Can You Trust a ‘Certified Sustainable’ Seafood Label?

A critical report by NPR suggests that the Marine Stewardship Council's certification is less than perfect.

Critics say MSC is labeling unsustainable fisheries to meet rising demand. (Photo: Boston Globe/Getty Images)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

When it comes to purchasing sustainable seafood, one of the world’s most widely recognized labels belongs to the Marine Stewardship Council. The blue fish logo adorns the new packaging of McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish sandwich; it’s prominently displayed at the fish counter of every Whole Foods Market. Heck, it’s even right there on the side of my favorite canned tuna. It’s a label that mega-corporations like Walmart, Costco and Target rely on to reach their own internal sustainability goals, and to meet increasing customer demand for sustainable seafood.

But according to a critical three-part report aired by NPR earlier this week, what that blue label certifies isn’t guaranteed. And, they say, in certain MSC-certified fisheries, including Canada’s longline swordfish, Chilean sea bass from the South Georgia Island fishery, and Fraser River sockeye salmon, declaring fish sustainable is downright misleading.

Stemming from a 1997 partnership between Unilever (whose brands include Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Lipton Tea, Hellman’s, Bird’s Eye and more) and the World Wildlife Federation, the Marine Stewardship Coucil was created after the collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery. At the time, there wasn’t a big demand for sustainable seafood. But since then, the market—and the MSC—have grown dramatically. Today it labels nearly $3 billion worth of wild seafood, and approximately eight percent of the worldwide catch.

But critics say that growth is driving the nonprofit to certify fisheries as sustainable when the evidence might suggest otherwise. Also compromising the fundamental MSC mission are some fisheries not meeting standards set by MSC, including excessive bycatch (meaning fish caught by accident when fishermen target a certain species), and the exorbitant certification and licensing fees. 

“We would prefer they didn’t use the word sustainable,” Gerry Leape, an ocean specialist at Pew Environment Group, tells NPR.

And plenty of people agree, including Martin Reed, owner of I Love Blue Sea, an online seafood supplier that partners with family-owned fishing boats and companies that farm seafood sustainably.

“The [MSC label] is essentially meaningless,” he tells TakePart. “They’re willing to certify anyone.”

Some worry there simply aren’t enough sustainable fisheries left in the world to meet consumer and corporate appetites, and that MSC is labeling some fisheries that aren’t quite there yet to meet demand—a charge the organization denies.

What is true is that fisheries science is not an exact thing. Many in the industry say it’s imperative to work with fisheries that are not 100 percent sustainable in order to move them in the right direction, rather than abandoning the fishery (and the people who rely on it) completely. That’s the mission of groups like the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, and is reflected in the “conditions” that MSC places on fisheries that are certified—conditions that guide fishermen to change current practices, whether that’s reducing bycatch or developing better fishing gear. And others, including Dr. Tom Pickerell, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, say the MSC label is still one consumers can trust.

Fishery science can be a moving target, says Pickerell.

“No [labeling] scheme is guaranteed perfect. Our recommendation is to look for Seafood Watch green-label species first, then yellow, and look for the blue label from MSC,” he tells TakePart. “Fisheries change. Some of our recommendations have a three-year default when reports get assessed. Sometimes we do annual reports because change is rapid. It can be confusing for consumers. The key thing here for consumers is to keep asking questions. The more information that’s put on a product the better.”

For Portland, Ore.-based Bamboo Sushi, the controversy over MSC hits close to home. Opened in 2008, the restaurant is a pioneer in sustainable sushi, and was the first in the country to be MSC-certified. They serve 180,000 fully traceable sushi meals a year. Owner Kristofor Lofgren says that some of the criticisms of MSC are fair, but that there is no other organization out there doing a better job.

“I strongly believe that MSC is moving the needle in the right direction and that it is the best thing going for sustainable wild-caught seafood. Could it be better? Yes,” he says. “We can’t make the world a healthy, sustainable place if we don’t talk to the Darden’s, the Whole Foods, and the McDonald’s. We can only change the world if we get those companies to see that there’s a need for it.”

Did NPR’s story muddle the message for consumers looking for a label they can trust, especially on the cusp of Lent, when seafood sales go up? The MSC thinks so, and issued a formal response to the story this morning:

When the broadcast discussed a swordfish fishery, it provided negative opinions by a conservation organization, without the
perspective from the teams of scientists and experts who actually assessed the fishery.  Similarly, in discussing a salmon fishery, listeners would have benefitted from knowing that the fishery saw its largest run of salmon in almost 100 years not long after the fishery was certified. Was certification responsible?  No, but it underscores the complexity of salmon fishery science. 

Pickerell says the critisims in the NPR story were things he’s heard before, and agrees that the story seemed to focus on one  particular side.

Beth Krauss, a spokesperson for Whole Foods told us in an email that despite the NPR story, they stand behind the Marine Stewardship Council and says it is still the best certification program for seafood, and that they will continue to display the logo at their stores.

“We share with MSC the view that their certification program is a work in progress, not a work of perfection,” she writes.

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