Wetenschap - 17 januari 2013

'Fish label needs to improve'

The MSC ecolabel for sustainable fish is popular and influential. But it should do better, say marine scientists. Is there something fishy about the fish label?

As you might have noticed when buying in food for Christmas, these days most fish in the supermarket have the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) label. Such fish is from a sustainable fishery, which means there is no overfishing or damage to the ecosystem. About ten per cent of all fish caught globally has this label.  
In the Netherlands the ecolabel is popular and very influential. For instance, the Dutch supermarkets plan to only sell MSC fish from 2015. There is a lot of goodwill among fishery scientists as well, but at the same time there has been growing criticism over the past few years. Critics say the label has not yet shown that it genuinely leads to more sustainable fishing. Also, they claim the MSC is not sufficiently alert to the shortcomings in its assessment procedure. We take a look at the key problems.
Problem 1: the MSC is too western
The stringent requirements act as a financial and practical hurdle making it difficult for fisheries in poor countries to acquire the label. Its website optimistically describes the MSC as a global organization but the associated map shows that most of the certified fisheries are based in Europe and North America. 'Certification is simply too expensive for fisheries in developing countries,' says Simon Bush, university lecturer in Environmental Policy, who published an article this month about the problems with the MSC label. 'Also, poor fisheries usually don't have much data so they can't show whether they are sustainable.'
This puts the MSC in a quandary. Its credibility depends on firm scientific evidence but it also needs to assess as many fisheries as possible around the world if it is to stay relevant. It cannot let developing countries lag behind. Bush knows that the MSC is making an effort to resolve that problem. For instance, it is testing an assessment procedure that relies more on risk estimates and less on data. The organization is also taking a lot of minor measures to reduce the financial and practical hurdles. The intention is there, says Bush, but there is still a long way to go.
Problem 2: MSC label is too crude
Fisheries are either sustainable or not sustainable - the MSC offers no other options. In practice that causes distortions, says Bush. He cites the example of a group of Dutch plaice fishermen. Encouraged by the WWF, they stopped fishing in certain vulnerable waters in the North Sea, while their competitors carried on fishing there as before. But supermarket consumers did not see any difference: the fish of both groups were sold with the ecolabel. So then the Dutch fishermen added a WWF panda next to their MSC label [RR - in Germany].
But such additions and details only get consumers confused and that could undermine the label, says Bush. One solution would be for the MSC to use a traffic-light system to show sustainability. That should not be difficult, he says. 'The MSC assessment is on a scale from 0 to 100. You could use that in your communication.'  At any rate, ignoring this issue is 'not to the MSC's advantage', according to Bush.
Nathalie Steins, Benelux manager with the MSC, agrees that the information provided by the MSC is limited. If you score80 out of the 100 points, you get the label. There is no opportunity to distinguish yourself further. 'That's because our first priority is to provide a strong, reliable label.' She does not see any benefit in a 'gold, silver or bronze rim' to the MSG logo. 'It's debatable whether consumers would understand that. There are also practical objections. For example, traceability would be more difficult and cost more.'
Problem 3: MSC does not increase sustainability
The really stinging criticism is the claim that the MSC does not encourage sustainable fishing. The certified fisheries are largely 'low-hanging fruit': they were working on becoming more sustainable anyway and now they get a stamp of approval. Steins at the MSC admits that they first certified the straightforward fish stocks with lots of data: 'It is all about creating a critical mass. But we have seen more complex fisheries in the programme in recent years.' Steins points to an MSC report showing that fisheries that just miss the admission criteria improve their scores during and after certification. And that correlates with more healthy oceans. Although there is no such spurt for the really non-sustainable fishermen, as there is no incentive for them to improve without a realistic hope of a label and associated price increase.

Problem 4: MSC assessment is too lenient
The final criticism concerns the assessment process itself. Things got heated in a recent debate about the definition of overfishing in the journal Marine Policy. Fishery scientist Rainer Froese claimed that MSC relies heavily on existing criteria and consequently applies catch limits that are too lenient. The result, allegedly, is that even exhausted fish stocks are getting the seal of approval. Froese would prefer to use the 'maximum sustainable yield'. This criterion was the subject of global agreements in 2002 but it has never really taken off.
However, the MSC feels Froese is setting unrealistically high demands for fish stock sizes. It says the marine scientist makes up his own criteria and is insufficiently alert to the label's plus points. For instance, research shows that certified fish stocks are three to five times more likely to have a healthy size. So the label really does give relevant information, says the MSC.
Despite his criticism, Froese says he still believes in the MSC. In fact, his critical paper ends with an enthusiastic call to buy MSC fish because his calculations also show that MSC-labelled fish is three to four times more likely to be sustainable than randomly selected fish.
Perhaps we have unrealistically high expectations of what you can achieve with a voluntary label. That is Simon Bush's opinion at any rate. 'The MSC label is not the Holy Grail; of course they can't change everything,' he muses. 'The MSC does its best and they're certainly part of the solution but I don't believe they are the whole solution. We need a mosaic of initiatives that jointly lead to sustainability.'

With thanks to Paul van Zwieten.
The Marine Stewardship Council in a nutshell
Unilever set up the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) together with the WWF in 1996. The MSC organization guarantees that certified fish comes from sustainable fisheries, monitoring this from ship to dish. The MSC uses three criteria: fishermen have to maintain population levels for a species, they have to maintain the surrounding ecosystem and they have to comply with local legislation and regulations. Only 28 fisheries were certified in 2008 but now there are 186, with another 100 fisheries in the pipeline.  

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