New poll shows dent in consumer confidence in MSC

Results of a new poll commissioned by the Make Stewardship Count coalition, released at Seafood Expo Global in Brussels, Belgium, on 25 April, have given the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) cause for concern.

The MSC is already the subject of increasing scrutiny by marine conservation, species, and industry experts who are concerned about the credibility of seafood certifications in the marketplace, but this study shows that consumers are now expressing their own fears about the rigor of its standards, according to Make Stewardship Count, a coalition of more than 60 environmental organizations and individual advocates.

Carried out in April 2018 with a sample of 5,574 consumers in France, Germany, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, the poll showed that the MSC could face significant loss of confidence from seafood buyers due to the way in which the certification body is handling critical issues. 

The survey found that 78 percent of respondents would either stop buying MSC products or buy fewer products if they found that some MSC fisheries involve eco-unfriendly practices, as has been suggested by WWF and other organizations. Of particular concern to consumers were the bycatch of endangered and threatened species, the deliberate encirclement of dolphins, shark-finning, and habitat destruction.

A large majority – 80 percent – of respondents agreed that an MSC fishery should not be allowed to deliberately encircle dolphins or other marine species while fishing for tuna, and a similar number disagreed with the use of FADs that lead to shark kills, and bycatch of endangered or threatened species such as marine mammals, sharks, sea turtles, and sea birds. 

Shark-finning and the use of destructive fishing techniques scored even higher, with on average of 85 percent of interviewees across all countries stating that such practices should be banned.

Looking at the wider issue of certification, opinions varied slightly between countries, but an average of 76 percent of respondents believed that certification bodies that review whether a fishery deserves MSC certification cannot be truly independent if they are paid by that fishery. A similar percentage (77 percent) of consumers expected MSC-certified fisheries to independently verify and document all of their bycatch and to provide data to NGOs and scientists.

In response to criticism from WWF, MSC said in a prepared statement that it has “a long track record of catalysing measurable change on the water, with the support of the retailers, suppliers, processors, and fishers who have supported the MSC program for the past 20 years.”

Changes to its standards and processes cannot happen without giving all stakeholders an opportunity to engage, including the fisheries, participating governments and NGOs, the MSC said in its statement.

“[Changes] must be evaluated and widely consulted to ensure they are effective and will improve the MSC’s ability to catalyse positive change through the leadership of our partners,” MSC said. “MSC is committed to hearing the views of all stakeholder groups through the same rigorous processes that have helped to make the MSC program [a] world-leading standard.”

The MSC remains an independent and impartial entity that uses an objective, scientific approach to fisheries assessment, with Independent expert auditors carrying out assessments against the MSC standard, it said.

“MSC remains committed to positive, solutions-orientated collaboration with all stakeholders who share our vision of healthy and productive oceans,” MSC CEO Rupert Howes said in the statement. “Given the pressures and demands on our ocean resources, it is essential that NGOs, governments, retailers and industry work together to accelerate the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals. This will require a pragmatic approach, building consensus on how to best achieve our mutual aims.”

Sigrid Lüber, president of Swiss-based non-governmental organization Oceancare, said she believes that the results of the Make Stewardship Count survey give a strong, clear message that the MSC must change.

“It is great to see that sustainability in seafood products is important to most consumers. Unfortunately, MSC does not live up to their expectations and more than three-quarters of Swiss consumers expect that a sustainable fisheries label should explicitly rule out bycatch of threatened or endangered species,” Lüber said. 

Ulrich Karlowski, biologist and co-founder of Deutsche Stiftung Meeresschutz/DSM, the German Foundation for Marine Conservation, also called for the MSC to reform itself.

“It is high time that the MSC stopped making empty promises,” Karlowski said. “Without swift and comprehensive improvement in its standards, the MSC stands to lose significant public confidence in key European markets, irreversibly loose its credibility with consumers, and put its own future and the future of the oceans at stake.”


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