It’s Official: You Can’t Trust a ‘Certified Sustainable’ Seafood Label

A new study finds that the Marine Stewardship Council may be ‘blue-washing’ its ‘certified sustainable’ seafood labels.

Certified Sustainable Seafood Marine Stewardship Council
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

Most of us try to do the right thing when it comes to seafood. But is your Sunday supper really sustainable? Turns out the most popular (and trusted) seafood label out there isn’t as reliable as many of us think.

A controversial “certified sustainable” label for seafood has come under fire in recent months following an investigation by National Public Radio and repeated challenges from nonprofit organizations that say the Marine Stewardship Council, the world’s leading seafood certifier, slaps its label on fisheries that are far from sustainable.

“Unfortunately, the take-home message is that consumers can’t necessarily trust a label. They have to do a little bit of their own research.”

Now, a new study published in Biological Conservation suggests that Marine Stewardship Council may have awarded certification to fisheries that harm ocean ecosystems.

Marine Stewardship Council has certified nearly eight percent of the global seafood catch, worth $3 billion. Its label—a prominent blue check mark—is on everything from McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich to Chilean sea bass sold on ice at Whole Foods.

Fisheries covet the Marine Stewardship Council label, and pay to go through the certification process, because putting the blue check mark on packaging enables them to fetch a higher price from conscious consumers. But whether or not a fishery is truly sustainable is a gray area that requires interpretation.

A group of researchers led by Claire Christian and Jennifer Jacquet found that one problem with certification is that interpretation is conducted by third party inspectors who have too much discretion to determine whether the fishery meets MSC’s three main principles: sustainability of the fishery, low impacts on the surrounding ecosystem, and effective regulation or management that governs the fishing practice.

The results of Christian and Jaquet’s research show that the interpretations ranged widely and did not always meet MSC standards.

“These third party interpretations of MSC standards were overly generous,” says Claire Christian, lead author and the director of the secretariat of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition. “They often gave fisheries passing scores when their practices were really quite objectionable.”

The authors cite a swordfish fishery in Canada that accidentally catches 100,000 sharks for every 20,000 swordfish, along with more than 1,200 loggerhead turtles and 170 leatherback turtles.

The sharks caught by hooks meant for swordfish include shortfin mako, blue, and porbeagle sharks, all of which are threatened and vulnerable according to international standards. Similarly, leatherback and loggerhead turtles are considered endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, yet the swordfish fishery was granted an MSC label, signifying to consumers that the fishery causes no harm to the ocean ecosystem.

The MSC has an official review process so that concerned citizens, scientists, and environmentalists can raise objections when they believe a fishery has been unfairly certified as sustainable.  

MSC has certified 170 fisheries since the organization’s founding in 1997, but 19 of these labels have been challenged by the conservation community, representing 35 percent of all fisheries with the “certified sustainable” label. In all but one case, the certification was upheld.

But the paper’s authors say problems remain with fisheries that retained certification: Antarctic krill has been certified sustainable despite a dearth of information showing that there is enough krill to sustain the abundance of important species that feed on it, like whales, penguins, and seals. 

“The question remains whether the MSC will overcome these problems or if seafood eco-labeling will be, in the end, characterized as ‘bluewashing,’ ” the authors wrote.

MSC has objected to the paper and its conclusions in an official statement.

“[The Biological Conservation paper] appears to misunderstand the intention of the objection procedure. Their paper fails to capture the wide range of benefits associated with a participatory and transparent objection process,” the statement reads.

At the end of the day, how can fish-lovers consciously consume seafood while ensuring that their appetites are not contributing to the decline of iconic fish species?

“Unfortunately, the take-home message is that consumers can’t necessarily trust a label. They have to do a little bit of their own research,” Christian tells TakePart.

She recommends the Blue Ocean Institute’s Seafood Guide, which ranks fisheries using a traffic-light green, yellow, and red system, and provides conscious buyers with detailed information about the fishery’s ecosystem impacts. “Look for something that gives you more context than the label,” Christian says, “and then you can make a decision that you feel is right.” 

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