Marine Stewardship Council aims to “improve confidence that the MSC Fisheries Standard is being applied consistently”

Published on
February 5, 2019

The Marine Stewardship Council, one of the largest seafood-focused eco-labeling schemes in the world, is reviewing its standards and processes with the dual aims of increasing its effectiveness and addressing perceptions of inadequacies in how its system works.

The London, United Kingdom-based organization currently certifies more than 300 fisheries with a combined annual seafood production of 12 million metric tons, representing 15 percent of global marine catch. Its formal Fisheries Standard Review takes place every five years; the most recent review began in 2018 and will run through 2021. The MSC reviews its standards to “improve confidence that the MSC Fisheries Standard is being applied consistently,” according to the organization.

Last week, the MSC Board of Directors released a list of 16 topics it will include it’s the second stage of the review. Those topics include MSC’s requirements for ghost gear, low trophic species, shark-finning, endangered threatened and protected species, and the accessibility of the MSC program to small-scale, squid, crab, and octopus fisheries.

“The next stage in the MSC Fisheries Standard Review will be an in-depth analysis of all topics agreed for review,” MSC CEO Rupert Howes said. “Over the next year, the MSC will work alongside stakeholders to harness their expertise and experience to identify potential updates to the standard.” 

The final decision on any revisions will be made by the MSC Board of Trustees, guided by the MSC’s policy on the adoption of new science, and following recommendation from the MSC’s technical advisory board and stakeholder advisory council, with release planned for 2021, according to the organization. Any changes made to the standard will be independently reviewed and benchmarked by the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (GSSI) for compliance with United Nations’ FAO guidelines, and will be assessed by ISEAL, to ensure that it complies with their standard setting code of good practice.

Concurrently, in 2018, the MSC initiated an Assurance Review “to increase its effectiveness and address real or perceived issues within the system.” The review, conducted by independent auditor Assurance Services International (ASI), was initiated in response to “stakeholder feedback and investigations,” according to MSC. It focused on three areas of dispute: MSC’s setting of conditions for continuing certification, disagreements with expert judgements, and expedited audits.

Conditions are given by independent certifiers to fisheries that meet the MSC’s minimum requirements but do not meet best practice requirements for one or more Performance Indicators of the MSC Fisheries Standard. In its review, which was publicly released by MSC on 4 February, ASI studied how conditions are identified, evaluated, and closed, and on occasion carried over into subsequent certification cycles, under the MSC system. The conditions require fisheries to deliver improvements in order to raise their performance to best-practice levels, usually within five years. ASI found that in a small minority of cases, conditions were closed without following all relevant MSC requirements and then subsequently reopened due to this non-conformity. 

ASI reported the majority of conditions “are closed in accordance with the MSC’s requirements.” However, it found that “while the MSC has clarified and strengthened requirements over time, there is still room for improvement.” 

In regard to disagreement in expert judgement and scientific opinion between conformity assessment bodies, peer reviewers, and stakeholders, the MSC said it is “exploring different options to address [the issue], starting by asking stakeholders to provide feedback on proposals to improve the way conditions are set, evaluated, and closed by certifiers. The group has offered three potential options for consultation: an opportunity for stakeholder feedback on annual surveillance reports, requiring conditions to be closed within four years, and improved reporting templates. 

In regard to expedited audits, which are “triggered outside of the regular schedule of annual audits when new information becomes available that could result in a material change to the fishery’s score against the MSC Fisheries Standard,” the MSC is asking for stakeholders’ input on proposed clarifications to the expedited audit process. It has provided two potential improvements: a potential peer review stage, and a consultation period during an expedited audit. 

All three aspects of the MSC’s Assurance Review are open for public comment through 3 April, with changes to be finalized in the early part of 2020, MSC Fisheries Standard Director Rohan Currey said in a press release.

“As part of ongoing efforts to maintain our globally recognised certification program for sustainable seafood, we regularly review our requirements and processes to ensure that they continue to meet widely recognised best practice,” Currey said. “This latest round of consultations focuses on the process followed by certifiers when assessing fisheries and aims to address any real or perceived issues. We welcome constructive comments and feedback from all stakeholders.” 

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