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Sustainable Fisheries | The MSC Label

Have you ever noticed the little blue logo on some fish products and wondered what the three letters ‘MSC’ mean?

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is arguably the worlds leading non-profit aiming to halt overfishing and improve global sustainability standards throughout fisheries. To do this, the MSC assess if a fishery is well-managed and sustainable, and grant certifications based on a list of set standards. Not only does the blue label make it a little easier for us (consumers) to distinguish between sustainable and unsustainable seafood, but the certification also helps recognise fisheries for being sustainable.

What are the MSC sustainable standards?

First, a fishery applies to be assessed by the MSC Fisheries Standard. A council of scientists, conservation groups, and fishery industries then review the fishery accordingly based on these standard requisites:

Three core principles 1,2

  1. Sustainable fish stock focuses on maintaining a productive and healthy fish population. That means that enough of the target fish remains in the ocean to ensure that the fishery is not fished to extinction. This means, for example, that if the fish population drops below the sustainable level that has been suggested, the fishery should reduce its main catch. With that in mind, the main catch needs to be monitored regularly.
  2. Minimisation of environmental impact, so that the habitat and surrounding species can endure through time. If the fishery unintentionally catches other fish species, this needs to be noted, otherwise fishing can threaten other populations. So, a strategy must be in place to reduce the unwanted death of those species. On top of that, the fishery must have a strategy to minimise their habitat impact.
  3. Effective fisheries management, including objectives and responsive enforcement systems that sustain livelihood for the people who depend on present and future fishing.

Overall, a fishery cannot apply if: 1) they are targeting amphibians, reptiles, birds or mammals, 2) they use destructive fishing practices such as explosives or poison, 3) if they have been prosecuted for forced and child labour violations within the last two years, or 4) if a fishery has been conducted under a controversial (unilateral) exemption to some international agreement.2

So, is it easy to buy sustainably caught fish?

Unfortunately, no.

Although a seemingly good certification system, MSC has been criticised for being too lenient and discretionary in their certification of fisheries. Things get more complicated when big food retailers pledge to purchase all their fish products from MSC-certified fisheries. For example, in 2006, Walmart pledged that they would buy all their seafood from MSC-labeled fisheries by 2011, which put pressure on MSC to certify large fisheries more quickly in a specific amount of time.3

Plus, to gain the blue MSC logo certification, the fishery applying must pay for it. This money is used for the certification process and for MSC to run its business of staffing and so on. But, the problem is that it might exclude perfectly sustainable fisheries (often smaller fisheries) because they cannot afford the certification. It can cause confusion among us consumers since the lack of certification does not always mean that a fishery is not sustainable.

What’s more, once a fishery has an MSC certification, there is little incentive to improve the fishery towards higher levels of sustainability.4  And the more fisheries that become certified, the less distinction there will be between those that are more sustainable than others.

The bottom line

The MSC states that their certification reflects the ‘most up-to-date’ standard of sustainable fisheries. And the MSC does invite external experts to comment on the fishery certification process.

While it is not a perfect system, it does help ease the process of buying fish products that are a little more sustainable. Just bear in mind that certification doesn't always equal sustainability, because not all fisheries can afford the process.

I don’t know about you, but I personally find it difficult to find the time to look up every species of fish that I want to buy, where and how it was caught. So, if you are looking to save time but not wanting to compromise too much on sustainability, then it seems to be worthwhile to keep an eye out for the blue fish logo. But, if you are someone who feels that you have the time to go into the depths on what is the most sustainable fish to buy, I suggest reading this article on fishing techniques.

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