Deep dive into
the MSC’s story

These deep dives tell you more about the first 20 years of the MSC, sharing more detailed insight,experiences and narrative.

Protecting the birds

Bycatch isn’t just about fish and marine mammals. A 2011 survey by Birdlife estimated that up to 300,000 birds are killed every year after being ensnared by longline hooks. They can also get caught in gillnets.

Addressing the broader impact of fishing on the ecosystem, including non-targeted species (bycatch) is a key part of the MSC’s assessment, and reduction of seabird mortality can be one of the requirements of certification.

This was the case in the Kerguelen fishery in the southern Indian Ocean. Here, 750 grey petrels were being killed each year, causing the population to decline. Certification in 2013 came with a target to reduce fatalities to a maximum of 20 a year per vessel by 2017, as well as introducing a monitoring system for grey petrels.

According the latest surveillance report, the fishery is well ahead of target – it reported 80 birds killed or injured in 2014-15, just 3 of which were grey petrels.

‘Certifiers consider the status of the stock of each bycatch species,’ explains Stephanie Good, Senior Fisheries Certification Manager at the MSC. ‘If it’s below its biologically based limit, the fishery needs to put measures in place to ensure it’s not hindering the recovery of that stock in order to be certified.’

Another success story is the South Africa hake fishery, which completed its second reassessment in 2015. Here, around 10,000 seabirds – more than half of which were albatrosses – were being accidentally killed each year. Improvements made as a result of certification conditions have seen a 90% reduction in seabird fatalities – and a 99% reduction in albatross deaths.

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Assessments unpacked

Assessment is a rigorous, science-based process with continuous improvement at its heart. Fisheries of all sizes and in any location can apply for MSC certification. To obtain it they must meet the MSC standard, ensuring that:

  • fish stocks are sustainable – enough fish have to be left in the sea so they can reproduce;
  • fishing is managed so the wider marine environment can support life;
  • good management is in place.

Today, all fisheries are scored against 28 performance indicators, covering fish stock, ecology and management. A score of 60 indicates the minimum acceptable performance, while 80 counts as global best practice.

The MSC ensure its assessments are comprehensive and well informed by encouraging everyone with an interest to get involved – from retailers to NGOs to government bodies.

A fishery’s assessment doesn’t end with certification either. Once certified, fisheries are subject to annual surveillance audits to see that conditions are met. If a fishery scores between 60 and 79 for any performance indicator, it has to take steps to improve to the 80 level in order to retain certification.

Fisheries work hard to meet improvement requirements, collecting evidence to show that they are not having negative impacts on the wider environment.

‘The way that MSC certification works around a principle of continuous improvement is for me what makes it so special versus other certification that may be yes/no tick boxes,’ says Judith Batchelar, Head of Brand at Sainsbury’s. ‘What MSC does is provide meaningful data that gives you a point of reference to improve on.’

‘It was very gratifying to demonstrate that prior serious problems with a fishery do not prevent a fishery from overcoming them and reaching the level of MSC certification.’

Robert Trumble, Vice President of MRAG Americas

Robert Trumble, Vice President of MRAG Americas, one of the MSC’s third-party assessment bodies, has seen at first hand how initial failure can trigger ultimate success. He was involved in the pre-assessment and assessment phases of several New Zealand orange roughy fisheries.

As well as being very in demand commercially, the orange roughy is fished almost exclusively by bottom trawling, which has made it very unpopular with some campaigning groups. But with the exception of fishing with cyanide or dynamite, the MSC approach is to look at every fishery on its own terms, and to apply the same rigorous process of scientific assessment.

‘We decisively failed the fishery in pre-assessment and passed it decisively after full assessment,’ recalls Robert. ‘We had the opportunity to explain to the world how one of the most hated fisheries in the world made had substantial improvements that addressed all of the issues we’d identified.

‘The assessment received objections on numerous grounds; but the Independent Adjudicator found that the MRAG team had complied with all of the MSC requirements and ruled in favour of the fishery.

‘It was very gratifying to demonstrate that prior serious problems with a fishery do not prevent a fishery from overcoming them and reaching the level of MSC certification.’

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What's in a label?

‘The logo that represented the MSC needed to convey the ideas of “approved”, “bold” and “fresh”

Sarah Hunt, MSC Ecolabel Licensing Manager

You’ll find the MSC label on everything from shrimp to salmon to cat food. It’s an instantly recognisable assurance that the fish you’re buying is sustainable, as well as a way of showing that even doing something small can help to make a big difference.

The blue fish label came out of research by the Conway, Smith & Rose agency when MSC began in 1998. It found that labels influenced the shopping choices of increasingly environmentally conscious consumers. And so the MSC looked to create a label to communicate its message.

‘The logo that represented the MSC needed to convey the ideas of “approved”, “bold” and “fresh”, as well as being reassuring by looking official,’ Sarah Hunt, the MSC’s Ecolabel Licensing Manager explains.

The blue fish was born in 2001 and registered as a trademark. The original label, which is now used as the MSC’s corporate logo, featured just the fish with the words ‘Marine Stewardship Council’. A new full ecolabel, including the words ‘Certified sustainable seafood’ was introduced in 2010.

It’s a simple but powerful tool. ‘The logo provides assurance of premium chain of custody certification and traceability when you put it on the package,’ says Christine Penney of sustainable seafood supplier Clearwater Seafoods.

‘We’re building understanding and making people aware that if they see that blue lozenge they don’t need to worry about the detail,’ says MSC CEO Rupert Howes. ‘They can be assured that the fish they’re buying is certified, sustainable, traceable and wild.’

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Founding funders

The MSC has always had the good fortune to enjoy the support of donors who understand and share its vision. ‘From its inception the MSC has relied on the goodwill of, and financial support from, philanthropic organisations,’ says former MSC Development Director John White. ‘Without their continued involvement, the organisation would not have existed or been able to develop worldwide.’

‘Our donors’ support is vital to our ability to maintain critical science and technical functions, develop our standards, retain existing and attract new fisheries into our program, and build and maintain support in the market,’ says Science and Standards Director, David Agnew. ‘The continued support of our three largest donors in particular – the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Dutch Postcode Lottery and the Walton Family Foundation – has been essential to furthering the MSC’s mission.’

In the first year of operation the Maurice Laing Foundation, the Swedish International Development Agency, the Avina Foundation (via WWF), the Rufford Foundation (who continue to support the MSC), the Confederation for British Industries, and Unilever.

Subsequently they were joined by a range of American and British funders. Those who gave multiyear core grants such as the Robertson Foundation, the Garfield Weston Foundation and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation were critical to the development of the MSC.

‘The Foundation has had a strategy on global sustainable seafood markets for 18 years,’ says Sarah Hogan of the Packard Foundation. ‘A core piece of this has been around the tools that businesses need to make decisions about sustainability and the tools that fisheries need to demonstrate their sustainability. Here, of course, the Marine Stewardship Council is critical.’

The Packard Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation have donated millions to the MSC over the years, as well as offering essential and robust oversight of its processes and policies. The Dutch Postcode Lottery has donated €500,000 annually since 2011 and, following an evaluation of the partnership, has pledged a further €2.5 million grant to run until 2021.

‘The Postcode Lottery believes it is important that future generations can enjoy an abundance of fish and oceans full of life,’ says Margriet Schreuder, its Head of Charities. ‘We are pleased to be able to continue supporting the work of the MSC.’

The MSC also receives project-based funding from arange of supporters to help encourage and enable fisheries to move towards MSCcertification. In 2015-16 alone, project funding made possible the MSC’s workin Brazil, China, France, Japan, Mexico, Mozambique, Spain and more. And in2017, the Dutch Postcode Lottery funded a four year project called ‘Fish forGood’ that will work with fisheries in Indonesia, South Africa and Mexico.

The role of funders is not just to provide support but also when necessary to provide robust feedback and to hold the MSC to account. ‘Major funders take an ongoing and critical interest in the organisation,’ says John White. ‘They not only hold the MSC to account for the use of their money, but often are also influential stakeholders in helping the MSC to deliver on its mission.’

‘We see our relationships with our funders as true partnerships, where together we are working towards a vision of the world where oceans teem with life,’ says CEO Rupert Howes.

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Maintaining the Standard

Today even the MSC’s critics – such as some campaigning NGOs, who would like to see the organisation go further in addressing certain fishing practices – agree that a credible, science-based third-party process has to be part of the solution to over-fishing. The MSC Fisheries Standard is the core of this science base.

The Standard is designed to assess if a fishery is well-managed and sustainable. Developed with scientists, the fishing industry and conservation groups, it reflects the most up-to-date understanding of internationally accepted fisheries science and best practice management. (In terms of the knowledge base around sustainability, the MSC is an early follower of good science, says Rupert Howes. ‘Gradually the sustainability bar can be raised as new science is widely adopted and accepted by different management agencies around the world.’)

MSC chief scientist David Agnew was part of the team that undertook the first review of the Fisheries Standard in 2006, and led the second review in 2012. A fully-revised v2.0 was launched in 2014, following two years of preparation and a year-long consultation with fishing industry experts, scientists, NGOs and MSC’s wide network of partners. It encompasses the expert knowledge of MSC stakeholders from around the world.

The updated Standard has raised the bar for a number of important issues including bycatch mitigation and vulnerable marine ecosystems, and touches for the first time on labour issues. It ensures that fisheries certified to the MSC standard continue to adopt the most up-to-date practices, in order to safeguard the security of fish stocks and livelihoods for generations to come. And it’s increasingly seen as a model to emulate by others.

‘Our Standard has become the de facto way of measuring a fishery’s sustainability,’ says Dr Agnew. ‘For example, we’ve seen it developed for use as part of fishery status risk assessment tools, and it provides a clear structure and objective for Fishery Improvement Projects. It’s also been adopted by governments, and we are increasingly being asked by governments to train and capacity-build in this area.’

The Standard is used and approved by ISEAL, global leader in sustainability standards, is recognised by the international certification benchmarking system the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative, and in 2015 was incorporated into the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, part of the UN’s decade-long initiative to significantly reduce biodiversity loss.

‘MSC is one of the global leaders in the sustainability standards movement,’ says Karin Kreider, Executive Director of ISEAL. ‘They are valued by many of the world’s largest companies who buy, manufacture and sell seafood products; and are considered the most credible voluntary sustainability certification program in the wild capture fishing sector.’

Karin points to the MSC’s role not just in setting standards but also in constantly monitoring them and updating them where necessary, to keep ahead of changing conditions. ‘MSC measures its impact and its value throughout the seafood supply chain to ensure it is an effective system and to drive continual improvement. But it is also committed with other ISEAL members to find solutions to sustainability challenges.’

Complementary to the Fisheries Standard – and just as essential to its industry authority and credibility – is the MSC’s Chain of Custody Standard. Established in 2001, following two years of consultations, and extensively revised since, the MSC’s Chain of Custody ensures that MSC labelled seafood can be traced all the way along the supply chain, from ocean to plate. As of 2017, the total number of Chain of Custody certificate holders has passed the 3000 mark, a figure that has almost tripled since 2010.
(See Deep Dive: MSC Chain of Custody – from boat to plate)

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Meet the CEO

‘I have no idea how I ended up running the MSC!’ says Rupert Howes, MSC CEO since 2004. ‘I come from a family of actors and musicians. No one finished school, no one went to university. Maybe it all started by watching David Attenborough in the 70s and being fascinated with his programme, The World About Us. An awe of nature is something I’ve felt intuitively from a very young age.

‘I went to a fairly tough north London comprehensive, took a year out, travelled, went to Sussex University, did an economics degree focusing on development and trade. All these things were very influential. I then took part in Operation Raleigh, working on conservation projects.

‘When I came back, it was Thatcher’s Britain and I decided to become an accountant! I joined KPMG, then resigned and in 1991 did a Masters in Environmental Technology at Imperial College London. It was brilliant and gave me a complete grounding in sustainability. After that, I worked for the Science Policy Research Unit, the International Institute for Environment and Development, and then Forum for the Future with Jonathan Porritt.

‘When I was headhunted for the MSC role, it was like everything came together. I loved the ethos of a not-for-profit. I loved the idea of social purpose and mission. And there is something profound about oceans and food and livelihoods and productive eco-systems.

‘I think there were 16 people at MSC when I started. There was a crisis of confidence, and there was no evidence that the program was making any changes. I did about 100,000 miles a year for my first 3 or 4 years, re-engaging with industry, NGOs and funders. We put a huge amount into credibility, science, improving the process – to a degree we were building the plane as we were flying it.

‘Looking back today, we’ve grown from those 12 people to about 220 staff in 20 offices, from 10 certified fisheries to 400 engaged with the MSC’s program.

‘The MSC is just a tool. Ultimately, leadership comes from the fisheries who expose themselves to very public process, civil society and market players...’

Rupert Howes

In 2007, Rupert won a Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship for his contributions in establishing the MSC as the world’s leading fishery certification and ecolabelling program. In 2009, he received the World Wildlife Foundation’s Leaders for a Living Planet Award, and in 2014 he won the Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneurship Award, which recognises leaders in sustainable social innovation.

‘The MSC is just a tool,’ he says. ‘Ultimately, leadership comes from the fisheries who expose themselves to very public process, civil society and market players who acknowledge that they have a role to play in ensuring our oceans remain healthy.’

‘We still have a long way to go,’ he says today. ‘But we’re in a great position and it’s a very exciting time to move forward.’

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MSC Chain of custody – traceability from ocean to plate

‘What the MSC Chain of Custody does is give you the certainty that what you think you’re buying is what you’re buying.’

Judith Batchelar, Director of Sainsbury’s Brand

The Chain of Custody Standard is a voluntary scheme designed to ensure that every distributor, processor and retailer trading in MSC certified sustainable seafood has effective traceability systems in place. It’s there to reassure consumers that MSC products are what they say they are – sourced legally from a certified sustainable source, and not mixed or replaced at any point with uncertified seafood.

Monitoring activities – from product tracebacks to unannounced audits – are regularly carried out across the globe to verify the efficacy of these traceability systems. This has become more important in recent years with the growth in seafood fraud – the selling of seafood products with a misleading label, description or promise.

Not only does seafood fraud threaten the bottom line of reputable fishers and seafood traders, it also undermines the progress being made by sustainable fisheries. One global analysis suggested that, on average, 30% of seafood products are incorrectly described or labelled.

‘Traceability is really important in any certified value chain,’ says Judith Batchelar, Director of Brand for Sainsbury’s, the UK’s biggest retailer of MSC products. ‘What the MSC Chain of Custody does is give you the certainty that what you think you’re buying is what you’re buying.’

To verify that these traceability requirements are effective, the MSC conducts twice-yearly DNA tests on a random sample of MSC labelled products. Tests in 2016 showed that 99.6% of MSC labelled seafood is correctly labelled.

‘The development of our DNA and traceback testing methodology from 2010 onwards was a key transforming moment in being able to prove the provenance of our fish,’ says MSC chief scientist Dr David Agnew.

Chain of Custody can help to drive consumer demand in regions that have historically been less familiar with the sustainability agenda too. Singapore has seen considerable growth in Chain of Custody certificates over recent years, with 19 companies becoming certified since 2010. While much of the growth has included trading companies, two hotel chains also received Chain of Custody certification.

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The retail pioneers

Sainsbury’s led the way in the UK as the first retailer to sign up to the MSC principles. ‘We were very keen to be the first retailer to sign up because we had already identified this issue and we were keen to work back up our supply chain to bring about changes in the way we sourced fish,’ said Sir Peter Davis, Sainsbury’s Group Chief Executive, at the time.

Now 76% of Sainsbury’s wild-caught range is MSC certified. That’s 225 products – more than twice the number offered by any other UK retailer. Everything from the tuna in takeaway sandwiches, to the anchovies in stuffed olives, to the fish in the fish ‘n’ chips in store cafés – is MSC certified. The retailer has pledged to reach 100% sustainable seafood by 2020.

That initial commitment was driven by a growing environmental awareness among customers which is very much aligned with Sainsbury’s own values, says Judith Batchelar, Sainsbury’s Head of Brand.

‘What the market needed was a hard-and-fast standard that customers could easily recognise – one that wasn’t just about us setting and marking our own homework,’ she says. ‘Third-party endorsement was really important.’

It’s a view echoed by Margaret Wittenberg, former Global Vice President of Quality Standards at Whole Foods Market, the first US retailer to collaborate with MSC.

‘It had to be a good, strong program rather than just slapping a sticker on something,’ says Margaret, recalling her first contact with MSC back in 1999.

‘We loved the multi-stakeholder concept,’ she recalls. ‘We thought: here’s how we can really approach sustainability in seafood.’

The produce of MSC’s first certified fishery, the Australian Rock Lobster, hit the Whole Foods Market shelves in 2000. Things really took off with the introduction of certified Alaskan salmon to the stores in 2001. The success was underpinned by the support given to MSC on education and marketing by Whole Foods Market.

Twenty years on, Margaret looks back on the tenacity of the MSC. ‘There were times when the funds were low, but we just knew this was a dream that could be fulfilled,’ she says.

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The art of diplomacy

Brokering agreements between complex sets of stakeholders – commercial, environmental and political – is a huge part of the MSC’s role in creating market-led economic incentives for sustainable fishing. But getting it right can take time and skilful diplomacy. Take the case of Iceland.

This passionate fishing nation initially had a negative impression of MSC because of early mistakes made in explaining the MSC’s offer. It was a view that took 10 years to change, but the thaw was marked with the historic certification of the Icelandic exporting company Sæmark’s cod and haddock fisheries in 2011.

Today, Iceland’s cod, haddock, herring and saithe fisheries are all MSC certified – along with its ling, redfish and lumpfish fisheries, which were the first certified fisheries of their kind anywhere in the world. So how did the turnaround happen?

‘We spent significant time engaging with the Icelandic fishing industry between 2006 and 2010,’ says Camiel Derichs, the MSC’s Regional Director in Europe. ‘Early on in the process we learned that there was a trust issue due to earlier negative experiences of the Icelandic industry with environmental NGOs. And MSC’s early discussions with the Icelandic fishing industry did not take enough account of the perspective of a proud fishing nation with a great track record in fisheries management.’

To correct this perception problem the MSC had many conversations with the Icelandic fishing industry, answered many questions, and took the stakeholders in Iceland through the ins and outs of the MSC Standards, the assessment process, the checks and balances in the system, and the transparency and impartiality of the system.

‘Gradually attitudes in the Icelandic industry started to evolve, especially once other North Atlantic fisheries also started to engage and succeed with MSC certification. We recruited our Icelandic representative Gisli Gislasson, who played a key role in changing the perception of the MSC, and ultimately the industry moved towards acceptance of the program,’ says Derichs.

In Iceland today, sustainable practices mean that catches are increasing, and fishing is becoming more efficient. ‘Sustainable fishing is fundamental,’ says Ólafur Óskarsson, captain of the Johanna Gisladottir, one of the boats in the MSC certified Icelandic cod and ling fleet. ‘I want to be a fisherman tomorrow and for the next generations to be able to take over. This is our livelihood so it’s important to fish the right quantity.'

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Into Asia

Fish probably matters more to the Asia Pacific region than anywhere else in the world, with the biggest global numbers in terms of catch, consumption and employment. China’s annual marine capture harvest alone – almost 14 million tonnes – is nearly three times bigger than of any other country.

And with global demand for seafood expected to grow by a further 50 million tonnes by 2025 and the global population projected to pass 9 billion by 2050, putting seafood on a sustainable footing is a humanitarian issue – especially in this region.

Encouragingly, from gaining a presence in China’s enormous e-commerce sector, to the opening of Totally Searoll Club, Japan’s first MSC certified restaurant, the Asian market for sustainable seafood is taking off.

China currently offers over 150 MSC certified products to consumers, and has over 300 Chain of Custody certificate-holders. ‘Demand from the Chinese seafood market for MSC products is increasing,’ says Dr An Yan, the MSC’s Program Director in China. ‘Retailers and suppliers are keen to find and import more seafood products with good quality and new types for Chinese consumers.'

The MSC has expanded its operations in China and throughout South East Asia, and is working to help embed the message of seafood sustainability in the world’s most populous country.

‘We’re hoping to see awareness of the MSC and the blue ecolabel increasing among Chinese consumers and more Chinese fisheries joining the program,’ says Dr Yan.

In Japan too, the movement is growing. ‘The commitment from Aeon – Japan’s largest retailer – to make 15% of their seafood MSC/ASC certified by 2020 is a very powerful message,’ says Kozo Ishii, the MSC’s Program Director in Japan. ‘A Japanese pole and line skipjack and albacore tuna fishery got fisheries certification last year – the incentive for them was the domestic market demand from Aeon. It’s the first example of market-pull in Japan.’

Another milestone has been the certification of one of the country’s largest fisheries, the Hokkaido scallop fishery in 2013. And trends continue to be positive, with nearly 30 companies gaining Chain of Custody certifications in 2016 and the number of fisheries starting pre-assessment dramatically increasing, thanks in part to the generous support of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

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Learning from failure

If the MSC is to be a credible and authoritative Standard, there will inevitably be times when fisheries fail either to reach initial certification or to secure a renewal of their current certificate (suspension). Up to 2015-16, for example, about 10% of all fisheries that have ever entered the MSC process had experienced a failure, and another 17 fisheries had been suspended.

Once certified, fisheries are subject to annual surveillance audits to ensure that they continue to meet the requirements of certification. Where suspensions happen, it’s usually due to a failure to keep target stock sizes at the required level, or to maintain or improve management systems such as harvest control rules. In 2014, for example, the Portuguese sardine purse seine fishery was suspended after an audit revealed that despite efforts made by the fishery and the Portuguese institutions, stocks were not recovering at the rate expected.

Failure or suspension is not the end of the story, however. Many of the fisheries that fail or are suspended from certification go on to successfully introduce the improvements that are necessary to re-enter assessment.

In 2012, at the height of the ‘mackerel wars’ – a period of tension between the UK, Norway and Iceland over acceptable fishing quotas –all seven certified mackerel fisheries in Faroese and Icelandic water were suspended. This was a consequence of an increase in catches above the scientific advice after mackerel increased their range into northern waters, together with a breakdown of international stock management agreements.

Fishers and their respective ministers have been working ever since to bring the dispute to an end, so it was a huge step forward when the Mackerel Industry Northern Sustainability Alliance (MINSA) achieved certification as a single combined fishery in May 2016.

MINSA took what its coordinator Ian Gatt calls ‘a truly unprecedented partnership approach’ to get the North East Atlantic mackerel fishery back on a solid footing. It involved more than 700 boats from 11 countries – from small coastal handliners to ocean-going trawlers – all working together to contributing to a sustainable future through the MSC program.

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How the toothfish bounced back

‘In the early days of the MSC there was a significant campaign against restaurants selling the fish because of illegal fishing. Fast forward to 2017, and well over 50% of the global toothfish fishery is now certified.’

Jim Humphreys, MSC Global Fisheries Coordinator

In August 1999, major US organic and natural food retailer Whole Foods Market halted the sale of Chilean sea bass, also known as Patagonian toothfish. Overfishing and poaching by pirates had driven this popular species to the brink of extinction, with estimated illegal, unregulated and unreported catch at around 32,500 metric tons.

But six years later, toothfish was back on Whole Foods Market shelves – certified to the rigorous MSC standard. It came from the South Georgia fishery, the first toothfish fishery to be MSC certified. Located in the Antarctic region, in one of the most remote spots on the planet, the fishery had worked hard to prove its practices are sustainable, and also won plaudits from BirdLife International for the way it had reduced albatross bycatch from many thousands of bird mortalities in 2011, to fewer than 20 by 2017.

Certification drove up prices, especially on the West Coast of America, pushing more fisheries to enter the MSC program. And today, five other toothfish fisheries have joined the South Georgia fishery in becoming independently certified to the MSC standard.

‘The Chilean sea bass has regained its reputation and come back into the US market,’ says Jim Humphreys, MSC Global Fisheries Coordinator. ‘In the early days of the MSC there was a significant campaign against restaurants selling the fish because of illegal fishing. Fast forward to 2017, and well over 50% of the global toothfish fishery is now certified. And we see that change as testament to the MSC approach.

‘Where a fishery has poor environmental performance, a good player within the global group is able to go forward and become certified,’ he adds. ‘And this creates market pressure on other fisheries to become certified. It’s a powerful message.’

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Making small sustainable

More and more small-scale fisheries around the world are becoming interested in moving towards sustainability, as they come to see that making improvements to their operation can open up access to lucrative markets in developed countries. But although these fisheries are vital to food security, livelihoods and economic development, not all are managed sustainably, and even those that are may not have the resources, data and governance systems they need to achieve MSC certification and so benefit from the growing market for sustainable seafood.

‘Lack of data often doesn’t mean a fishery is unsustainable, it just means it’s difficult to tell if it is sustainable,’ says Dr Yemi Oloruntuyi, Head of the MSC’s Developing World Fisheries Program. Finding the funds to pay for the data about fish stocks that a standard MSC assessment requires can be a huge challenge. ‘Often the small scale of the fisheries doesn’t justify spending that much money from a research perspective,’ says MSC chief scientist Dr David Agnew.

So a risk-based framework has been developed for certifiers to use in this situation, which makes certification possible even with very limited data. ‘The standard for certification bodies has changed in such a way to make it more doable for smaller fisheries but without watering it down,’ says Volker Kuntzsch, CEO of seafood suppliers Sanford.

Another issue is that small-scale fisheries may involve a large number of fishers. ‘In larger scale fisheries with very high production volumes, you might have just 20 or 30 big players,’ says Yemi. ‘But with some small-scale fisheries, with comparatively low volumes, you might have several hundred or a few thousand players – and in that sense just being able to organise, which the MSC program does require, becomes tricky.’

Such challenges have led to the rise of the FIP, or fishery improvement project. FIPs bring together fishery stakeholders – fishers, managers, researchers, funders and NGOs – to collaborate on improving a fishery’s practices and management. Although the MSC does not run FIPs, it works with industry, retail and NGO partners to help make sure that the FIPs they manage are delivering real sustainability improvements, ideally with a view towards applying for eventual MSC certification.

Sarah Hogan, program officer for the Packard Foundation’s Seafood Markets strategy, sees FIPs as a valuable tool to provide fisheries who aren’t at certification level yet with a ladder to move towards sustainability. ‘I think we will continue to see an emphasis on adapting MSC tools so that fisheries around the world, in places where there isn't strong management or strong governance capacity, can still reap the market benefits of sustainability and certification.’

‘The existence of a credible certification provides a motivation and target for fisheries to aim for,’ says Rupert Howes. ‘By setting a benchmark for sustainable fishing, the MSC Standard has allowed the development of credible, measurable fisheries improvement projects.’

Another such tool is the MSC Benchmarking and Tracking Tool (BMT), which provides a simple and transparent method for reporting and tracking the status of fisheries against the MSC Standard as they improve towards certification. To date, 23 fisheries taking part in FIPs have publicly reported their BMT scores to demonstrate their progress. These fisheries cover 13 developing countries and six different species, among them lobster, tuna and mahi mahi.

Capacity-building is one further way the MSC can help fisheries in developing countries progress. ‘We’re working not just to improve stakeholders’ ability to engage with the MSC, but also to increase the number of experts in developing countries that can act as auditors or assessors – thereby reducing the cost of certification,’ says Yemi Oloruntuyi.

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Getting the national vote

The MSC makes so much sense in some parts of the world that whole states or regions want to get with the program.

The first state to make a national commitment to the MSC was Vietnam back in 2005 when Luong Le Phuong, Vice Minister of Fisheries, signed a memorandum of understanding with MSC to promote sustainable fishing in the country. A few years later, the Vietnamese Ben Tre clam fishery became the first in Southeast Asia to receive MSC certification.

In 2007, the Dutch retail sector united and announced that from 2011, all wild-caught seafood at every retail chain in the Netherlands would come from MSC-certified seafood. It made the country one of the MSC’s biggest success stories so far in terms of MSC-certified products, along with Switzerland and the UK.

The government of British Columbia got on board in 2008, committing CA$100,000 to support MSC assessment for its fisheries. And the government of Western Australia is providing $14.5m of funding to help the region’s fisheries gain sustainability certification.

‘We’ve found that our standard has been picked up by governments and management agencies as a recipe to follow,’ says David Agnew. ‘One of the most successful examples has been Western Australia, which decided to align with the MSC’s management principles and has reorganised its Department of Fisheries along the lines of the MSC standard.’

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Looking ahead to the next 20 years

Oceans are the largest ecosystems on earth, home to an extraordinary diversity of life, and provide a renewable source of healthy, delicious food. Around the world, about 1 billion people depend on seafood as their main source of animal protein. The fishing industry contributes US$500 billion per year to the global economy, while around one in 10 people depends on fishing for their livelihood.

But the oceans are not inexhaustible or indestructible. More than a quarter of fisheries globally are over-exploited, and many others aren’t managed as well as they could be. Coupled with climate change, pollution and other man-made impacts, this is putting oceans under tremendous pressure.

Today there is growing recognition of the importance of ocean conservation. The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include an ambitious target to end overfishing, transform fisheries management and rebuild stocks by 2020. Signed by 193 countries, the SDG has set the agenda for governments, business and development agencies between now and 2030.

The MSC has much to contribute here. Over the last 20 years, it has helped to facilitate better fisheries management, forge partnerships and deliver real ocean change, from the Arctic to the Indian Ocean. It has proved that its basic idea works: credible certification of sustainable fisheries can drive real and lasting change. But there is much more to come, says CEO Rupert Howes.

‘We can and we will do much more,’ he says. ‘We’re aiming to have 20% of global marine catch involved in the MSC program – either certified or in assessment – by 2020 [as of 2017, the figure is about 12%]. By 2030, we want to see that figure rise to more than a third.

‘We are committed to inspiring improvements in more fisheries and ocean ecosystems. We will enable more fishers, particularly in the global south, to benefit from certification and better management. Over the next three years, we plan to double the number of fisheries from the global south involved in the MSC program.

‘We will help build new markets for sustainable seafood, to reward and encourage further sustainable practices. And we will work to ensure our standard remains robust, credible and effective.

‘We have put in place a detailed strategic plan to help us deliver on all these commitments. And all of it is underpinned by our vision, one that every lover of sustainable wild-caught seafood can share.

‘Our vision is for the world’s oceans to be teeming with life, and for seafood supplies safeguarded for this and future generations.’

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