boys” may be getting preferential treatment.
It is very hard to escape the conclusion that some, almost non commercial, fisheries undergo painstakingly thorough assessments, whereas the MSC wants others such as tuna go through on the nod so that it can start collecting the cash. Surely an organization which claims “to promote the best environmental choice in seafood,” should treat all fisheries equally?