MSC’s annual report outlines new standards, highlights increased consumer awareness

Published on
October 10, 2019

The Marine Stewardship Council released its annual report, outlining some of the organization’s current and future plans and showcasing the growing consumer awareness of seafood sustainability around the world.

Titled “Working together for thriving oceans,” the report highlights key statistics and the growing pool of MSC-certified seafood available to consumers. For the first time, over one million tons of MSC certified sustainable seafood was sold, and 15 percent of the global marine catch is now recognized as sustainable by the MSC.

“The model, 22 years on, is undoubtedly working,” MSC CEO Rupert Howes told SeafoodSource. “People tend to make the right choice if they’re given the right information, and that’s what MSC is trying to do.”

The MSC’s core philosophy of utilizing market forces to increase sustainability, Howes said, has been proven to be effective as more and more consumers recognize the importance of eating sustainable seafood and are willing to seek it out. Any additional costs sustainability requires to producers, he added, are well worth it in the long run.

“There are costs involved, but any review of cost has to be looked at in terms of the benefits they can bring,” Howes said.   

Since 2008, the number of products available with the MSC label has grown from just over 1,000 to over 37,000, and an estimated USD 9.1 billion (EUR 8.2 billion) was spent on seafood with the MSC label, according to the report.

The report highlighted that consumer awareness of sustainability has increased, according to a GlobeScan survey of 25,000 consumers across the world the MSC commissioned in 2018. The survey showed 83 percent of seafood consumers agreed with the need to protect seafood for future generations, and that 41 percent of consumers recognize the blue MSC label.

The report also highlighted four emerging markets: China, Japan, Italy, and Poland. China, the world’s largest consumer of seafood, is an important target for the organization, the report states.

“We’ve seen encouraging growth in MSC-certified seafood over the last year, with sales of consumer-facing products bearing the MSC label jumping by more than 150 percent,” the MSC report states about the market in China.

Engaging consumers in the country has been a goal, and according to the report consumers in China are increasingly recognizing sustainability and its importance. Events such as the “Little Ocean Hero” and Sustainable Seafood Week saw greater traction than in years past.

“Over 1,300 stores in more than 30 Chinese cities took part in Sustainable Seafood Week in August 2018 – a massive increase on the 180 that participated in 2017,” the MSC report states. Roughly 8 percent of Chinese shoppers now say they often see the MSC ecolabel. While 8 percent may not seem like a large number, that equates to over 100 million people recognizing MSC’s label regularly.

Japan, as well, is seeing growing interest in sustainability. The market has grown rapidly over the last year, with Chain of Custody certificate holders increasing from 147 on 1 April 2018 to 218 on 31 March 2019. Retailers, as well, have increased commitments to sustainability and MSC.

“There’s increased engagement in the Japanese retail sector,” Howes said. He added that the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics has been a factor in the growing interest in the region.

The report also detailed how the MSC has strengthened its standards over the past year. A new child labor standard has been implemented: As of 28 September all MSC Chain of Custody certificate holders are required to undergo an independent labor audit unless they can demonstrate lower risk based on the countries the company operates in.

“Both new and existing certificate holders will be given a one-year grace period following their next MSC audit to complete the labor audit,” the report states. “Certified companies will need to address any non-compliances identified within 30 days or risk suspension of their MSC Chain of Custody certificate.”

The MSC has also streamlined some aspects of the certification process by allowing stakeholder to comment on reports sooner in the process, allowing concerns to be addressed through the assessment process faster.

The report also outlined some ambitious goals, such as a push to engage 20 percent of the global catch in either certification, or assessments leading to it, by 2020. That comes with an additional goal of increasing that number to 30 percent by 2030.Those goals, while ambitious, are in recognition or the urgency of the state of the ocean, Howes said.

“They are ambitious, they are stretched, but the reason we set those targets is a recognition of the sustainable development framework,” Howes said.

The biggest target for change in the report is the “Global South.”

“Fisheries in the Global South provide nearly three-quarters of the world’s seafood, but they are underrepresented in the MSC program,” Yemi Oloruntuyi, head of accessibility for the MSC, wrote in the report. “Many of these fisheries lack the resources and the capacity to achieve MSC certification – yet they are exactly the places where we need to be engaging.”

Engaging those fisheries and developing tools to asses the sustainability of those fisheries is a key goal for the MSC, in order to both increase the sustainability of those fisheries and to promote food security in those regions, where seafood is often a vital part of diets.

“If our mission is to be successful, then we need to make our market-based system work as powerfully in the Global South as it has done in the Global North,” Oloruntuyi wrote. “Market demand is one of the reasons that fish stocks are in decline, so they need to be part of the solution too. While this is a big challenge, I believe it’s also a big opportunity.”

Climate change, as well, was a key part of the report. In the wake of the landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on the oceans – which outlined the changes the ocean will face as climate change’s impacts increase – the MSC put out a call to governments to begin anticipating the effects of climate change.

Howes said that engaging fisheries in programs like the MSC will be crucial to deal with the impacts of climate change.

“They’re the best placed to adapt,” he said of MSC certified fisheries. The requirements of MSC certification – which includes scientific analysis and management of the fishery – allow fisheries to recognize and react to changes as they happen.

“They have robust monitoring regimes capable of discriminating new science, new data," he said.

The report highlighted both the increasing threats facing the ocean, and the positive impacts that organizations like the MSC are having on sustainability.

“Overfishing – along with pollution, climate change and other pressures – has pushed our oceans to crisis point,” Howes wrote in the report. “And yet this feels like a time for optimism – and a time for change. The world has woken up to the crisis facing our oceans. The U.N. Sustainable Development Goal to conserve and sustainably use the ocean and marine resources has galvanized new partnerships and frameworks. We’re seeing increasing political and corporate commitment, backed up by unprecedented consumer concern sparked by programs like the BBC’s Blue Planet II and Netflix’s Our Planet and growing awareness of ocean plastics and the climate crisis. The MSC is determined to be part of the solution.”

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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