Eco-labelling for sustainable seafood

We take a look behind the Marine Stewardship Council's eco-label for sustainable seafood...
11 January 2011

Interview with 

Maylynn Nunn, Marine Stewardship Council


The South-West mackerel handline fishery in the UK – first certified in 2001 – now supplies fresh fish to UK supermarkets and restaurants, including celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant in London.


Maylynn - The Marine Stewardship Council came to be about 10 years ago and it was put together by WWF and Unilever as a partnership because there was a realisation that what was missing for ocean conservation was a market-based tool, basically an incentive to reward fisheries that are operating sustainably and to create an incentive for those that weren't to raise the bar.

Helen - How do you understand and, almost, define that sustainability.

Tuna pole and line fisheryMaylynn - For the Marine Stewardship Council we have a very objective science-based way of defining sustainability. So, the MSC was set up as an environmental voluntary standard for sustainability so the focus is on the environmental side of things.

And there are three overarching principles to the standard.  The first one focuses on the status of the stock itself, so the assessment teams need to make sure that a stock is healthy, that a stock is doing well.

The second principle is on ecosystems, so looking at habitats and interactions with bycatch species and things like that. So, wider than the stock, also looking at the impacts on the ecosystem.

The third principle is about the legislative framework. So regulation, whether there's proper regulation in place and if it all fits together to support a sustainable fishery.

Helen - Getting to the nuts and bolts of how this actually works, if there's a fishery that wants to join in with the Marine Stewardship Council how does it go about actually getting certification?

Maylynn - We have various different departments with the MSC that focus on exactly that. So we have outreach staff that are based in different regions of the world that are the main contact points for fisheries that are interested in the program. So they are there to have conversations with interested fisheries, teach them about what are standard is, what's required to meet it.

There are certification bodies that are independent from the MSC  that actually carry out the assessments and so a fishery client would contact a certification body, our outreach staff would say this is the first step you need to do, and then probably undertake a pre-assessment. So that certification body would look at the fishery, a first almost like a scoping exercise to tell them you're looking good we think you'd probably pass under full assessment, or you need to improve in these ways before you can have a chance at passing.

And once they've done a pre-assessment and perhaps improved the fishery to what ever level they need to be at, then they go into full assessment and start the actual MSC fishery assessment.

Helen - So you don't actually do those assessments yourself?

Maylynn - Yes, exactly. And that's quite an important thing about the MSC actually, is that it's a third party independent certification standard. So, the Marine Stewardship Council itself owns the standard, but the assessments are done by accredited certification bodies who then hire independent experts or fishery scientists to undertake the assessments.

Helen - What sort of tools, what sort of scientific tools are they using in terms of trying to understand how much of an impact a fishery is having?

Maylynn - If the assessment team is looking at how the stock is doing, one of the first things they'd look at is a stock assessment, if there is one. In Europe for example there's a body called ICES, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, that has scientists that do stock assessment on European fish stocks using various methods like they might do hydroacousitc surveys which is basically sticking a big microphone in the ocean and trying to sound-wave how many fish there are essentially, and estimate what the population is.

South-West mackerl handline fisheryBut in some fisheries there are no stock assessments and it's harder for them to meet our fishery standard because the way it was initially set up it's quite data heavy because we required a lot of things, evidence is provided for a lot of things like state of the stock, how much fish is caught, all sorts of things like that.

But for some small scale fisheries in developing countries it's pretty much impossible for them to show that using regular methods. Maybe it's just a small fishery with, I don't know, three vessels catching 40 a day and they've always caught 40 fish, and they aren't expending much more effort to catch that many fish, fish are the same size, that kind of thing.

So we've developed something called the risk-based framework that small-scale fisheries can use which is basically a way of looking at what impact they have on the fish stock without using such data-heavy protocols. So it's basically getting a group of stakeholders together to talk about what they've seen in the fishery in the past few years and try to assess a level of risk.

Helen - And, who pays for this certification? Presumably this isn't just a free systems you can't just join in and expect to have all these services for free, who actually pays for that?

Maylynn - I'm really glad you asked that question, actually because it's a message that I think is really important for the Marine Stewardship Council. So, the fishery being assessed pays for the assessment but they pay the certification body to undertake the assessments and the MSC does not receive any of that money. So, the fishery client is paying the certification body for their services basically.

Helen - Presumably you have ot keep quite close tabs on what's going on toa make sure they are maintaining that sustainability? How does that work?

Maylynn - Yeah, so if the fishery passes and gets certified, that certificate is valid for 5 years. And every year the fishery gets audited. The assessment team goes back to the fishery to check that they are still on track, that if there are any conditions on certifications, so areas where they are operating sustainably but could improve to even better practise.

And it's not possible for that fishery to be reassessed, which would happen at the end of the 5 year certificate, if they have not met their conditions or if something has changed in the fishery, it could cause them to fail and loose certification.

Marine Stewardship Council fishermen with logoHelen - And, how do you feel the Marine Stewardship Council has changed the way that we fish the ocean?

Maylynn - Yeah, this is something that we are looking into in more and more detail. And we do have some anecdotal stories to say that things are really improved. Like for example in the South African hake fishery since they've been certified their numbers of albatross bycatch have really, really decreased. So things like that have happened.

The MSC is really interested in seeing the broader picture, so what impact are we having on the oceans and marine sustainability generally. So, we're undertaking development of a monitoring and evaluation programme to really put in place a strategy so create impact factors - things that we monitor from year to year to track changes in the oceans and try and say what the MSC has contributed to make those changes.

Helen - Is it realistic to say that we can achieve this for the whole oceans and still have enough fish for everyone to eat? Or is this kind of a luxury for people who can afford to pay a bit more for their fish?

Maylynn - The MSC's vision is to create sustainable seafood for the next generation and to have oceans that are teaming with life.

So we're not looking to certify every fishery in the sea, but the goal is to reward those fisheries that are operating sustainably, with the eco-label and they can use that to market their product and perhaps get a price premium and hopefully that is an incentive for other fisheries to raise the bar and operate at that level as well.

I don't think that it's possible for all the fisheries to get certified but I think, and we certainly seen in the past few years an increasing number of fisheries coming forward. Whether or not that trend of increase is possible to continue the way is has, I don't know, but I think that the eco-label is still a valuable tool to influence the market that way. 

Find out more

The Marine Stewardship Council


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