On the Hook - An external review of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)
The Marine Stewardship Council ecolabel is the world’s most widely used certification programme for wild fisheries and is considered the ‘gold standard’ for sustainable seafood. The MSC has, however, faced substantial criticism and formal objections relating to the certification of unsustainable fisheries, inaccessibility of the MSC programme and potential conflict of interests within the MSC’s business model. In 2021, On The Hook requested the MSC undertake a full, external review of the MSC’s application of its Standard, governance, operations and business model. This was rejected by the MSC, and in response On The Hook formally launched its own external review of the MSC in 2022, calling for all to participate.
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This review of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC):
An objective summary of respondent inputs to the On The Hook external review of the MSC is presented herein. Respondents largely felt that the MSC has lowered its certification standards over time and the MSC’s drive for growth and income has come at the expense of the Standard’s effectiveness and scientific credibility. Generally, many feel that the MSC has lost its credibility as an indicator of sustainable fishing, certifying numerous unsustainable and harmful, large-scale fisheries. Many feel that the MSC no longer promotes sustainable fishing and does not meet customer and market expectations of a world-leading ecolabel. This report synthesises feedback from a public survey, roundtable discussions and one-on-one interviews with key experts. Based on this synthesis, the report offers a range of recommended improvements for the MSC to implement.
the MSC’s drive for growth and income has come at the expense of the Standard’s effectiveness and scientific credibility.
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) Standard:
A lack of adaptive management, failure to address social sustainability, human rights, climate change and weaknesses in the business model surrounding conflicts of interest between Conformity Assessment Bodies (CABs) and the MSC are suggested to have contributed to the MSC’s failings. The use of ‘conditions’ that make it difficult to distinguish between low and high scoring fisheries was also commonly deemed inappropriate and not in line with the MSC’s mission of ‘oceans teeming with life’. Many suggested this is exacerbated by significant opacity and ambiguity in the MSC Standard that creates too much scope for excessive discretion and inconsistent use of expert judgement by CABs.
Roughly 60% of respondents to the consultation feel the MSC is no longer an effective indicator or driver of sustainable fishing. In contrast, less than 20% believe that it is.
The MSC process and governance:
A lack of stakeholder feedback making its way into subsequent MSC policy and certification was considered disappointing, and the MSC’s financial investment in science and data collection was thought to be insufficient to support genuine and long-lasting change in sustainable fisheries. Additionally, the cost and time investments needed to make formal objections were considered significant barriers to participation for many stakeholders.
Respondents also suggested that the MSC’s governance was not representative of the wider global fishing industry, something that was echoed by the fact that the MSC does little to facilitate the assessment of small-scale fisheries that may be sustainable but lack the necessary resources to engage with the MSC.
Over three-quarters of the consultation respondents (78%) feel the MSC’s use of the term ‘sustainable’ is not appropriate or in line with market and consumer expectations
Based on the findings within this review, practical recommendations are given for urgent and longer-term improvements needed for real and practicable MSC reform. While the MSC may be considered the ‘gold standard’ for sustainable seafood by some, heavy criticism of the MSC’s governance, operations, business model and standard highlight that the MSC should be thoughtful of the points raised herein. This is particularly so when considering current class action lawsuits that are underway in the USA related to serious allegations that question ‘sustainability’ claims associated with the use of the MSC ecolabel. On The Hook has made it clear that this review is not meant to cause disrepute. The review is meant to drive positive, lasting change and collaboration between On The Hook and the MSC’s leadership to help ensure the MSC mission of ‘oceans teeming with life’.