The ripples of the recent change in philosophy about the use of the MSC to certify wild stocks in Alaska will be felt for some time. Several very large and important players have decided that the costs of MSC certification are not consistent with their business models and that the funds should be spent elsewhere. I say good for them!
In fact, I do not think that much of what is being called certification nowadays is necessarily justified. It has been my experience that very few buyers and even fewer of the public actually even know what certification means, what it encompasses and what the differences are between them. These are essentially business-to-business schemes for legitimizing a set series of fishing (or in the case of aquaculture production) standards that audits confirm are being conformed to, in the case of aquaculture, at the time of the audit. Calling them eco-labels is in some cases a gimmick.
In the case of the MSC standards, if my understanding is correct, generally accepted fishery ecology principles are being used to confirm that the particular company or their suppliers are not engaged in over fishing and that the resource is being effectively utilized. Many large progressive companies intuitively recognize the need to ensure that they are not engaging in practices that will deplete resources that are fundamental to their long-term profitability and police themselves. Often the fisheries are already regulated by government agencies. Very few consumers understand what is involved and I have seen little science-based data to support the notion that complying with third party standards is the only or best way to ensure sustainability.
For the aquaculture perspective, industry insiders derived the first certification schemes. Audits that are announced and are by their very nature limited in scope to a strict, apparently relative, interpretation of the standards do not ensure anything more than that companies appear to be in compliance at the time of the audit. It is deplorable that organizations that purport to be protecting consumers may not in reality be doing so.
Not all certification schemes are the same and as we “progress” and more players enter into the fray, standards evolve. Does this mean that the consumer is really gaining a benefit from this? I think that the answer to this is that it is for the most part questionable. I believe that those countries that wish to generate significant foreign currency reserves from the sale of fishery or aquaculture generated food have a vested interest in ensuring that the practices are as close to sustainable as the practices can be. Some clearly are not capable of doing this and must rely on help while others have done great jobs that can readily be modeled by those that are having problems. History has shown that even the best-intentioned management of a fishery is prone to error and that aquaculture practices that are deemed sustainable by one group may not always be universally agreed upon.
Several blogs ago I mentioned that I was soured on a particular country in Asia where I was asked to conduct a pre-certification audit of a farm and found that the processing plant was actually using fish from non-approved sources to ensure that they met their quota of legally allowed exports. The country was China and the company was forging documents that made it appear that all of the fish they were selling were from approved sources. As far as I am aware this company was never caught and I doubt that they are the only one.
While I am not willing to go so far as to state that any and all certification or eco-label schemes are useless, I am convinced that some actually do little to protect the consumer and that companies that are serious about this would be much better off policing their suppliers regularly by appearing unannounced than relying on third party certification schemes. The truth is that science and sustainable practices are not always consistent. Protecting the public from harm is one role of government and those who have the most to lose should be keeping up their end of the bargain by ensuring that what they sell is safe and sustainable not relying on rubber-stamping by for profit organizations. If the goal of certification is to protect public health as well as ensuring “true” sustainability then perhaps, rather than relegating this responsibility to a business that generates profits for a few, it makes much more sense to let governments with a stake do the auditing with the suppliers providing the backstop.