Not-so-sustainable seafood?

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McDonalds will be the first national restaurant chain to have 100 percent of their seafood certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), an international organization headquartered in London.The MSC also certifies Whole Foods Market and Wal-Mart’s seafood, and McDonalds Europe is already using their sustainable “eco-label” as well.

A single Alaskan pollock fishery supplies all of McDonalds seafood needs for their Filet-O-Fish sandwich and new Fish McBites. (On a more local scale, there are now Community Supported Fisheries, including several in the NYC area, like Big City Fish Share, as seen in City Atlas, 10/16/12.)


Marine_Stewardship_Council_EcolabelWhat is “sustainable seafood”? Is this a real step towards environmental sustainability? Several large corporations are using the MSC label to send a message to consumers that their product is contributing to a better planet and preserving fisheries. Yet many scientists and environmentalists believe that the certifications are simply “greenwashing”–misleading consumers into thinking they are making a better choice for the environment when they are not. Who is right?

First, what is the Marine Stewardship Council, and how do they make their decisions? According to their website, the Marine Stewardship Council follows three principles when deciding to certify a major fishery sustainable:

1. The fishing can continue indefinitely and is not overexploiting the resource;

2. Environmental impacts are minimized, and fishing operations are managed to maintain the ecosystem of the fishery (minimizing bycatch);

3. The fishery meets all local, national, and international laws and has a management system in order to adapt to changing circumstances.

The sustainable fishing certification is valid for five years with an annual checkup to ensure standards are consistent. Each step of the process from boat to table must also be certified by the MSC Chain of Custody standard to ensure traceability, safeguard the reliability of the MSC label, and prevent illegal fishing.

The idea for the Marine Stewardship Council began in 1992 following the collapse of the Nova Scotia cod fishery, which caused thousands of people to lose their jobs and extensive ecosystem destruction. In an effort to increase efficiency in regulation of environmental industries, Michael Sutton, then vice-president of the World Wildlife Fund, decided to create a certification process for the world’s fisheries. The World Wildlife Fund partnered with Unilever, one of the largest producers of fish products, and the MSC was formed in 1997. During the first ten years interest in sustainable fishing remained low, and the MSC was barely scraping by.

In 2006 they decided to pitch to Wal-Mart, and this proved to be a game changer for the struggling organization. Wal-Mart agreed to sell all MSC certified seafood by 2012, and other large retailers quickly signed on to follow suit. Now the demand for sustainable seafood is outstripping the supply, and critics counter that this has caused MSC to compromise their certification standards.

The Marine Stewardship Council is a non-profit organization, but they earn royalty fees from the companies that use their label. For McDonalds, the fees will be based on the number of seafood products that are sold, which presumably will increase once the sustainability certification is implemented and advertised. In addition, stores such as Whole Foods Market charge more for certified seafood than non-certified, and fishing industry executives report earning around 10 percent more for products labeled by MSC.

The profit incentives, plus some scientifically questionable certifications, have raised questions about the transparency and validity of MSC’s methods.

The Ross Sea Antarctic toothfish fishery is little known and considered an “exploratory fishery” by scientists and the industry, but MSC has already labeled it a sustainable fishery. Researchers do not even know basic facts such as the toothfishs’ spawning location, and “it should never have been up for certification in the first place. There just isn’t sufficient information to say whether it’s sustainable or not” says Greenpeace oceans campaigner Richard Page. He continues, “I will go as far as to say consumers are being duped. They think they are buying fish that are sustainable and can eat them with a clean conscience.”

Other controversial certifications by the Marine Stewardship Council  include “krill in the Antarctic, tuna and swordfish off the U.S. coast, pollock in the Eastern Bering Sea where stock levels fell 64% between 2004 and 2009, and Pacific hake which suffered an 89 percent fall in biomass since 1989.” Due to the uncertainty over the Antarctic krill sustainability Whole Foods Market decided to not sell any krill oil supplements, even those carrying the MSC certification. Biologist Susanna Fuller, of the Ecology Action Centre, says she has watched the MSC system “struggling with meeting the demands of the system that they helped create… They have ended up having to lower the bar.”

However, MSC’s CEO Rupert Howes argues that the MSC would not label problem fisheries sustainable just to satisfy demand, because, he says, they evaluate each fishery based only on scientific evidence. But, he adds, “We want to see oceans fished sustainably forever. We’re not going to achieve that by becoming a small niche organization that engages with a handful of perfect fisheries.”

For more coverage please visit NPR’s three part series, and a debate between experts at the New York Times (3/4/13).

Image: Wikimedia