Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Bluewashing and lollipops – MSC sustainable fisheries certification under pressure

There have been two recent provocative contributions to the growing discussion of the Marine Stewardship Council sustainable  fisheries certification scheme.  The first is a well-researched three-part investigation by Daniel Zwerdling and Margot Williams of NPR aired on MorningEdition and All Things Considered in February 2013.

Zwerdling and Williams highlight several shortcomings of MSC sustainability certification, including the conditional certification of fisheries that are not sustainable but which may become sustainable if identified shortcomings are addressed.  MSC considers that conditional certification provides an incentive to improve.  However, as Susanna Fuller, co-director of marine programs at Canada's Ecology Action Centre in Halifax told Zwerdling and Williams, that’s like telling a child, "You've been really bad, but I'll give you a lollipop, and then I want you to show me how much better you can be…It just doesn't work, right? You've already got the lollipop."

Rupert Howes, the MSC's London-based CEO, defends the lollipop approach and says that there is evidence that conditional certification works.  He points out that if MSC were in the business of only giving lollipops to perfectly behaved fisheries they wouldn’t hand out many lollipops!  

Even if Howes is right about the lollipop effect, the “certified sustainable seafood” label is misleading to consumers.  The MSC blue logo does not necessarily mean that a product comes from a sustainable fishery.  Instead it may come from a fishery, such as the Canadian Atlantic long-line Sword fish fishery, which catches two sharks which are discarded, a significant proportion dead, for each swordfish landed.   Or it may come from a depleted stock such as offshore South African Hake which, if recovering at all, has a long way to go before the fishery can be considered sustainable.  Or it may come from the Ross Sea Toothfish fishery, a fish stock about which not enough is even known to determine what a sustainable catch would be.  These fisheries do not meet widely accepted sustainability conditions, but products from these fisheries display the MSC blue “certified sustainable seafood” sealof approval.

The second contribution to MSC shortcomings is a paperpublished in the current edition of the scientific journal BiologicalConservation by Claire Christian of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, and colleagues.  They reviewed the 19 formal objections to MSC certifications made over the last 15 years in the course of certifying more than 170 fisheries.  These objections are costly to file and are subject to a complicated quasi-legal MSC process which has rejected all but one objection. 

Claire Christian and colleagues conclude from their study that the MSC principles for sustainable fishing are too lenient and discretionary, and allow for overly generous interpretation by third party certifiers (private for-profit consulting companies) and MSC hired adjudicators.  Contrary to MSC claims, MSC-certified fisheries are not all sustainable and certified fisheries are not necessarily improving (the hoped-for lollipop effect).  Even further, they note that genetic detection studies show that not all products with the MSC logo actually come from MSC certified fisheries.  

Consequently they conclude that the MSC label may be misleading both consumers and conservation funders.  They consider that if MSC does not overcome these problems their blue certified sustainable seafood logo will be characterized as nothing more than “bluewashing”.

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