Letter: MSC responds to damning article

Organization claims the accusations are 'at odds' with the WWF's global position and engagement with MSC

Editor's Note: The Marine Stewardship Council sent IntraFish the following lengthy defense of itself following the publication of an article in The Times Tuesday, in which it is being accused of a conflict of interest over the money it earns from its eco-labels, citing a leaked internal paper put together by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has a valued and longstanding partnership with WWF. The claims reported in The Times newspaper are at odds with WWF’s global position and engagement with the MSC.

WWF swiftly confirmed that the document is a "draft of an internal paper that has not been reviewed, fact-checked or balanced by diversities of opinion. It is not an official expression of WWF’s opinion and should not be characterized as such." 

Rupert Howes, chief executive of the MSC, said: "To make a real difference to the way our oceans are fished, certification must be credible and independent. The MSC program is premised on stakeholder involvement, independent assessment and scientific rigour. Evidence shows that MSC certified fisheries are delivering positive impacts. With the support of WWF and our partners, the MSC has established a trusted certification program and eco-label that is supporting healthy oceans and a sustainable seafood market." 

WWF widely encourages consumers to buy seafood with the MSC label. Fishery improvement projects between WWF and partners such as the Spanish tuna industry body, OPAGAC, and John West, have an ambition to bring fisheries to the standard of sustainability required for MSC certification. On Friday, WWF issued a statement confirming that "WWF continues to support MSC as the world’s best seafood certification scheme".  

The MSC Standard reflects widely accepted international best practice

The MSC is the only wild seafood certification program to qualify for membership of the international credible standards alliance, ISEAL. It also follows the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization’s guidelines.

The MSC’s governance structure reflects the diversity of opinion and interests within the sustainable seafood community. It includes scientists, NGOs, fishing companies, processors, retailers and brands.  The MSC standard is consulted on, and updated, every five years. It reflects widely accepted international best practice in sustainable fisheries management.  

As a member of the MSC’s Stakeholder Council, WWF contributes to reviews of the MSC standards. It also contributes as a stakeholder in the assessment of many fisheries. WWF’s inputs, along with those of numerous others, have led to greater scrutiny of the assessment of tuna fisheries and increased requirements for MSC certified fisheries, for example in their impacts on marine habitats.

The MSC is a mission-driven not-for-profit

The MSC makes no profit from the certification of fisheries. Assessments are conducted independently of the MSC by accredited third parties in which MSC has no financial or business interest. 

The MSC’s revenue comes from charitable donations and a license fee, paid by retailers and brands who choose to use the blue MSC label on their products. How much certified fish is sold with the blue label is a commercial decision of retailers, and is not under any control by the MSC. 

The MSC uses its funds to maintain its world-class fisheries and chain of custody standards, undertake public education and awareness-raising campaigns in support of our mission, and deepen our engagement in the developing world and with small-scale fisheries, notably through our recently launched Global Fisheries Sustainability Fund.

The MSC’s funds also contribute to work with international scientists to understand and incorporate new science and international best practice management into the MSC standards. 

A key premise of the MSC is that through increased consumer recognition and demand for sustainable seafood with the MSC label, more fisheries are incentivized to meet the high standards required for MSC certification, helping to safeguard our oceans. The MSC encourages use of its eco-label in order to empower consumers to drive positive change, not to make a profit.

Increasing numbers of MSC labelled products reflects a growing recognition, amongst businesses and consumers, of the importance of sustainable fishing. This positive trend is helping to ensure healthy oceans for the future. 

Our oceans are global, therefore so is our ambition and solution 

The MSC program is open to fisheries, large and small, and no matter their location. This includes fisheries with difficult histories or challenges to overcome. Certification requires fisheries to demonstrate, through evidence and science that they meet the high bar set by the MSC Fisheries Standard. Where circumstances change, a fishery’s MSC certification can be suspended. This was the case for Maldives yellowfin tuna.

“To influence global fishing practices, we must be open to all fisheries entering MSC assessment. If there’s evidence that they meet the MSC Standard, they deserve recognition,” said Howes.

MSC certified fisheries are delivering improvements

MSC certified fisheries are delivering positive impacts on the water. These are reported in the MSC’s Global Impacts Report. Ninety-four percent of certified fisheries are required to make at least one improvement to strengthen or further monitor the sustainability of their operations in order to maintain their certificate. By the end of 2015, 281 fisheries (91 percent of all certified fisheries) had made 876 improvements, with many more being developed.

Objections to certification

The MSC objections procedure is designed to allow independent review and consideration of concerns relating to certifiers’ scoring of a fishery, overseen by an independent adjudicator. WWF’s objection to certification of the Echebastar Indian Ocean tuna fishery demonstrates the importance of stakeholder involvement in this way. 

In most cases, including WWF’s objection to the Maldives skipjack tuna fishery, independent adjudication results in changes to the scoring of a fishery, and additional actions that the fishery must take, even if this does not lead to a fishery failing. A recent paper provides information on 31 objections, two of which have led to a fishery failure and 16 of which led to a change in scoring. 

Tuna and harvest control rules

Harvest control rules are an effective ‘breaking mechanism’ which allow fisheries to respond quickly to sudden changes in stock status. They are particularly important for multi-state controlled fisheries targeting highly migratory fisheries, such as tuna. Tuna regional fisheries management organisations have, historically, found it very difficult to agree these rules. The MSC therefore believes in providing an incentive for these rules to be adopted. 

The MSC’s requirements allow for tuna fisheries with a strong track record of effective management to be MSC certified if the tuna stocks remain at a sustainable level. Once certified, well defined harvest control rules become a condition of ongoing certification, giving the incentive for change in order for products to continue to carry the MSC label. Given growing demand for MSC labelled tuna, this approach is driving real change in tuna fisheries management – which is exactly what WWF is calling for.

A recent milestone, which demonstrates the effectiveness of this approach, is the agreement by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) in 2016 to adopt harvest control rules for skipjack tuna. This is the first time ever that such a rule has been adopted for a currently healthy stock by an international tuna management organisation. The MSC’s requirements were a significant incentive driving this agreement and we congratulate the Maldives government, and the certified Maldives skipjack tuna fishery, for their role in promoting the adoption of this harvest control rule. 

Similar rules are under development by the International Commission for Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (IACCT) and the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC). Retailer demand and pressure for supply of sustainable, MSC certified tuna, and the actions taken by certified fisheries and those interested in seeking certification, have played an important role in these developments. 

Following WWF’s feedback during the last update to the MSC Fisheries Standard, the MSC is also working with certifiers to ensure that all tuna fisheries operating in the same ocean receive the same scores for management practices, including in relation to harvest control rules.

New Zealand hoki meets strict requirements for sustainable fishing

Since first certified in 2001, New Zealand’s hoki stocks have more than doubled as a result of careful stock management. The MSC Standard requires that the entire catch, including discards and bycatch, is accounted for and considered when determining whether stocks are strong enough to support the fishing being carried out. New Zealand’s Quota Management System (QMS) is founded on the scientific assessment of stocks. It requires strict documentation, high levels of surveillance (including satellite monitoring, government at-sea observers, rigorous monitoring of catch reporting), and has large penalties for infringements. Thirty-one per cent of New Zealand’s EEZ is also protected by law from bottom trawls as benthic protection areas. 

The MSC congratulates and supports the New Zealand hoki fishery on the improvements they’ve delivered, and the high scores that they achieve to the MSC Fisheries Standard.  

Orange roughy in ongoing assessment

The assessment of the New Zealand orange roughy fishery is ongoing. The fishery is not MSC certified. As explained above, any fishery that meets the scope requirements of the MSC Fisheries Standard can enter MSC assessment. Certification requires it to perform at the MSC standard.

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