WWF says MSC "needs to commit to and accelerate key reforms"

Published on
April 4, 2018

A statement from the environmental non-governmental organization World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is calling on the Marine Stewardship Council “to commit to and accelerate key reforms.”

WWF helped to found the MSC 20 years ago, along with corporate partner Unilever. Since soon after, the MSC has been an independent organization with its own board and management. In its statement, WWF backs the continued existence of the MSC, arguing that “high-quality certification for seafood can be an important complement to the array of measures available for ocean conservation.”

However, in the past few years, WWF has become increasingly more vocal in its criticism of the MSC – first in a 2016 report that questioned MSC’s role as an independent and impartial standard-setting body, and more recently, in January 2018, when it issued a statement encouraging the MSC to make promised reforms.

In its latest critique, WWF said MSC must work to improve the accuracy and objectivity of the assessment process and the ecological rigor of its standard.

“At this time, WWF believes the MSC needs to commit to and accelerate key reforms so that it can maintain its reputation as the world’s leading fisheries standard and certification system, and play its part in ocean conservation to its full potential,” the WWF said. “WWF and other stakeholders have advocated for scientifically rigorous, transparent, and credible assessments within the MSC system for some years. The MSC has made improvements to a number of its systems and to the standard itself, but there is still much more to do if the MSC is to evolve as scientific knowledge and practical experience continue to grow.”

Specific actions the WWF is encouraging the MSC to adopt include:

  • Denying certification to fisheries that purposefully target marine mammals in order to facilitate fishing activities.
  • Strengthening safeguards for endangered, threatened, and protected species and ensuring that the cumulative impacts of fisheries do not hinder the recovery of those species.
  • Reducing certified fisheries’ cumulative impacts of bycatch – both retained and discarded – and requiring MSC-certified fisheries to minimize unwanted bycatch and discards.
  • Ensuring that fisheries that must meet certain conditions as a requirement for certification actually implement their action plans within the five-year certificate period, with independent verification.
  • Improving requirements for minimum working conditions, including safety, for fishing boat crews and observers in line with the core International Labour Organisation requirements, going beyond voluntary disclosure.
  • Mandating full transparency of certified fisheries, including providing access to 24/7 tracking data.
  • Requiring that all the activity of a MSC-certified fishery be certified or in a comprehensive fishery improvement project developed to meet the standard within five years of certification approval.
  • Creating clear and effective guidance to guarantee that fishing operations accord with, and do not impede, the objectives of marine protected areas, and do not harm vulnerable marine ecosystems.

In addition, the WWF called for greater objectivity and impartiality in MSC’s certification process. Specifically, the nonprofit called for reforms to MSC’s assessment process, including:

  • Fully addressing and resolving peer reviews and stakeholder comments, using science as the basis of any decision, in order to ensure MSC’s system is safeguarded by the “strongest possible checks and balances.”
  • Ensuring that conformity assessment bodies (CABs) that undertake assessments are impartial and act objectively and independently of their clients. In addition, “CABs must use sound science and specific knowledge to justify all scoring, and where data are lacking, they must adopt the precautionary principle as the basis for decisions,” the WFF said.
  • Where there is clear controversy or competing scientific and knowledge analysis in play regarding the certification of a fishery, requiring that the objections procedure includes the opportunity for independent scientific review of a CAB’s scoring decision and justifications. 

The MSC announced in January that it would make some changes to its processes. However, WWF’s new statement implies that the MSC did not go far enough in its announced reforms, and that more action is necessary to restore trust in the organization. In recent years, frustration has mounted amongst environmental and sustainability-focused groups, including WWF, as their objections to certifications of certain fisheries, such as tuna caught in waters controlled by the Parties to the Nauru Agreement and Mexico, U.S. Atlantic-caught menhaden, and Russian pollock.

“The MSC must continue to ensure that its standard stays consistent with current science and global best practice.  This means that its environmental performance indicators must fully measure the health and integrity of target fish stocks as well as all the other species and wider marine ecosystems that fisheries affect,” WWF said. “Additionally, the MSC assessment methods must ensure and safeguard beyond reasonable doubt that certified fisheries have credibly met all aspects of the standard.”

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