Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) – Certified Sustainable Seafood

 The demand for quality fish and seafood is on the rise around the world, which is good news to Kerry Coughlin. The regional director of the Americas for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has spent the last four years working on behalf of the non-profit organization to further the growth and success of its sustainable fisheries certification program in North and Latin America.

Here, Coughlin discusses the vision and mission of the MSC, and its standards and certification requirements.

What was the impetus for the creation of the MSC?

The history of the MSC really goes back to Unilever, which, at the time, was the largest trader of seafood in the world. Unilever was looking to protect the resource it traded. When the Grand Banks cod fisheries (off the coast of Newfoundland) collapsed in the ’90s, Unilever said ‘enough is enough’. It approached the World Wildlife Fund and the two organizations collaborated to create the Marine Stewardship Council, which became an independent and fully operational non-profit organization in 2000.
Marine Stewardship Council logo

What is the MSC’s mission?

The MSC is a market-based program that incentivizes moving the harvesting of seafood worldwide to a sustainable base. How does it do that? The MSC established a global standard for determining whether a fishery is harvesting sustainably or not.

What’s involved in getting certified to the MSC Fishery standard?

Although it’s not mandatory, the MSC strongly recommends that a fishery first get a pre-assessment before it enters a full assessment. The pre-assessment is a confidential “look” by an independent, third party accredited scientific auditor to determine where a fishery is against the standard.

Once a fishery proceeds with a full assessment, the MSC requires that the process be conducted openly. The auditor puts together an assessment team of scientific experts to conduct an onsite visit of the fishery. Then, an assessment report of the fishery’s sustainability is drawn up, which is peer reviewed by another set of scientists. Eventually, the auditor produces a final recommendation and, assuming there is no objection, issues a certificate and that fishery is then certified to the MSC standard. This certificate is good for five years. Each year, the fishery must undergo an audit to make sure all the factors remain the same.

Which fisheries are eligible?

The MSC program is open to all wild capture fisheries and gear types, with the exception of those that use poisons and dynamite or are only involved in shark finning.

What are the benefits of MSC certification?

Benefits to fisheries may include obtaining price premiums. Fisheries also may gain access to new markets that want MSC certified seafood. There are benefits to those in the supply chain too, especially restaurants and retailers. MSC certification enables these groups to demonstrate with assurance that they’re sourcing sustainably. As well, the MSC program provides traceability. This is increasingly important to customers because there’s a great deal of intentional and unintentional mislabelling and substitution in the seafood industry. The ability to trace a product back to its source translates into loyalty and patronage.

For consumers, MSC certification assures them that they are not contributing to eating the last fish of any species. Additionally, it empowers them to be part of the solution. Consumers are not only making the right choice; they are incentivizing fisheries that are not yet there and supporting those that are. In other words, their actions are helping bring about further change.

In the bigger picture the benefits to our environment, food security, the two-plus billion people who rely on fish for protein and the half billion seafood-dependent livelihoods are immeasurable.

How many fisheries are currently certified to this standard?

(As of August 1, 2012), 172 fisheries have been certified and there’s another 114 in assessment. That represents approximately 12 per cent of all wild capture fisheries in the world, which is quite a remarkable number.

Are there differences across geographic markets in the number of fisheries that are certified?

Certification is not evenly spread across the world. While it’s not limited to any one geography, it is concentrated in the more industrialized regions. Fisheries in regions such as North America, Norway, Iceland, New Zealand and Australia had the wherewithal to enter the program early on. Perhaps they had much stronger data and fishery management regimes in place, which are key to becoming certified.
That being said, the MSC is starting to see an enormous uptake and interest from the Russian Far East, Latin America, South Africa and other developing areas. The MSC is working with developing countries through its Developing World Program to ensure that all fisheries – regardless of size, scale, type, intensity and region – can access the program and that certification is applicable to fisheries in developing areas. The end goal is to increase the participation of fisheries in certification.

The MSC program certifies fisheries that demonstrate they are “fishing sustainably.”What does this mean?

The best way to understand this is to think of our three principles. The first principle pertains to the health of the stock. Is the stock replenishing, maintaining and even growing? A certified fishery must operate so that fishing can continue indefinitely and it is not overexploiting the stock. The second principle relates to the impact of fishing on the marine ecosystem. Operations must be managed to maintain the structure, productivity, function and diversity of it. The third principle is based on the management of the fishery. There must be a management system in place to maintain sustainability.

Does the MSC have a traceability program?

Yes, it is a separate standard but very much related. It’s what we call the “Chain of Custody” certification. Once a fishery has been certified, companies in the supply chain that wish to sell a product as MSC certified must have MSC Chain of Custody certification. This way every link is checked to make sure the MSC label is only displayed on seafood from a MSC certified sustainable fishery. The Chain of Custody certification is only required when the company handling the fish has an opportunity to substitute or comingle, not when they handle only finished consumer-ready packages with the MSC ecolabel.

What’s involved in getting certified to the MSC Chain of Custody standard?

Almost everyone in the supply chain has gone through any number of well recognized global certification processes, all of which require inventory tracking. As a result, it’s very easy for companies that want to obtain MSC certification to do so. It’s simply a matter of businesses demonstrating to an independent accredited auditor that they have effective traceability, storage and record-keeping systems in place to keep MSC labeled fish separate from non MSC certified fish. It’s a much less time consuming and costly process (than getting certified to the MSC Fishery standard).

What is the difference between the MSC’s certification standards and others in the marketplace?

The MSC program is rigorous, transparent, engages many diverse sectors and is the only truly independent third party program of its kind. It is the leading global standard for both fisheries and companies in the supply chain.


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