Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Da Fishy Code – Interpreting the MSC eco-label

So what does the MSC eco-label tell you?  Not a lot it turns out.  You have to do a lot of digging.  My example is a package of MSC certified “Wild Albacore Tuna Portions” purchased from a national grocery chain in Canada (Sobeys/Loblaws).  

The front of the package has the blue MSC logo and provides information that the content is “Certified sustainable and responsibly caught seafood”.  The back of the package also displays the MSC logo and has a little more information:  “This product comes from a fishery that has been independently certified to the Marine Stewardship Council’s standard for a well-managed and sustainable fishery.”    Under the MSC logo there is also a number, SF-C-1245.

A Google for MSC SF-C-1245 gives a several relevant hits, none of which are for the MSC website.  The highest ranking hits are all for which tells us that this is the MSC Certificate Code.  Including these key words together with the code still gives no MSC related hits.  If MSC has a website linking information on certified fisheries to certificate codes, I could not find it using Google.  The MSC website does however assure us that the blue logo means that buyers can have confidence that the fish we are buying can be traced back to a fishery that meets the MSC environmental standard for sustainable fishing.  It’s all about trusting the brand! is a free resource connecting businesses that buy and/or sell sustainable seafood.  Using the MSC certificate as the link to the product, FishChoice tells us that the package contains steaks of Thunnus alalunga, wild caught off British Columbia Canada.  It also notes that its partner organizations Seafood Watch, SeaChoice, Blue Ocean Institute, FishWise and Ocean Wise, as well as MSC, all give it the “green thumbs up” as a best choice in terms of sustainable seafood.  Fishchoice states that it adds to its directory only seafood products that meet the minimum sustainability threshold of its partner organizations.  It anticipates that seafood buyers will search FishChoice for environmentally preferable seafood products and then contact suppliers to make their purchases.

Next steps would be to research the BC albacore fishery certification on the MSC website.  MSC tells us that the unit of certification is the “Canadian Highly Migratory Species Foundation (CHMSF) British Columbia albacore tuna North Pacific”, that it is caught by troll and jig by about 198 vessels and was certified by MSC in March 2010.  Perusing the consultant’s assessment of the fishery on the MSC website, one can note that there is little or no bycatch and any ETP (endangered, threatened, protected) species can easily be returned to the sea unharmed because of the use of barbless hooks.  That’s good.
One can also note that a number of conditions have been placed on the fishery regarding things that need to be fixed within the current certification period to ensure ongoing certification.  Prominent among these is the need to determine the appropriateness of the current management targets and to develop limits to fishing.  This may be difficult to achieve given the highly migratory nature of the species and the complexities of the organizations involved.  The Canada/US Management Authorities are Fisheries and Ocean Canada (DFO) and the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC).  International management of the North Pacific albacore resource is shared by two international fisheries commissions: the Inter American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC).  The International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the North Pacific Ocean also plays some role in this process.

One might be a little concerned that the BC Albacore fishery is provisionally certified sustainable by MSC without well-established fisheries management targets and limits, but that might be unfair given the greater shortcomings in a number of other MSC certified fisheries.

What else is on the Albacore packaging?  The top right has a round label that challenges us to “Trace this Fish…From Ocean to Table” and tells us to “see back for code”.  There is also a QR barcode that you can scan into your smartphone.  They both lead ultimately to the same place.  The back of the package tells you to visit where you can type in the “Trace this Fish” code C001025.  When you do this you learn a whole lot more about the fishery.  You learn that “Your Albacore Tuna was caught by Korey Sundstrum off Barkley Sound and landed frozen-at-sea in Ucluelet, BC on Jul 25, 2011.  Who processed it?  Pasco Seafood Enterprises Inc. in BC.”  Neat eh? is a project of Ecotrust Canada.  Ecotrust Canada is an enterprising nonprofit whose purpose is to build the conservation economy. They work at the intersection of conservation and community economic development promoting innovation and providing services for communities, First Nations and enterprises to green and grow their local economies.    They have partnered with fish harvesters and seafood businesses to provide “Ocean to Table” information.  Information is uploaded by fishermen and thus far has more than 250,000 records in its database.

DFO is supposedly also launching a program to trace seafood “from ocean to plate,” giving consumers what DFO claims will be accurate and timely information on the seafood they eat.  Thus far there is nothing to show in the public domain so I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Time to grill that albacore steak!


  1. It is important to note that the MSC certificate number applies to the supplier and not a particular certified fishery. SF-C-1245 is the certificate number for Pasco Seafood Enterprises, Inc. located in British Columbia. The same certificate number appears on MSC certifieid Albacore from British Columbia, Chum salmon from Alaska, Sockeye salmon from British Columbia...etc. is a much more useful source for finding out exactkt where your seafood comes from and fishermen/women should be encouraged to upload their catch data to this site.

  2. That QR code sounds pretty neat. But how do we know it's for real? The fishermen, the boat, the location -- they probably all exist.
    But who verifies that the information is reliable? It could easily be fabricated by random selection of values in a database.
    What's next? Some MSC version 2.0, that "certifies" the traceability program is legit? Probably! LOL
    I read that Canada catches it's tuna off the U.S. coast!? So that seems out of whack with the QR code. But then would it be Canada tuna? Or is that false advertizing. They still call chilean seabas "chilean seabass" no matter where caught. Maybe that's different? But I see Hawaiian albacore in the markets? Weird.

  3. just another marketing scheme to dupe consumers...
    who cares if you can trace your salmon back to who caught it? what if that salmon came from a typical BC mixed stock fishery and it was from a depressed or in trouble fish run? how does traceability help this situation?
    will MSC or thisfish start genetic testing to see if that fish is from a stock of concern...unlikely.

    its all just marketing crap to try and make consumers feel good...or less guilty..about buying fish and does very little for the fish itself.