The science of sustainable seafood, explained

The MSC standard under review – where did it start and where is it going?

Since its launch in 1997, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has become the gold standard in fisheries environmental sustainability certifications. The organization plays an enormous role in the seafood industry—it employs over 300 people across 12 regional offices on 4 continents. Last year’s income eclipsed £30 million. They claim that, “since we were founded in 1997, fisheries responsible for around 14% of marine catch have been certified to the MSC Fisheries Standard.”

But in 2022, the MSC is at an inflection point. The organization is releasing a new version of its standard for public review on Tuesday, February 1st. The results will impact some of the world’s largest and most important fisheries.

Recently, the MSC certification system was criticized after the first bluefin tuna fishery achieved certification. Shortly after that, the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery certification was suspended due to interactions with critically endangered North Atlantic right whales (that certification has been reinstated). In December, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) finally agreed on an interim measure to briefly alleviate months of tension and NGO outcry for a new harvest strategy. MSC CEO Rupert Howes called the outcome “disappointing,” because 22 MSC certified tuna fisheries in this region are still at risk of facing suspension. A certification suspension on these fisheries would impact 73% of all eco-certified canned tuna globally.

The seafood certification space is increasingly incorporating social responsibility considerations, which is not lost on the MSC, but also not within its original scope of evaluation. Will the MSC continue to nurture fishery improvement projects (FIPs)? Will greenhouse gas emissions or other climate change impacts be incorporated in future standard reviews?

To begin to answer these questions we spoke with an array of MSC experts, including current and former employees, former board members and standard directors, as well as NGO peers and other stakeholders. We reviewed the certification’s history and mechanics to project its future adaptability to seafood sustainability challenges.

(a complete list of interviewees is listed at the end of the post).

History of the MSC and its standard

The MSC was created shortly after the collapse of the Newfoundland cod stock, an event that highlighted the environmental and social consequences of overfishing. There was momentum for market driven solutions to curb the problem, and producers were eager to distinguish their catch from unsustainable sources. The MSC theory of change has stayed the same from the beginning: inspire low environmental performance fisheries to modify their activity by rewarding environmentally sustainable fisheries with increased market access and value.

The MSC claims over 19% of global marine wild catch is presently certified, in assessment, or working towards assessment. Since the program launched in 1997, 46,200 sites across the seafood supply chain have been certified to sell MSC products. 20,000 different MSC certified products are sold each year.

This impressive scope and tenure inevitably required adaptation to emerging science, market demands, and the practical obstacles that came from applying the MSC standard to a diverse range of global fisheries.

The first fishery to be MSC certified was the Western Australia rock lobster fishery in March of 2000. The Alaska salmon fishery achieved certification a few months later. MSC awareness made considerable strides when one of the largest fisheries in the world, the Alaska pollock fishery, achieved MSC certification in 2005. Six year later, McDonald’s iconic Filet-O-Fish sandwich boxes featured the MSC blue tick logo at 7,000 of its restaurants in 39 countries.

Some of these early fisheries may have been low hanging fruit, ready to easily achieve MSC certification because they were already operating at a highly sustainable level. But accumulating quick certifications was not by design. “The MSC takes on any fishery that puts itself forward. It doesn’t go around the world looking for sustainable fisheries to certify,” said Keith Sainsbury, professor, Marine System Management at Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania; and current MSC Technical Advisory Board member.

But inevitably, data-rich, top performing fisheries were first to be certified and began reaping economic benefits. This is considered the first domino in the MSC’s theory of change. “We find when we get above 20% of a given product class being certified, all of a sudden the market pressure is quite considerable and the demand changes and a certification is expected in certain product classes,” explained Rohan Currey, chief science and standards officer at MSC. Uncertified competitors of Alaskan Pollock, salmon or Western Australian rock lobster were seeking certification in order to keep pace, whether they were ready to meet the MSC criteria or not. “The drive is there to get certified because the market and stakeholders demand it,” said Currey, “but maybe the fishery isn’t quite as prepared as earlier certifications for the same species.” As MSC certification expanded, this challenge became increasingly evident and put pressure on the MSC standard and the third-party assessment process.

The role of CABs

The MSC staff itself does not assess fisheries applying for certification because it would create a conflict of interest. Instead, an accredited independent conformity assessment body (CAB) is contracted by the fishery itself to perform the audit and assessment. There is a pre-assessment and public assessment, and the same CAB may not conduct both assessments for the same fishery. CABs are tasked with applying the MSC standard to determine a result.

“It’s a companion process: the standard, the guidance to the standard, and the actual application by the CABs all work together as what people see on the outside as the MSC certified product,” said Bill Fox, former Vice President of Fisheries Conservation on the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-US Oceans Team, and former Director of NOAA Fisheries.

CABs play an essential role in maintaining MSC’s legitimacy and consistency. But with so many different contractors and unique fisheries, the standard has been open for interpretation:

“Every different fishery that wanted to get certified ended up with its own interpretation of the standard. The individual CABs conducted their own assessments and developed their own assessment trees over time, and they became wildly different in scope and in coverage,” explained Currey. Sainsbury elaborated on this point, adding that, “when [CABs] encountered a real-life fishery they made all sorts of interpretations that they would argue were quite reasonable, but in many cases, they were not really what was intended.” This gave rise to a dramatic increase in the level of detail in the standard. Now the standard is several hundred pages long and covers many details, while the original draft was only seven pages. Perhaps it has even become too detailed, because in the current standard review, efficiency is a point of emphasis, said Megan Acheson, Senior Fisheries Assessment Manager for the MSC. “The idea is to reduce complexity while maintaining the same level of performance. If we could make it more digestible for folks who are not experts, that would be great.”

Assessment challenges

Certain types of fisheries stretched the fisheries standard in different directions over the years, sometimes leading to particular rule changes or criticism.

The “move-on rule” is a controversial MSC policy that was born from groundfish fisheries interacting with vulnerable marine environments (VMEs) through bottom trawling. Through a precautionary approach, the MSC introduced the move-on rule for all deep-water fisheries that might encounter VME’s, essentially requiring those fisheries to stop fishing in that area immediately upon encountering such habitat and “move-on” to a new fishing area. Orange roughy is the poster-fish for this rule and still represents one of the more controversial MSC certifications. Orange roughy fisheries in New Zealand met the standard in New Zealand, but a certification bid for this species in Australian waters was blocked.

“There are several fisheries that could have their certification at risk due to the application of the move on rule,” believed Andy Hough, consultant marine biologist at Hough Associates Ltd., certification policy advisor, and former MSC auditor. Furthermore, “the move-on rule could have a perverse outcome where we actually encouraged the fishing industry to undertake more prospecting, leading to a bigger footprint on the seabed,” shared Michel Kaiser, professor of fisheries conservation at Heriot-Watt University and former science & standards director for the MSC. Eventually the MSC responded by issuing a derogation to the move-on rule in 2020, allowing exemption if under the guidance of certain fishery management strategies.

“Compartmentalization” in tropical tuna fisheries is another oft-cited example that stretched the MSC standard and required interpretation from CABs. Compartmentalization allowed a single vessel to harvest tuna from an MSC certified fishery with the appropriate gear, but also harvest tuna from non-certified fisheries using different gear. A purse seine vessel might have tuna from a controversial fish aggregating device (FAD) in one fish hold, and an MSC certified free set purse seine landing in another, sometimes on the same trip. Environmental groups are deeply concerned about the possibility of mixing landings.

Perhaps more concerning is that compartmentalization disincentivizes sustainability. A vessel could access the MSC market advantages with its certified tuna landings, but continue to fish in uncertified ways and supply its other markets simultaneously. “It was complicated, potentially open to abuse, and unsurprisingly got a lot of heat from NGOs,” remarked Kaiser.

Eventually though, NGO outcry worked, and grocery store chains stopped using the MSC logo on some canned tuna brands. “They were still buying the fish from MSC fisheries, they just weren’t declaring them as MSC certified because they were getting so much grief from NGOs on the potential mixing issue,” explained Kaiser. Tropical tuna fisheries eventually realized they had to pursue MSC certification for the whole fishery, across all harvest methods, or risk losing the value on their certifications entirely. In 2020, the MSC revised this rule officially, prohibiting fishing vessels from harvesting both certified and non-certified catch using different gear on the same trip. “Basically, market forces drove the ‘theory of change’ in the case of tropical tuna fisheries,” added Kaiser.

The impact of NGOs on the MSC standard

NGO and conservation organizations have been an important stakeholder group for the MSC since the beginning. WWF partnered with Unilever in 1996 to originally draft and create the MSC. The MSC maintains a diversity of private, public, and non-profit voices on its advisory boards, and every pending certification is subjected to comment and critique. “It’s a healthy tension,” described Currey, “different stakeholder groups ensure we aren’t missing anything, we’re doing our due diligence, we aren’t making a standard too complex or unworkable, and all the while being aware of changes in the landscape that require us to evolve.”

But NGO involvement and collective voice is not what it once was. “NGOs have splintered into special interest groups, instead of one overarching response,” Christina Burridge, executive director of the British Columbia Seafood Alliance, conveyed. “People care about sharks, tuna, and other issues, but there doesn’t seem to be an effort to bring those all together in one coherent whole.” Lynne Hale, founding director of The Nature Conservancy’s Global Marine Initiative, and former MSC trustee agreed, but clarified: “NGOs must dedicate substantial resources to engage with MSC processes; it’s very expensive – both in time and money to object to certifications of specific fisheries when they don’t agree with a CAB’s determination. Hence, my biggest fear is that because informed, substantive engagement is resource intensive, NGOs might step back too far and disengage with MSC. And I believe without conservation organization support, MSC certification loses all value for consumers, and hence for industry,” worried Hale.

Meanwhile, seafood industry interests and commentary on assessments have always been very organized and focused, since they are the ones being audited. “[Industry representatives] turn up to all the stakeholder meetings and they give very good comments. When you go out to consultation on anything, the industry comes back with a very clearly articulate analysis, argument, and set of comments,” purported David Agnew, Adjunct Professor at the University of Tasmania and former Science & Standards Director for the MSC.

That “healthy tension” Currey described is an important check on the assessment process that if absent, would significantly devalue the certification and feed more skepticism from critics. A persistence of this stakeholder imbalance would benefit no one in the long run.

The role of retailers

The MSC blue tick logo is an established marker on seafood product packaging in Europe and is becoming increasingly present in North American grocery stores. Kroger, WalMart, Whole Foods, and other major North American grocery store chains are officially associated with the MSC and pay ecolabel license fees to use their logo on some fresh, frozen, and shelf-stable seafood products in their stores.

However, while engaging with buyers and driving change through the market is at the core of the MSC’s theory of change, “you must realize that there is a very large portion of MSC certified fish that is never labelled. The fisheries have passed every test, they could put a label on it, but the end user is not paying for final chain of custody. It’s just B-to-B and the optics end there,” explained Sainsbury. The MSC has multiple tiers of retail marketing partnerships, but only the top, most expensive tier allows for in-case fresh seafood labeling with the MSC’s logo. Using the logo in-store on fresh products is considered the highest level of participation and comes with very specific guidelines and supplier expectations. This level of traceability has not proved to be worth the price tag for most North American supermarket chains.

This is a reason why checking your local grocery store’s sourcing policy online can be more informative than scanning the information available at the fish case.

The MSC aspires to engage with 33% of global catch by 2030, but the limited portion of consumer facing MSC labels could hinder progress.

Another challenge might be the lack of direct participation by retailers in individual fisheries assessments and some stakeholder involvement processes, which Burridge thinks is predictable. “Retailers have a tendency to take one look at [the standard] and retreat – and that’s understandable. They are not in the business of managing fisheries or dealing with the complexities of the science. They don’t have the technical ability to be participants in that process.” However, retailers are represented on the MSC Board of Trustees and Stakeholder Advisory Council.

One particular area of influence for retailers is via consumer feedback. “Retailers are in an unusual position of sitting right next to the customer in the supply chain, and they do lots of surveys and activities to evaluate how the customers respond to their business model. For this reason, the MSC listens to retailers a lot and occasionally they are very impactful on the MSC,” Sainsbury voiced.

Last summer, Tesco, a major supermarket chain based in the U.K., exemplified retailer impact potential on fisheries policy. “If the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) fails to implement a recovery plan to rebuild overfished yellowfin tuna and billfish stocks at its next meeting in November, then Tesco will stop sourcing these fish for its Own Brand products,” Seafood Source reported last September. “I think that is a role for retailers to take a stand like this,” argued Burridge. “I would be surprised if we didn’t see more promises like this in the future,” believed Currey. “In the case of the Indian Ocean, I think retailers are understanding there is a level of fisheries management that should be expected and are becoming impatient when fisheries are not adapting.”

Hale felt that retailers have also been a critical driver of social responsibility considerations. “To me, the market is incredibly important as an influence. They want the MSC standard to be insurance against having boycotts. It would be really easy if they had one-stop shopping – one label and organization to keep protests away from their doors, in addition to verifying environmental sustainability. But the questions are always: what is this the role of MSC? Is it better suited for these efforts than other organizations? What is realistic?”

What changes could we see in the new draft standard?

CAB interpretation

Facilitating clearer interpretation and cohesion from CABs will definitely be a priority for the standard review team. “If I were to look to a weakness of the MSC it would be that the CABs are all reviewed and accredited by a separate group from the MSC (Assurance Services International). This is of course a third party, which is an important barrier to a conflict of interest for the MSC, but you give up a lot of control in interpretation and benefits, and that can lead to disfunction in applying the standard uniformly,” Fox contended. Once accredited, each CAB assembles its own expert teams to evaluate fisheries. Much of the focus in every standard review process since has been to clarify, specify, and reduce the burden of interpretations on CABs. This current review process will be no different.

Measuring outcomes instead of prescribing processes

On habitat issues that are addressed with measures like the move-on rule, Burridge believed the standard should be more, “outcome-based: how you get there should be up to you.” If sensitive benthic habitat is not being harmed, and that can be proved, does it really matter if the move-on rule is being followed? “[The move-on rule] is one tool, but not the only tool, to ensure your benthic impacts are minimized. Other means of producing this same outcome should be credited.” The MSC amended the move-on rule in 2020, but an emphasis on process over outcomes may still prove controversial.

Flexibility for tuna fisheries?

The MSC bought some extra time with an interim harvest strategy for Western Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO) tuna fisheries in December, but the problem of a “harmonized condition” persists. This condition, “requires the entire fishery to have a harvest control rule in place by next year,” explained Hough. “The [managers] have said they’re working on it, but maybe not quickly enough.” PNA CEO, Sangaa Clark, said, “The [interim] measure had gaps and weaknesses in it that would continue to need addressing, especially in the management of longline fishing in the high seas.” Seafood Watch ratings for WCPO tuna fisheries have been critical of longline gear, butting heads with MSC certifications at times. This tension will likely increase, adding more scrutiny to the MSC. If tuna certifications in this region were suspended, half of the entire global tuna catch and 73% MSC certified tuna would be impacted.

Fishery Improvement Projects and bringing MSC certification to more global catch

The path to certification and market access can be long and uncertain for many small-scale fisheries not based in Europe or North America. Fishery Improvement Projects (FIPs) have been an approachable doorway for smaller fisheries to enter the demanding MSC assessment cycle, while achieving legitimate market recognition in the process.

“FIPs are very much the focus now for the MSC,” believed Barratt. “It has all the easy [fisheries] certified, and if it is going to achieve the objective of 30% or more of global marine catch certified or engaged by 2030, it must look outside the traditional fisheries in the global north.”

Part of the MSC’s theory of change is for new adopters in a large fishery to act as catalysts. This is a mechanism often seen in FIPs, but sometimes that process can begin within a very unsustainable fishery and can garner skepticism. “Imagine you have three boats out of one hundred that are fishing sustainably according to the standard, but ninety-seven that are not fishing sustainably. In essence, the fishery itself is not sustainable, but those three boats are MSC certified. This fishery could be pursuing sustainability amidst unsustainable conditions for a very long period of time,” explained Fox. This scenario could describe tuna FIPs in the Indian Ocean that are progressing through the five FIP stages and maintaining good progress ratings, but are marred by the broader fishery management criticisms of the IOTC.

For seafood buyers that source by seafood sustainability ratings, this can present a tricky contradiction. For example, Seafood Watch has rated all swordfish and tuna fisheries in the Indian Ocean as “Avoid,” but there are at least twelve active FIPs targeting tuna and swordfish in those waters. If a buyer abides by MSC certifications or FIPs, as well as Seafood Watch Ratings, it could be forced to choose one benchmark over the other. The Seafood Certification and Ratings Collaboration seeks to mediate between any conflicting assessments, which makes sense within the industry, but that is a complicated explanation at the point of sale to an uninformed grocery store shopper.

There is also the reality that for some FIPs, MSC certification is not even a realistic achievement. Is the pursuit itself worthwhile because it raises the low bar, or does the lack of certification eventually erode the credibility of this process? It will be interesting to see if this standard review broadens or narrows the opportunities for FIPs.

Looking to the future

The MSC as an organization, a certification process, and even as a standard, has certainly evolved over the course of its history. “Our standard is not a fixed thing,” said Currey, “It needs to reflect the way fishery management best practice evolves. If you had a fishery seeking to be sustainable 20 years and ago applying today for MSC certification, I would be very surprised if it passed.”

The standard will likely need to reflect climate change considerations, both in the mechanics of its assessments, and with contributing factors like greenhouse gas emissions. Currey believed climate change, “will be the big issue in the background as we work on other issues and come up with ways that we can incentivize systems to deal with those realities.”

The MSC must also grapple with the increasingly holistic view of sustainability that is being demanded of the market and NGO’s. Social responsibility considerations are becoming essential for many seafood buyers. The MSC is beginning to address forced and child labor, and in 2021 published a Labor Policy. However, pressure to do more is building. Perhaps it is not the MSC’s role to lead human rights assessments in supply chains—other organizations may be better positioned to lead that effort. But even so, it is increasingly unacceptable to overlook those considerations.

The habitat rules and harvest strategy expectations for regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs) like the WCPFC are another element to watch closely. The ability of the MSC to expand its market incentives to more of the world’s fisheries will be essential to the organization’s goals.

But in other ways, the MSC standard is not expected to change at all. Most of the interviewees who worked with the standard directly during their careers echoed consistency over the last two decades. The principles and the theory of change are the same, as is the proclivity for controversy. “We’ve had controversial fisheries right from the outset,” remarked Currey.

Those controversies will continue as the market share for MSC certified seafood grows and more complex fisheries challenge the assessment criteria. But ultimately that’s a good thing. It behooves conservationists to challenge certifications in the comment process rather than dismissing them outright after the fact. The MSC has always welcomed that “healthy tension” and expects it to continue. The balance between NGO and industry input will be important to watch into the future.

The MSC logo is still relatively rare in fresh and frozen seafood cases in North American grocery stores. Chain of custody certification requires organized supply chain communication and cooperation, while ecolabel license agreements are prohibitively expensive. The result is a massive US consumer base that may not recognize the blue tick logo or understand its value – in a 2020 study the MSC determined only 27% of the North American general population recalled seeing the MSC logo. This leaves the MSC particularly vulnerable to bad publicity and false accusations (Seaspiracy) because too many consumers have not heard of it before. The goal of 33% of global marine catch certified or engaged by 2030 is within reach. But the MSC as an organization must be sensitive to consumer perspective, and build a more practical path for retail partnerships if they expect to be trusted in the era of fake news and climate disasters.

In reporting this story, we spoke with an array of MSC experts, including current and former employees, former board members and standard directors, as well as NGO peers and other stakeholders. We thank them very much for their time and effort and acknowledge them here:

David AgnewAdjunct Professor, Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, former Science & Standards Director for the MSC

Michel Kaiser – Chief Scientist – Professor of Fisheries Conservation at Heriot-Watt University; former Science & Standards Director for the MSC

Bill Fox – Former Vice President of Fisheries Conservation on the WWF-US Oceans Team; former Director of NOAA Fisheries

Christina Burridge – Executive Director of the British Columbia Seafood Alliance, chair of the Association of Sustainable Fisheries representing fisheries in the MSC process, former MSC Stakeholder Advisory Council member, and helped B.C.’s wild salmon fishery earn MSC certification.

Keith Sainsbury – Professor, Marine System Management at Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania; current MSC Technical Advisory Board member

Andrew Hough – Consultant Marine Biologist at Hough Associates Ltd.; experience as an MSC certification policy advisor and MSC auditor.

Lynne Hale – Former Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Global Marine Initiative; former MSC Trustee

Rohan Currey – Chief Science & Standards Officer at MSC

Megan Atcheson – Senior Fisheries Assessment Manager at MSC

Eric Barratt – Former CEO/Managing Director, Sanford Ltd; former MSC Trustee

Picture of Jack Cheney

Jack Cheney

Jack has sourced, sold, cooked, and sustainably certified seafood over the past 10 years. In addition to his contributions to Sustainable Fisheries UW, he is working to increase traceability into supply chains and educate consumers, chefs and retailers on the value of environmentally sustainable seafood. He earned a Master's in Marine Affairs from the University of Washington in 2015.

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