The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) was founded in 1997 to provide a way for well-managed, sustainable fisheries to receive recognition. The blue MSC eco-label is applied to fisheries that are assessed for sustainability by a third-party certifier. This label is displayed at fish counters and on packaging containing fish from the certified fishery. MSC sets the standards, which fall under three broad categories, or principles. According to MSC, these are:
1. Maintenance of the target fish stock
2. Maintenance of the ecosystem
3. Effectiveness of the fishery management system
The certifier grades the fishery on its performance on items under each of these principles and then determines if the fishery is eligible for MSC certification. Commercial fishing operators pay for the certifier to assess the fishery, and sometimes only part of a fishery will be certified because not all operators will choose to apply for certification. Recently, several Southern Ocean fisheries have applied for MSC certification. Two have been certified so far - Antarctic krill and Ross Sea toothfish. In each case, only part of the fishery applied for certification and is therefore eligible for the MSC label. ASOC formally objected to both certifications, believing that the available information was insufficient to support the determination that the fisheries were sustainable.
ASOC and MSC
Although ASOC supports CCAMLR and believes that it has made significant progress in its management of Southern Ocean fisheries, we also believe that the application of the MSC label should not be taken lightly.* Many members of the public have become aware that fisheries around the world are in trouble and want to avoid purchasing seafood that is harvested unsustainably. Adding a label that says a fish is sustainable can be highly misleading if people do not have the knowledge necessary to evaluate the standards behind the label While fisheries may meet MSC standards, they may also have features that are less than ideal. For example, MSC does not prohibit its fisheries from using the controversial method of bottom trawling, a practice similar to forest clearcutting that destroys the seabed and often takes high amounts of non-target species as bycatch. Many scientists and experts rank bottom trawling as the most destructive fishing method. Even if catches for a bottom trawl fishery are sustainable in terms of the targeted population and the ecosystem, consumers may wish to avoid purchasing a species harvested in such a harmful way. These and other problems with the MSC standards for sustainability mean that species can be certified without good information that they are sustainable long-term. Southern Ocean fisheries may not be in immediate danger of collapse, but this does not mean we can declare them sustainable with confidence. ASOC does not believe that MSC standards are strong enough to ensure that certified fisheries are truly sustainable and have limited environmental impact.
ASOC Krill Objection
ASOC objected to the proposed certification of a portion of the Antarctic krill fishery in 2009, citing the lack of information about the krill population and the impact of fishing on the ecosystem. Though krill are thought to have a large biomass, krill fishing is concentrated in areas where there are also large numbers of krill predators. Research on these predators that could lead to an understanding of how krill fishing affects them has been declining in recent years. There is also a dearth of recent information on the status of the krill population itself, but the research that is available indicates that krill populations are in a long-term decline and that this decline will be exacerbated by warming temperatures in the West Antarctic peninsular area. Although our reasons for objecting were found to have merit, our objection was ultimately overruled. Our original objection and our additional information brief and the press release from our partner in the Antarctic Krill Conservation Project (AKCP) can be found below.
ASOC Toothfish Objection
ASOC also objected to the certification of portion of the Ross Sea Antarctic toothfish fishery in 2009, due to lack of information about the species. Antarctic toothfish are slow-growing and long lived, and little is known about the species. It is not even known how often they spawn, and eggs and larvae have never been found. Antarctic toothfish constitute an integral part of the Ross Sea's foodweb, and the planned reduction of approximately 50% of the unfished biomass will result in substantial changes to the ecosystem, the effects of which are unknown. ASOC did not believe that there was sufficient information about toothfish to determine if the fishery was sustainable and objected to the proposed certification. Some, but not all, of our objection was upheld, but the certifier was able to respond to these points and still allow certification due a lack of guidance in the MSC objections procedure concerning what certifiers must do if objections are upheld. Our original objection and our additional information brief, as well as a press release on the decision, can be found below.
What You Can Do
Fishing operators seek out the MSC label because consumers DO care about the environment and the long-term health of fish populations. But the MSC label is not a reliable indicator of sustainability - some certified fish are truly sustainable, others are not. If you want to make smart seafood choices, we recommend that you follow the guides available from these organizations:
*ASOC Member WWF has not participated in either objection and does not necessarily endorse any of the opinions on this page.
Antarctic Conservationists Troubled by Sustainability Label for Toothfish - ASOC Press Release
Pew Faults Marine Stewardship Council's Decision on Krill - Pew/Antarctic Krill Conservation Project Press Release