Sunday, September 12, 2010

Seafood stewardship in crisis?

In an opinion article published in Nature 2 September, Jennifer Jacquet of the UBC Fisheries Centre and colleagues criticise a number of facets of fisheries sustainability certification carried out by the Marine Stewardship Council.  They suggest "scores of scientists… and many conservation groups" have protested over various MSC procedures or certifications and that MSC increasingly risks its credibility and the planet risks losing wild capture fisheries and healthy marine ecosystems.

MSC fired back an immediate response arguing that its sustainability standard fully met FAO guidelines and had the support of “over 200 marine biologists, scientists, environmentalists and other stakeholders from around the world.”

To add more numbers to the fray, last year ASOC (Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition) numbering more than 200 non-governmental organizations in fifty countries concerned with the preservation of the Antarctic environment filed a notice of objection with MSC regarding the sustainability determination of Moody Marine with regard to the Aker Biomarine Krill Fishery. 

So, lots of people engaged on both sides of the argument it seems.  There is little doubt that at least some of MSC’s fisheries sustainability certifications are highly controversial and the MSC Board would do well to consider the reasons with a little dose of humility rather than denial.

There are three areas of potential concern – the MSC standard, its application and governance.  The principles and criteria that make up the MSC standard are consistent with most interpretations of what would constitute a sustainable fishery, at least in terms of single species management.  At the ecosystem level MSC criteria are more nebulous, but this reflects the general lack of our current understanding about what ecosystem sustainability means and how to achieve it.

The problem seems to lie with what Jacquet et al. call the “loose interpretation of its rules”.  As one of MSCs own Independent Adjudicators recently put it, the MSC process “leaves a substantial margin of discretion to the certification body in the way in which it sets scoring guideposts against individual performance indicators”.

MSC independent certifiers are seen by some to be certifying fisheries that are not sustainable as conditionally sustainable in anticipation that they will become fully sustainable in order to retain certification.  It is hard to believe many fisheries scientists or others seriously interested in long-term sustainable management of our fisheries think that this is justified.  There may be more sympathy if at least one fishery had actually lost certification for not meeting the conditions imposed by MSC, but this has never happened.  Jacquet et al. suggest that MSC is in danger of diminishing the value of its brand as leading retailers respond to heightened public concerns by requiring higher standards than those applied by MSC’s independent certifiers such as Moody Marine Ltd.  As Jacquet et al. point out there is economic incentive for leniency – “certifiers that leniently interpret existing criteria might expect to receive more work and profit from ongoing annual audits.”

Jacquet and colleagues touch on issues related to the MSC objection procedure.  It is this aspect of MSC governance that is perhaps the most troublesome.  It is run by lawyers retained on salary by MSC and it is a process to ensure that MSC’s own rules have been followed in reaching a determination, rather than to evaluate whether scientific data related to sustainability are adequate and have been properly interpreted.  As such it cannot second-guess the independent certifiers’ assessment of the sustainability of the stock.  This leaves little opportunity for a member of the public, or public groups to derail an assessment on technical grounds related to data and interpretation.  The proof is in the pudding.  No MSC assessment has ever failed to reach a successful sustainability determination and no objection has ever been upheld.    

Needless to say the MSC Board rejects the criticisms of Jacquet and colleagues, claiming that its practices and procedures are beyond reproach.  When some of the MSC’s founding fatherly advisors and early supporters such as Daniel Pauly and Sidney Holt suggest that there are serious problems, the MSC Board would do well to listen, rather than shoot from the hip.