Choosing Sustainable Seafood Amid a Sea of Eco-Labels

Know Logo navigates our greenwashed marketplace, one logo at a time. Next up: the Marine Stewardship Council.

Stacked cans of Gold Seal wild sockeye salmon. Each can has a blue MSC label bearing a small white emblem of a fish.
Photo by Francesca Fionda

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Five hundred years ago, Newfoundland and Labrador’s coastal waters teemed with cod, drawing fishing boats from England, Normandy, Portugal, and Spain. But by 1992, the region’s cod stocks were pushed to near extinction, and the Canadian government decided to shut down the industry. Over 30,000 fishers and fish-plant workers across the province were forced to give up a way of life that had been part of their communities for generations.

The cod collapse in Newfoundland highlighted growing problems with overfishing worldwide, and inspired environmentalists and industry to come together to find a solution. In 1996, conservationists from the World Wildlife Fund and consumer goods giant Unilever initiated a project that grew into the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

In 1997, MSC became an independent, non-profit organisation, and by 2000 MSC’s little fish logo began appearing on seafood products from certified wild fisheries. Today, it’s one of the most well-recognized international certifications for sustainable seafood. But, two decades on, does it still hold water?

What does the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) logo mean?

When you see the MSC logo on a can of tuna or clam chowder, it means the seafood inside was caught sustainably according to MSC standards. The standards look at three main areas. First, they aim to ensure fisheries leave fish stocks at a level at which fishing can continue “indefinitely,” and the fish population remains “productive and healthy.” Second, the standards check whether the fisheries’ practices minimize their negative impact on habitats and other ocean life. Third, the standards look at overall management, and whether fisheries follow local environmental laws.

Fisheries are evaluated on 28 performance indicators related to the three main principles, and given a score out of 100 for each indicator. For example, one indicator checks whether fishing gear is being used in ways that minimize damage to the ocean floor and ecosystem. A fishery needs a minimum score of 60 and an average of 80 on all the indicators to display the MSC logo on their products. To get the logo, fisheries pay to be assessed by independent certification bodies against MSC standards.

A 2019 investigation found 47% of seafood tested across Canada was mislabeled.

The MSC logo also means the seafood you’re buying is the same species as advertised, because MSC tracks the entire journey of that specific seafood — from when it was caught to store shelves. Mislabeled fish and seafood fraud are huge problems across North America. A 2019 investigation by advocacy group Oceana found 47% of seafood they tested across Canada was mislabeled with either false or misleading information.

“We have found farmed fish served up as wild-caught, cheaper species substituted for more expensive ones and fish banned in many countries because of health risks masquerading as another species,” said Josh Laughren, executive director of Oceana Canada, in a press release.

Who uses the MSC logo?

Over 40,000 different seafood products and 360 certified fisheries around the world bear the logo. In Canada, you can find MSC-certified food in casinos, university lunch rooms, and grocery stores.

How is MSC funded?

Most of MSC’s income comes from handing out their logo. In the 2019 fiscal year, 80% of the global organization’s income, or about US $27 million, came from logo-licensing fees paid by brands, retailers, and food service organizations. The rest of MSC’s income comes from donors, trading, and investments.

Is MSC credible?

The MSC logo is a helpful certification, but not all products that bear it are equally sustainable, says Shannon Arnold, marine program senior coordinator at the Nova-Scotia-based Ecology Action Centre. Some certified fisheries have more sustainable practices than others, but that discrepancy isn’t obvious to shoppers, she explains.

For example, some fisheries with the MSC certification were given the logo too early, and had injured or killed sea life other than what they intended to catch, including sea turtles and sharks, according to a 2017 study for SeaChoice, a coalition of Canadian sustainable seafood advocacy organizations.

MSC’s logo licensing model puts “pressure on them to continue to bring fisheries into the program who might not quite be ready,” explains Arnold, who co-authored the report. “MSC makes their money on logo licensing, and so the more products that are on the shelves that have that blue logo, the more money MSC is going to be making.”

Independent third-party decision-making is a hallmark of all credible eco-labels.

But Jay Lugar, program director for MSC Canada, says MSC doesn’t have any influence over whether or not a fishery or product receives the logo, because MSC doesn’t do certifications itself. Instead, certification bodies — independent organizations approved to conduct a range of assessments, like MSC and other eco-certifications — measure fisheries against MSC’s standards. “Independent third-party decision-making is [a] hallmark of all credible eco-labels,” says Lugar.

In addition, MSC disputes the claims in SeaChoice’s 2017 report, saying it over-simplified and misinterpreted data, and that most of the fisheries with room for improvement ultimately got better. According to Lugar, every fishery in the MSC program is sustainable according to industry standards, with its progress — and setbacks — monitored regularly. Fisheries that qualify for the MSC label are subject to annual audits and a full reassessment every five years, he explains. “[Fisheries] have to meet those milestones in order to stay.”

While Lugar acknowledges that standards need to be constantly evolving — and some fisheries have room for improvement — he says that MSC protects ocean habitats, and endangered and threatened animals.

“Fisheries must demonstrate that any interactions with by-catch species — including sharks and turtles — are not harming the health of these populations, vulnerable or not,” added Céline Rouzaud, a spokesperson for MSC Canada, in an email. “If any species (sharks and sea turtles included) are listed as ETP (Endangered, Threatened or Protected) then they are subject to additional, even more rigorous protection measures.”

What’s a seafood-eating, environment-loving person to do?

In spite of the critiques, the MSC logo, “is the best logo that’s out there,” says Arnold of the Ecology Action Centre. “So we still say to consumers, the right thing to do is to look for that label.”

Arnold recommends using MSC alongside other programs like OceanWise and Seafood Watch to get the bigger picture. For example, OceanWise provides information on restaurants and stores that sell sustainable seafood, while Seafood Watch can give you more information about specific fish species. Both programs look at the impact of wild and farm fisheries on the ecosystem and overall fish stocks. However, they don’t track the entire journey of that specific seafood — from when it was caught to store shelves — like MSC does.

Use MSC alongside programs like OceanWise and Seafood Watch to get the bigger picture.

The MSC’s standard is currently undergoing a five-year review that could go until 2021. As a watchdog, the Ecology Action Centre intends to keep pushing the standard to improve. “We want to make sure that these certification programs and what they’re saying to consumers about, ‘This is a fishery that is actually better on the water’ is true,” Arnold says.

Buzzword Summary

Legit. A splash in the right direction, with room for improvement.

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