Marine Stewardship Council Fisheries Head Jay Lugar clarifies revision process for Version 3.0 standard

MSC Fisheries Head Jay Lugar.

Jay Lugar is the head of fisheries for the Marine Stewardship Council. In an SeafoodSource interview, Lugar addressed in more detail the problems with MSC's Version 3.0 standard that have resulted in a delay in its implementation.

On 9 February, activist coalition Make Stewardship Count, which has been sharply critical of the Marine Stewardship Council for years, said it opposed the delay.

“This delay is a massive step backward both for protecting endangered species and ensuring good governance in fisheries,” Animal Welfare Institute Marine Life Program Senior Policy Consultant Kate O'Connell said. “We fear that the council, which claims to operate the world’s leading ecolabel for wild-caught seafood, is caving to industry pressure instead of making substantive changes that are critically needed to ensure its stated goal of ‘oceans teeming with life.’”

SeafoodSource: When did MSC first begin to hear about some of the issues with Version 3.0?

Lugar: In October of 2022, we released the standard for public availability, and it became mandatory for all new fisheries that were entering an MSC assessment as of May 2023. Since that time, we've been undertaking a series of dialogues with industry representatives, certification conformity bodies, and the assessor community to roll it out and to make sure that people understood it and were able to apply it.

It was in these workshops ... where we discovered there were some challenges in how Version 3.0 was released. In trying to unpack some of those challenges, we spent some time with our assessor community, and that's what we did through the fall.

In January, our board approved the plan to take a pause on requiring Version 3.0 at the present time. Having said that, it is still available, and it's a firm and high standard that we encourage fisheries that have pre-assessments or are doing a recertification [to pursue] if they feel they're prepared. But, for new fisheries entering the program, because of the challenges that we encountered with the standard, we decided to allow them two more years. Those two more years will enable us to conduct some refinements, through the amended version of the standard that we're going to release in July 2024, that will allow us to make fixes that ensure less complexity, some clarity on some terminology, and, ideally, more efficiency for assessors to apply the standard.

In order for currently certified fisheries to have their own time to understand the standard and the sustainability outcomes that are expected in the standard, we opted to give them two more years. So, by 1 November 2030, all fisheries must be operating on Version 3.0 of the standard, and all certified fisheries must be assessed against and certified against Version 3.0 of the standard. That is a similar two-year delay from the initial time frame, but that is not when they can start to work in the standard. They're going to have to be working on that standard likely at their next reassessment – between now and then.

SeafoodSource: One of the issues brought up by some fisheries is the standard’s requirements around ghost gear. What were the other specific problems that were raised, and how is MSC looking to improve or fix them?

Lugar: We're still trying to undertake a thorough evaluation of those quite finite issues that need to be addressed. We've been talking to the assessor community, which has done some assessments or mock assessments on this stuff. They are telling us of some challenges that they encounter when they read the words on the page.

For instance, in the ghost gear example, there is a discrepancy between the requirements in the standard and what is in the guidance requirements that are associated with the standard. That's those types of internal discrepancies that are very difficult to work through. So, we're going to tidy up that language.

When we look at examples of these amendments that will be releasing in July 2024, they will not change the sustainability outcome expectations in the standard. Version 3.0 will still have those same sustainability expectations. We’ll just be rephrasing some of the terms and look at some other efficiencies; we think we'll be able to address a large portion of the challenges that we've heard about.

SeafoodSource: What are some of the other fisheries besides those in Atlantic Canada that have expressed concerns with Version 3.0?

Lugar: We've spoken with a lot of our fishery partners and other stakeholders throughout this rollout period. It wouldn't be appropriate for me to suggest that it's only a select few fisheries in this regard. We've detected that it's in the core of the standards where some of these issues rest, so they would apply to all fisheries.

That’s not the case in every fishery because there are some fisheries that may not have challenges with ghost gear, for example. But, that’s not to say they wouldn't still benefit from that fix that we're going to apply there. As an example of another type of categorization of a term that we need to do some tidying up on in the amended version of the standard is how what standard expects from fisheries that have a negligible impact on various bycatch species.

“Negligible,” we've uncovered, is defined in slightly different, nuanced ways in the standard, so we need to tidy that up so that it's efficient for when assessors come in and evaluate the evidence in front of them so they're not confused about which version of “negligible” impact they need to apply.

We also agreed to undertake a review of a portion of the MSC program documents called the evidence requirements framework. It’s in a toolbox that is associated with a standard, and this is a new methodology for assessing the quality and the precision of the information that a fishery has in its management system so that assessors can review that information to make sure the fishery is actually meeting the standard.

That evidence requirements framework was a piece of the fishery standard review that has proved to be quite challenging to get just right, so even when the MSC Board of Trustees announced Version 3.0 of the standards in October 2002, it did commit to undertaking a review of the evidence requirements frameworks to make sure that it is achieving its intended outcomes.

So, as part of the announcement that we made last week, we have been more specific about that review. It will commence earlier than anticipated – so not two years after October 2022 but in July of 2024. After we complete the amended version of the standard and release that, we will undertake this review of the evidence requirements framework, and it will be led by an external panel of assessor experts with knowledge of the standard and also knowledge of fisheries and management systems globally.

The review is intended to take place over a year and a half, but it could take as long as two years; it's difficult to know exactly how long that will take because it will be led externally. Our goal was to have a standard that is a high bar for sustainability, that is efficient for assessors to apply, and is clear for everybody involved in the process so they know exactly what to expect in terms of outcomes.

SeafoodSource: Will there be an opportunity for fisheries representatives to get in touch with MSC regarding any other issues they may have with the standard? Or, is MSC’s plan to concentrate on the issues that have already been brought to the organization’s attention up to this point?

Lugar: We’re always open to dialogue at MSC. That's why we ended up doing rollout workshops and other dialogues. Many of them happen one on one between MSC staff and stakeholders who are in the MSC community – both on the fishery side and on the conservation community side, as well as others in academia and government.

We're always open to hearing issues that people may encounter as we undertake amending Version 3.0. We want to make sure that we get this right, and we will have additional dialogues with the people who have expressed concern in various regards, especially with the assessor community, which has brought some of these concerns to us.

Having said that, though, this is not going to process like a full review of the standard would require, as codified through a group called ISEAL that we belong to, which has requirements for how standard reviews should be undertaken, and also through FAO guidelines, to which we conform, which also have requirements for how standard reviews should be undertaken. So, this is not a standard review. This is an amended version of the standard, but having said that, we will be talking to as many people as we possibly can.

SeafoodSource: What do you foresee the impact of this is going to be for the program and for the fisheries that are certified or pursuing certification? Will this cause disruption for fisheries in their planning processes?

Lugar: The derogation is not a common event in the MSC system. We do not undertake derogations lightly because they actually mean a change to a standard that's out of sequence to a normal standard revision. But, we are listening. We have been listening to our stakeholders and our social community. We've definitely heard some relief, if you will, or almost some gratitude that MSC was listening to the challenges that some of our fishery partners were encountering, and our decision … has been well-received.

So far, we understand that the conservation community would like to see Version 3.0 adopted as quickly as possible, and we still intend to move as rapidly as we can to make sure that it becomes the dominant standard in our program as soon as practicable. However, the message that we would like people to receive is that the standard needs to work in practice.

MSC's global vision is oceans teeming with life, and we have 20 percent of the global wild capture of marine species in our program now. That's an important level for us to recognize that we're helping drive change in the water, and if the standard can't be efficiently applied, which is a challenge that we've encountered today, then we need to make sure that it can be; that's the pause that we're taking.

To those fisheries that are planning and thinking about Version 3.0, if they're thinking about entering the program, any work that they've done to get ready for Version 3.0 is in large measure also going to help them if they wish to now shift and apply and enter the program in Version 2.0. Also, they will have additional time to get ready for 3.0. There's a lot of support that we have from the assessor community and from the fisheries community to make these necessary changes, and we hope that people get the MSC message here that the standard has to function and work in practice in order to be effective as a driver of change in our global fisheries.

SeafoodSource: Are there any parts of Version 3.0 that you wish could be implemented now that it is delayed as a result of the derogation? 

Lugar: Version 2.01, which is the version of the standard that is still in place, is a high bar. It's a solid standard. Version 3.0 did have some additional requirements, and if applying those requirements becomes a challenge, then we want to make sure that 3.0 is achieving the sustainability outcomes that it was intended to do; that's what we need to take this time to make happen.

So, we're not going to be missing opportunities; we're going to be making sure that the opportunities that exist actually will work in practice, and part of that is the evidence requirements framework, which was has been viewed by the assessor community as very complicated and complex. That might itself deter fisheries from entering if the cost can't be warranted. That's where we are, and I think it's in a good place.

SeafoodSource: For problems facing some fisheries, there are just sometimes no easy solutions. Realistically, do you ever think you’ll be able to achieve one standard that works for every fishery that wants to pursue certification?

Lugar: [MSC’s] fisheries are wildly diverse in geography, ecosystems, gear, species, [etc.]. We have very small fisheries, we have medium-sized fisheries, we have distant-water fisheries, and we have some highly industrialized fisheries.

Getting the standard right for everyone is a challenge. I think MSC has accepted this challenge and is trying to find the right way of addressing the global best practices of the day and put them into an auditable document that can be used as a standard and applied by independent auditors to conduct a valid, comprehensive, robust assessment of the fisheries that volunteer to come forward to be assessed for certification.

Talking to fishery, assessor, and conservation community partners over this period of time since the rollout, we were very confident that we have identified and define the nature of the changes that need to happen in the amended version. I guess the proof will be in the pudding, but we've been doing this for many, many years. We may have missed the mark in Version 3.0, but Version 3.1 will ideally hit a bullseye.

Photo courtesy of Marine Stewardship Council


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