UK-based Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) is criticizing fisheries and aquaculture certification groups for what it views as a failure to incorporate human rights considerations into its certifications, standards and ratings.

In a new report, HRAS claims groups, including eco-label leaders the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), both co-founded by NGO World Wildlife Fund , failed to adequately mention human rights, social wellbeing and welfare in their standards.

A total of 23 fishery certification, standards and ratings programs were identified in the report. Twelve did not have any of HRAS' key performance indicators on human rights, and 11 did not mention human rights issues at all.

A total of 17 aquaculture certification, standards and rating programs were identified. Seven did not satisfy any key performance indicators, and seven did not mention human rights, social wellbeing, or welfare.

HRAS CEO David Hammond said the report shows the certifications purporting to rank the health of fisheries and aquaculture production were only looking at one area of sustainability -- the environment.

"The whole certification standard system is angled towards sustainability, and we want to change this," Hammond told IntraFish.

The report, which used publicly available information, did not seek input or comment from any of the certification groups, a decision Hammond said was necessary to expedite the issue and raise the need for immediate action.

While the MSC and ASC both welcomed efforts to raise awareness of tackling human rights abuses and empowering workers, both pushed back on the findings.

MSC Chief Science and Standards Officer Rohan Currey said that as an environmental standard-setting organization, ranking the certification against labor rights criteria gave a misleading impression of the work MSC has done on the issue.

In 2022, MSC published a report consolidating its labor policies, and this year it will undertake research into options for additional requirements for MSC certificate holders, Currey said.

"Any fishing vessels prosecuted for forced or child labor violations in the previous two years are not eligible to be assessed or certified to the MSC standards," Currey told IntraFish.

MSC has further introduced measures to increase the amount of information available to seafood buyers on the actions taken by fisheries to address labor violations.

For example, Currey said, MSC fisheries and at-sea supply chain businesses have had to publicly report their labor practices since 2018. As a result, fisheries are now reporting on their labor policies and risk mitigation measures, many for the first time.

ASC is also pushing back on some claims in the report, noting "inaccuracies in assessment and scoring."

"We do not agree with the claim that 'certification stamps do little to empower consumers to leverage their purchase influence' in the context of forced labor," ASC press manager Sophia Balod told IntraFish.

The HRAS report has also failed to capture other aspects of certification agency's work and requirements on social responsibility, according to Balod.

"In scrutinizing only components of the standards requirements, the assessment failed to capture the stringency and assurance mechanisms linked to the delivery of certification," Balod said.

ASC's own assessment would have resulted in differing scores across several aspects, she added.

Differing standpoints

Hammond said the argument that environmental certification agencies are by nature geared toward assessing impacts on the environment wasn't an excuse for not taking a more active stance on human rights.

"Certification organizations should at least morally take a close view at these issues. It's just a natural evolution," Hammond said.

He said the certification groups have a right to respond to the findings, and that the conclusions will be adjusted with new information.

The next stage is for HRAS to publish the data in early March, when respondents can engage with the process and give feedback, Hammond added.