MSC discusses future of certification program during conference at Seafood Expo Global

Published on
April 26, 2018

A panel of key industry members, NGOs, and Marine Stewardship Council officials met on 25 April to discuss what the future has in store for the MSC. 

MSC CEO Rupert Howes was on hand to discuss the future of the program and the challenges it will need to face – and is already facing – after over 20 years of existence. Key to the discussion was the United Nation’s framework known as Sustainable Development Goals, and how MSC has had to adapt to a changing climate. Warming oceans have led to challenges for the environment, and in turn for fisheries that have seen drastic changes in the patterns of fish they harvest. 

“Are our oceans in trouble? I think they are. You look at the impacts of acidification and climate change devastating coral reefs,” Howes said. “A number of MSC fisheries have lost their certificate as fish change their migration patterns."

A theme throughout the discussion was the idea of striking a balance between pushing sustainability in response to new science and environmental challenges, without raising the bar so high that industry leaders decide the cost isn’t worth it. 

“Our ambition is to strike a delicate and pragmatic balance,” MSC Global Commercial Director Nicolas Guichoux said.

That balance means that sometimes fisheries need to be re-evaluated, or even have their certification revoked given new scientific evidence. The St. Lawrence snow crab fishery, Guichoux said, is an example of the MSC being proactive when it comes to conservation. 

“In this case, again, we have witnessed a very proactive response from the fishery,” he said. 

Ally Dingwall, aquaculture and fisheries manager for Sainsbury’s – a U.K.-based retail chain – was the event’s keynote speaker, and said that from an industry perspective balancing sustainability with affordability is a key part of making sure programs can be successful. 

“At the end of the day, we need to make sure we do this in a cost-effective manner, because we need to sell affordable food,” he said. “We’re constantly unconsciously balancing the needs of all these stakeholders.”

He added that constant dialogue, between both industry leaders and NGOs, is important in making sure standards can be created that aren’t so onerous that no one can achieve them, while also being significant enough to be worth achieving. 

“We need to be willing to have that dialogue with our competitors, on a pre-competitive basis,” he said. “We need to engage with our competitors, and other retailers.”

Amanda Nickson, representing The Pew Charitable Trusts, said that while there may be an appearance that NGOs will never be satisfied with standards, that tension between NGOs and industry is an important part of creating standards that are worthwhile. 

“The challenge is, in order to actually create a bar that is at the right level, we have to be careful to not allow anything to just sort of slide,” she said. “We have an ocean that is still degrading, and we have to address that.” 

Tor Bjørklund Largen, of Norges Fikarlag, Norway’s fishery team, said that MSC also needs to ensure that its standards don’t constantly become more difficult to achieve as poorer countries seek to improve their fisheries. He pointed out that as a client from one of the most “privileged nations in the world,” the standards can still be difficult to reach. Poorer nations with developing fisheries could have such a hard time they may not bother trying to shoot for sustainability standards at all. 

“They may feel that the rich people have gotten into the program, and they’re pulling up the ladder behind them,” he said. 

Another key component of the MSC in the future will be recognizing the importance of social standards within fisheries, particularly with forced labor. 

“Our stakeholders have highlighted increasing importance of social issues,” Guichoux said. 

While the officials present didn’t have any concrete announcements regarding MSC standards on social issues, they did hint that the organization plans to collaborate with other standard setters to establish a path toward new requirements. 

“We are proposing a requirement for higher-risk land-based supply chains,” Guichoux said. “We expect to release the first of the new requirements this August.”

The MSC, multiple panel members pointed out, cannot be all things to all fisheries, but can serve a guide-post to fisheries and organizations seeking to increase sustainability. 

“We’ve seen the process of setting the standard and assessing against it has enabled dialogue debate and testing,” Nickson said. “That in itself has moved the entire bar forward globally.”

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