Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Alaskan salmon processors dump MSC

This is already old news, but it may be instructive to look at the reasons given by the Alaska salmon industry for dumping  MSC after more than a decade, and the response from MSC, now that the fish guts have settled somewhat, so to speak.

Among the reasons given by the Alaskan salmon industry, the Alaskan Fisheries Development Foundation and the Alaskan government, as reported by http://thefishsite.com and other media, is that MSC certification does not, in itself, make Alaskan salmon sustainable.  They consider the salmon fishery to already be sustainable because it meets State and Federal constitutional mandates for sustained yield, a commitment to scientific research and the need serve public good.   

According to http://www.upi.com/ the industry were also frustrated with the increasing complexity of MSC certification.  No doubt cost is also a factor – not only for the certification itself, but also for annual audits and the right to display the eco-label.  Although a non-profit, MSC has been able to fund considerable global expansion over the last decade through fixed annual fees and variable royalties based on how much MSC-labelled seafood is sold, as well as through donations.

MSC has not welcomed being dumped and has been quick to express its chagrin.  It considers that whatever alternative certification and eco-labelling scheme the industry comes up with, it will be inferior with regard to independence, transparency, traceablity and quality, attributes MSC has put forward to establish global brand identity.

Is the Alaskan salmon industry in the vanguard of a swing away from MSC certification? There is no doubt that MSC certification is highly complex and expensive.  Is MSC certification necessary for a fishery to be considered sustainable?

It all depends.  Nations like the United States and New Zealand have clear standards embodied in policy and legislation regarding when overfishing is taking place or when a stock is overfished.  If a fishery does not meet both of these standards then it is, by definition, not a sustainable fishery.  This is typically determined by federal or state scientific stock assessments through an independent peer review process in a transparent manner.  Provided the providence of products from sustainable fisheries is made clear in the labelling by indicating the fishery geographic stock location, scientific species name and capture gear type, the consumer has sufficient information to make an informed decision.

Typically MSC accredited consulting companies do no new analysis in reaching their sustainability determination.  Rather, they piggy-back on the federal or state scientific assessment, adding additional qualitative insights regarding ecological impact of the fishery and governance considerations.  In an MSC assessment a fishery on an overfished stock or a fishery that is overfishing the stock can be granted “conditional” sustainability certification and can carry the MSC eco-label provided it has plans to become sustainable with regard to the MSC standard within a prescribed period.  Thus a fishery can be deemed provisionally sustainable under MSC while considered unsustainable under USA or NZ federal standards.

Does the MSC label provide sufficient information for the consumer to make a wise choice?  Typically it does not.   There are 5 choices of text that MSC provides to accompany their blue eco-label.  None of these contain any information on the geographic stock location of the fishery, the scientific name of the species, or the fishing gear used.  There is also nothing to distinguish fisheries that have conditional sustainability certification from those that meet all the MSC criteria.  Consumers must take the MSC eco-label on faith or visit the MSC website and do their own research to determine these important details.

Marine fish stocks are a public resource and it is the responsibility of governments to manage this resource for long term public good.  Nations like the USA and NZ are well advanced in this regard and don’t have need of third party eco-certification to augment their own legislation, policy and procedures.  They only need to work on improving the communication of this information to the public.  Detailed product labelling, including whether or not the product meets both sustainability criteria (not overfished and overfishing not taking place), would allow consumers to make wise choices on sustainable seafood.