MSC aims for balance between rigor, accessibility with new standard

Published on
June 30, 2022
Marine Stewardship Council Fisheries Standard Director Ernesto Jardim

The Marine Stewardship Council’s newest fisheries standard has been released – and according to MSC Fisheries Standard Director Ernesto Jardim, the new edition has continued the organization’s commitment to driving fishery sustainability.

The new standards were unanimously approved by MSC’s board of trustees on 24 June, 2022. The organization hailed the new standard as a “major achievement” after the four-year review process received the input of over 1,000 stakeholders in the industry.

Part of the MSC’s constant challenge in creating a new standard and enforcing those standards – and the reason the achievement is monumental, Jardim told SeafoodSource – is that it must create a standard rigorous enough to push companies toward more sustainable practices, but one that is not so rigorous that it is out of reach for those interested in pursuing certification. This balance must be achieved, despite stakeholders sometimes taking opposite stances on what needs to be included in the standard, Jardim said.

“The work we did for the last four years – mostly concentrated on the last few years –a lot of that work was trying to find that balance, trying to find that sweet spot,” Jardim said. “Sometimes it's not exactly a sweet spot, because you end up on a place that no one is because there are polarized views on some of the things we do – and you end up in the middle of these views – which is almost no man's land.”

Despite those challenges, Jardim said the MSC managed to strike a balance. He told SeafoodSource the unanimous vote of the board of trustees is a testament to how much work the MSC put into balancing the various stakeholders across the complex seafood industry.

“We have the board as representatives from all different industries. The fact that the board approved the standard unanimously speaks volumes to the fact that we reached a kind of balance,” Jardim said.

The MSC did face NGO criticism of its new standard, with some groups calling on the MSC to enact stricter requirements. Jardim said the criticism is in part a symptom of the MSC’s continued balancing of competing issues – a key element in ensuring companies actually strive to enact change.

Jardim said the requirements the MSC demands via its standard always comes back to balance.

“You can put the level of performance anywhere, from zero to wherever, and as soon as you put it too high, you lose the fishery,” Jardim said. “If we don’t have fisheries, we won’t make any changes, because if there’s no one there to actually enact the change we are asking, then there is no change.”

That isn’t to say the standards can be set too low, either, Jardim said. The MSC grounds its sustainability standards in the scientific evidence, or what science identifies as the best practices, he said.

“What we try [to do] all the time is to go back to what our research and what science is showing us,” Jardim said. “In doing that, we try to find an area where we feel comfortably supported by evidence or by science or by scientific opinions, while at the same time bringing stakeholders into an area where they don’t feel uncomfortable.”

Still, the standard can’t be so lenient as to be easy – again, there is a balance between accessibility and difficulty, he said.

“In the end, we are not bringing people to a comfortable position. We are bringing people to positions that they are not uncomfortable,” Jardim said.

A big aspect of ensuring the achievability of MSC certification in the latest fisheries standard, Jardim said, is clarifying the language used in it and simplifying certain aspects of it to lower the barrier to entry.

“What we tried to do is to make the assessment process itself simpler and less burdensome,” Jardim said. “By doing that, we hope it will end up having less costs, to be easier to use for a fishery that may not be a very large industrial, rich fishery. The fact that we are simplifying the standard will help those fisheries to need less and less cost go to through the process.”

Simplification for the MSC, Jardim said, means removing scoring issues that were not needed and redundancy in the standard. Another big focus was simplifying the language to avoid any ambiguity and to reduce the need for fisheries to justify how they were meeting the standards.

Jardim said the MSC standard remains a robust test of the sustainability of wild-catch fisheries.

“Although the system itself might be more complex, the way the system is described and implemented will be simpler by being more clear and more direct in what we are asking,” Jardim said.

Another effort by the MSC to increase access is creating “Pathways Projects,” and increasing the scale of them. Pathway Projects are a way multiple fishery stakeholders can collaborate and use MSC tools to make improvements toward reaching the MSC standard – similar to a fishery improvement project, Jardim said.

“We are preparing to scale up in that pre-certification space by trying to create a more structured approach so that fisheries can be pointed into the standard, or the entry level of the standard,” Jardim said. “We see that as an important part of our contribution, of enacting our theory of change.”

The goal, Jardim said, is to bring fisheries to a point where they can decide to pursue MSC certification based on the market factors and whether it would be worth it to pursue certification, and not based on the fact that the fisheries are too far away from the standards to achieve the goals.

“That’s the idea, and was part of the development of this standard,” Jardim said. “That was something that was coming back to us over and over again, the accessibility issue. There’s a number of fisheries that are not yet ready. What do we do with them?”

Jardim said some of those fisheries aren’t making progress on sustainability, and the MSC has thought hard about how to bring those fisheries into its fold. But in the end, he said, not all fisheries may be able to reach MSC certification – in part, once again, because of the organization's effort to maintain rigorous standards while maintaining achievability.

“That’s how we enact our theory of change,” Jardim said.  

Image courtesy of the Marine Stewardship Council

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