Certified Sustainable Seafood is a Little Fishy

After reading my piece this morning on sustainable seafood, my mother happened to hear on the radio part of an NPR investigative series on just that topic.  She sent me the link to the piece, entitled “Under the Label: Sustainable Seafood” and after listening to part one of three I realized that my own research had not been thorough enough.

What NPR questioned that I hadn’t was the Marine Stewardship Council‘s (MSC) sustainability certification. When I first saw it, I thought oh awesome, a third party certification that will make it much easier for me to grocery shop. What I should have been thinking about was who the MSC is, their standards, and their track record.  As it turns out, a quick trip to wikipedia shows that I missed an awful lot.

Ok rewind.  The NPR series, which I really enjoyed listening to and found very thorough, can be accessed in audio and text form here. I highly recommend it.

Here are some of the major points NPR made that really prompted me to think about this more:

  • The MSC is a nonprofit, but it was originally founded in part by Unilever, one of the biggest corporations in the world, as a way for industry to regulate itself without the government stepping in.  This is a big red flag for me because I have read so much recently about how the lead and chemical industries in the 20th century each set up their own regulatory bodies so that they could distort scientific research and pretend to stop harming people and the environment while avoiding government regulation (Deceit and Denial by Markowitz and Rosner).  The MSC probably is independent now, but I am always skeptical when industry gives money for research because there is usually an ulterior motive.
  • The MSC has gotten loads of criticism recently from various environmental organizations for allowing the certification of fisheries that are not sustainable at all.  Canadian longline caught swordfish is NPR’s main example.  They calculated that for each swordfish that is caught, two sharks are killed by accidentally hooking them on the fishing line (bycatch). On the other hand, many of the fisheries that MSC has certified really are sustainable and had to change many of their practices to become so.  Some fisheries are also certified with “conditions,” meaning that they aren’t sustainable now but must become so in the next five years to maintain certification.
  • The reason why the MSC standards may have become compromised is because the demand for certified sustainable seafood has increased drastically of late.  When massive corporations such as Walmart and McDonalds want to distribute a product, you need an awful lot of it, and fast.
  • The MSC doesn’t certify fisheries itself.  When a fisherman wants his company to become certified, he must hire an auditing agency to see if he meets the standards published by the MSC, and not all agencies agree on the interpretation of those standards.

So what this comes down to for the consumer is that the MSC certification doesn’t quite mean “sustainable,” yet when you buy a product with that seal, you are paying about 10% more (according to NPR).  Chances are the product really is sustainable, but there isn’t an easy way for you to find out.  My recommendation is certainly not to avoid MSC products, but to view their purchase as more of a step in the right direction and not to be satisfied with just the label.  If you really want to know what you are buying, you are just going to have to keep asking specific questions about how your fish was caught and to be able to understand the answers.  Here is a resource I found helpful for learning about various fishing techniques.

BIG IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE: It took me quite a while to realize while reading about this that the MSC certifies only wild caught fish, not aquaculture (farmed fish).  There are basically no regulations, no recognized standards, and no certification processes for farmed fish, which is why consumers are often advised to avoid it altogether.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t eco friendly fish farms out there though; they just take more work to find. For example, Whole Foods has its own set of sustainability standards for all types of seafood, which may help you decide whether to buy farmed salmon or not, but they still sell MSC certified swordfish that may be costing many sharks their lives.

Wish me luck in my search for truly sustainable seafood.

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One thought on “Certified Sustainable Seafood is a Little Fishy

  1. This is awesome. I’m a grad student in environmental studies and there are a few great Harvard case studies about MSC. I also read the NPR article about msc too. Such a prime example of green washing in marketing!

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