Is seafood certification the answer to sustainability? SeaMonster asks Dr. Tim Essington

[Editor's preface: How should the conscientious piscivore forage in the complex ecosystem of the modern market? Those of us who love seafood but want to do the right thing are confronted with a blizzard of information and advice  -- often conflicting -- on the status of marine fish populations and the various management measures intended to balance sustainable harvest with minimal collateral damage to ecosystems.

One of the approaches that's gained a steam in recent years involves certification of fisheries by third parties who have no official connection to the business of the fishery, and who review a range of information on the fish population in question, its ecology and environmental context, and the nature of the fishing industry. If the data check out, the certifier issues a stamp of approval (see blue MSC label at right), and civilians at the fish market can buy the product with a clean conscience. That's the theory, anyway.

Sound too easy? Maybe so. Criticism has been growing about how the process works and whether it does what it's supposed to. So the Marine Stewardship Council, the main body conducting such analyses, released a report in November 2011 (available here) summarizing evidence for the benefits and impacts of MSC certification of fisheries. See also the Science feature by Erik Stokstad (not open access I'm afraid) on the argument that has surrounded certification.

SeaMonster sought expert opinion from two fishery scientists who've been actively involved in the science and policy of fishery certification, and asked them to comment on the report. Today we present the first of two guest posts on the subject.]


Dr. Timothy E. Essington

[Tim Essington is Associate Professor of Aquatic and Fisheries Science at the University of Washington. His research focuses on food web interactions involving fishes, with a primary consideration for the role of fisheries and other anthropogenic effects as a major structuring process.]

I’ll begin with a disclaimer and clarification. I currently serve on the MSC technical advisory board, but the opinions expressed below are my own, and do not represent those of the MSC or its governing boards.

Eco-labeling a market-based approach to achieving sustainability.  The central idea is to provide economic incentives for fisheries to adopt better practices, in this case by offering access to markets that will pay substantially more for their catch (e.g. to retailers and restaurants who will only sell eco-labeled seafood), much in the way organic agricultural products fetch a premium price.

The concept of seafood certification is not radical or contentious, yet there have been multiple specific complaints voiced about the MSC process and outcomes.  Here are the more consistent themes:

1.  Conflict of interest.  The third party certification bodies that conduct the assessments are hired by the fisheries that are seeking certification.  Thus, they have a conflict of interest to make certification as easy to achieve as possible.  Although an independent auditor oversees these bodies and can revoke accreditation should they fail to follow the MSC standards and procedures, there is “gray area” in expert judgment of the assessment process and scoring where this conflict of interest can come into play.

2.  Fisheries are certified even though they do not meet minimum requirements. To be certified, fisheries must average a high score (in grade terms, thank of this as a B average) across all performance measures, and cannot fail any single measure.  Suppose a fishery maintains an average score of a B+, has no failing scores, but has one C score.  Under the MSC system, these fisheries are awarded certification but have to submit and adhere to a plan for improvement.  In this way, the MSC system is designed to raise the performance of fisheries by making continued certification contingent on making specific improvements.  Nonetheless, some fisheries are awarded certification with several C grades, raising the ire of environmental groups who view this as giving fisheries a free pass.

3.  What constitutes “sustainable”?  Most of us can envision a perfect fishery – one that has no impacts on non-target species, habitats or ecosystems, is well managed, maintains conservative fishing rates, and has broad stakeholder participation in decision making.  We can easily identify examples of clear fishery failures with unsustainable and poor management practices.  Disagreement comes from the middle – fisheries that are pretty good, but not perfect.  Do we only want to certify fisheries that get all A’s, or is it better to certify a B+ fishery, contingent on them improving and thereby having a larger impact on fishing practices?

With these complaints in mind, how can MSC improve to better meet the broad goals of fishery sustainability?

To me, the most immediate item is #1:  The potential for conflicts of interest to impact subjective evaluation.  The MSC scoring criteria should be based on as many objective measures as possible to remove subjectivity. When there are clear, measurable goalposts, those who independently audit these assessments can robustly evaluate whether the scores adhere to the MSC standards.  There is room for improvement I think, particularly with respect to habitat impacts (e.g., for gear that interacts with benthic habitats) and other ecosystem impacts of fishing.  That said, this is not an easy task – MSC has to keep the assessment standards sufficiently general so that they apply to a wide range of fisheries.  So there is tension between the need to be specific in terms of outcomes and general in terms of broad applicability.

Items #2 and #3, minimum requirements and what constitutes “sustainability” are more philosophical in nature.   As such, they will only be resolved over time to see whether the fundamental idea behind the MSC program successfully achieves its goals – to engage with fisheries and “lift” them into more sustainable practices using the promise of economic reward. It is key to understand that MSC seeks to do more than simply award “good” fisheries.  They want to be an agent of change.  Part of that process requires that they bring lower-scoring fisheries into the program but only under the clear understanding that they must improve.

Of course, eco-labeling alone is insufficient to reach sustainability goals.  It is one of many tools, and may be more effective in some contexts than in others.  Given the enormous scope and complexity of world fisheries problems, it is important that we develop as many tools as possible.  We are learning how to better design no-take fishery reserves and implement coastal and marine spatial planning. We are improving the design of management systems.  We are increasingly experimenting with rights-based approaches to foster ecological stewardship.  We ought to consider MSC as an evolving work in progress designed to improve fisheries and not just an organization that hands out gold stars.

[Tomorrow: A guest post on MSC certification by Dr. Martin Smith of Duke University]


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