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FISH

About the Marine


Stewardship Council
Fact Sheet • February 2011

T he Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) was first conceived in 19961 as an eco-


labeling and certification program. Its purpose was to let consumers know
which fisheries are considered “sustainable” based on a set of criteria, and therefore
which seafood items are more eco-friendly choices. It was co-founded by the World
Wildlife Fund (WWF), an international conservation organization, and Unilever, a
multinational corporation that was once one of the largest seafood manufacturers in
the world.2 The MSC became independent in 19993 and has certified 102 fisheries,
with 144 more in assessment (being reviewed) as of February 2011.4

Although the MSC represents a step toward promoting con- Eco-Label or Marketing Label?
sumer awareness about seafood sources and production, it The MSC struggled at first to attain legitimacy as a certi-
is not always a reliable indicator of best choices. In fact, fier of sustainable fisheries. It certified only 22 fisheries
controversial certifications to the MSC standard — such as worldwide in its first seven years of activity (from 2000
New Zealand hoki, Alaska pollock and Antarctic krill — through 2006).6 But the label received criticism over the
have caused the organization to lose credibility among sev- fisheries it had certified and whether its certification truly
eral prominent marine scientists and conservation groups.5 demonstrated sustainability.7 Since then, the organization
has sped up its pace, certifying another 80 fisheries in the
last five years, with some focus on larger, more industrial
fisheries like Alaska pollock. But the organization remains
vulnerable to criticism from many interests.8

The MSC’s organizational model has been called corpo-


rate and inaccessible, and also criticized for not allowing
sufficient input by fisheries stakeholders — especially the
smaller fishing communities that may not be able to afford
to pay fees associated with a formal assessment of their
fisheries.9 As a result, small but well-managed fisheries can
be left out of the certification process.

Furthermore, some fisheries that are not widely considered


ecologically sustainable earn and keep the MSC label. One
example of this is Alaska pollock, which first received an
MSC label in 2005.10 An extremely large fishery, Alaska
pollock historically has constituted more than 40 percent
of global whitefish production.11 Given that MSC earns
more each time their label is used, certification of Alaskan
pollock may have represented a major boost to the organi-
zation’s seafood repertoire and budget. However, when the
fishery came up for re-evaluation in 2009, the population
of Alaska pollock had declined significantly.12 This may be
A copy of the logo which designates MSC-certified fish. an indication that the population is suffering from increas-
ing fishing pressure, possibly brought on by MSC’s “sus- people depend upon for their livelihoods. Further, consum-
tainability” label. ers may someday find that there is reduced access in the
marketplace to fisheries that aren’t certified.
In addition to the declining stock size, concerns with the
commercial Alaska pollock fishery include impacts on na-
Aquaculture and the MSC
tive Alaskan communities, endangered Steller sea lions and
local Chinook salmon populations. Many organizations The MSC has recently begun certifying forage fisheries that
submitted comments in early 2010 urging the evaluators to can be used as feed in carnivorous fish farming and has
revise the certification of the Alaska pollock fishery, several encouraged such fisheries to apply for certification. The
of them urging that the fishery not be re-certified.13 But organization’s chief executive, Rupert Howes, stated in
despite the many concerns that were raised and a formal 2007 that the move was intended to respond to the grow-
objections process, the MSC certification was deemed ing importance of aquaculture in the world market.17 To
valid by the certifying authority in December 2010, and support this new endeavor, the Gulf of California sardine
Alaska pollock will remain covered by the MSC label.14 fishery in Mexico — a fishery in which 85 percent of the
catch is reduced to fishmeal — entered into the assessment
The large volume and notoriety of the Alaska pollock process for MSC certification.18
fishery prompts speculation that the MSC might have an
overwhelming desire to continue its existing relationship Meanwhile, in 2010, the organization certified Antarctic
with this fishery, despite it likely not meeting certain MSC krill — another popular feed-grade fish in fish feeds —
criteria for certification. despite recent data indicating that these tiny shrimp-like
creatures are highly sensitive to climate change and their
populations may be declining over time. Considering certi-
The Privatization of Seafood Regulation
fication for a forage fishery sets a dangerous new precedent
Of equal concern to the MSC’s spotty environmental for the organization. Forage fish are at the base of the food
record is its tendency to take control of fisheries resources chain, which means that many other species depend on
away from national governments — a subject that is them as a primary food source. If they become overfished,
especially sensitive in developing countries. As one study there is a much higher risk of negative ecological impact to
finds, “the MSC reregulates the coordination of the global other species. Furthermore, certifying a forage fishery with
fisheries away from public venues and into private are- intent to feed the end product (usually fish meal or fish oil)
nas.”15 Using market-driven mechanisms coordinated by to farmed fish is inherently unsustainable: It can take about
the “largest transnational environmental organization in two to six pounds of wild fish to produce just one pound
the world,” the MSC “bypasses national laws and marginal- of some farmed fish, and much more for larger fish, like
izes fisherpeople,” according to critics.16 When regulation tuna.19 There is some concern that aquaculture companies
of fisheries falls under private control, both consumers and that use MSC-certified feeds might try to exaggerate the
coastal communities may suffer. Private control may yield sustainability of carnivorous fish farming because of their
less transparency in the management of a natural resource association with MSC.
that is part of the public trust — and a resource that many
Meanwhile, in January 2009, WWF announced the cre-
ation of the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), a cer-
tifying body like the MSC that will certify farmed fish that
meet its standards.20 The ASC’s recently appointed develop-
ment director is a former executive of a large producer of
farmed salmon — generally, one of aquaculture’s dirtiest
industries — and also a former executive at several fish
feed manufacturers.21 This raises questions about how reli-
able — and objective — the new certification for farmed
fish will be.

Conclusion
Currently, there is no “one-size-fits-all” shortcut for con-
sumers to find sustainable seafood just by looking for a
logo on the package. The best approach is to learn more
about which types of seafood are available in your region
and which are truly well-managed. To make collecting
good information about fish easier, see Food & Water
Watch’s Smart Seafood Guide at bit.ly/seafood-guide.

Endnotes
1 Constance, Douglas H., and Alessandro Bonanno. “Regulating the
global fisheries: The World Wildlife Fund, Unilever and the Marine
Stewardship Council.” Agriculture and Human Values, 17. June
2000 at 125.
2 Unilever sold its seafood business in August of 2001, but before that,
it was one of the world’s largest buyers of frozen fish, with a 25%
share of the European and United States markets; it also managed
several fishmeal and fish oil companies. Constance, Douglas H.,
and Alessandro Bonanno. “Regulating the global fisheries: The
World Wildlife Fund, Unilever and the Marine Stewardship Council.” 11 Ianelli, James N., et al. Alaska Fisheries Science Center, National
Agriculture and Human Values, 17. June 2000 at 125 and 129; and Marine Fisheries Service. “Chapter 1: Assessment of the walleye
“Unilever sells seafood business.” Food Navigator August 17, 2001. pollock stock in the Eastern Bering Sea.” December 2009 at 32.
3 Ponte, Stefano. “Greener than Thou: The political economy of fish 12 Ibid. at 65.
eco-labeling and its local manifestations in South Africa.” World 13 Rice, Jake et al, Moody Marine Ltd. “MSC Final Report for The Ber-
Development 36, 1. January 2008 at 161. ing Sea / Aleutian Islands Pollock (Theragra chalcogramma) Fishery.”
4 Marine Stewardship Council. “Certified fisheries,” and “Fisheries in Version 4: Final Report. July 2010.
assessment,” accessed February 17, 2011, available at http://www. 14 Rice, Jake, et al. Moody Marine Ltd. “MSC Public Certification
msc.org/track-a-fishery/certified and http://www.msc.org/track-a- Report for The Bering Sea / Aleutian Islands Pollock (Theragra chalco-
fishery/in-assessment gramma) Fishery.” Version 5, December 2010. Available at www.
5 Schwarz, Walter. “Protection not perfection.” The Guardian (U.K.). msc.org
10 March, 2004; and Highleyman, Scott, et al. Wildhavens. “An In- 15 Constance, Douglas H., and Alessandro Bonanno. “Regulating the
dependent Assessment of the Marine Stewardship Council.” January global fisheries: The World Wildlife Fund, Unilever and the Marine
2004 at iv; and Jacquet, Jennifer et al. “Opinion: Seafood steward- Stewardship Council.” Agriculture and Human Values, 17. June
ship in crisis.” Nature 467 (2 September 2010) at 28-29. 2000 at 134.
6 The Marine Stewardship Council became independent in 1999, and 16 Ibid. at 133, 135.
its first certified fishery was awarded in March 2000. Marine Stew- 17 Howes, Rupert. “Sustainability is in everyone’s interest.” Fish Infor-
ardship Council. “Net Benefits: The First 10 Years of MSC-certified mation and Services. June 15 2007.
sustainable fisheries.” 2009 at page 8; and Ward, Trevor J. “Barriers 18 Ibid.
to biodiversity conservation in marine fishery certification.” Fish and 19 For more details on fish feed conversion rates, see “Fishy Farms: The
Fisheries, 9. June 2008 at 172. Problems with Open Ocean Aquaculture.” Food & Water Watch.
7 Brown, Paul. “Crisis of credibility for ‘green’ fisheries.” The Guardian October 2007 at page 3.
(U.K.). 21 Feb 2004; and Highleyman, Scott, et al. Wildhavens, 20 World Wildlife Fund for Nature. “WWF to help fund creation of
Turnstone Consulting and Ecos Corporation. “An Independent As- Aquaculture Stewardship Council.” January 27, 2009. Available
sessment of the Marine Stewardship Council.” Prepared for Home- at http://www.worldwildlife.org/who/media/press/2009/WWF-
land Foundation, Oak Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Presitem11339.html
January 2004. 21 Seafood Source, “ASC appoints development director,” September 3
8 As of February 17, 2011, the MSC has certified 102 fisheries, which 2009.
means that 80 fisheries have been certified since January 1, 2007.
Brown, “Crisis of credibility”; and Greenpeace, “Assessment of the
Marine Stewardship Council Fisheries Certification Programme,”
June 2009. For more information:
9 Ponte, Stefano. “Greener than Thou: The political economy of fish web: www.foodandwaterwatch.org
eco-labeling and its local manifestations in South Africa.” World
Development 36, 1. January 2008 at 163.
email: info@fwwatch.org
10 Chaffee, Chet, et al. Scientific Certification Systems, Inc. “MSC phone: (202) 683-2500 (DC) • (415) 293-9900 (CA)
Assessment Report: The United States Bering Sea and Aleutian
Islands Pollock Fishery.”  Version SCS_V4FR_021505, February 15,
2005.  Available at www.msc.org
Copyright © February 2011 Food & Water Watch