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All labeled fish are not “sustainable”

In France for example, around twenty logos have invaded the market of seafood. Beyond the confusion created by this large number of labels, the problem has a deep root in the lack of seriousness of most of these initiatives, which end up misleading consumers:[1] A few logos ­— often created by retailers themselves — are totally opaque, making it impossible to assess their reliability.

No control prior to marketing authorization

Although international standards on seafood certification do exist,[2], [3] there is no automatic recourse against abusive labels or against a company that decides to brand its own seafood as “sustainable”. For non-expert consumers, it is impossible to distinguish between empty shells and labels that implement what they advertise.

In 2012, BLOOM filed a complaint against Intermarché — one of France’s largest retailers — for its advertising campaign using a “responsible fishing”. However, the fish labeled as such were coming from deep-sea bottom trawling, a fishing practice widely denounced by researchers, NGOs and many governments as one the most destructive in the world. The French Advertising Authority ruled in favor of BLOOM and banned Intermarché’s advertisement.

“Responsible Fishing”: a private scheme

The “responsible fishing” label is awarded by Bureau Veritas according to private guidelines. Therefore, it is impossible to know what “responsible” means …

Used by Intermarché and others, this label praises supposedly virtuous practices, respect of the environment, as well as protection of the marine fauna.

“Sustainable”, you said?

Even when labels are a minimum transparent and rigorous, they do not necessarily guarantee “sustainable fishing” practices. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is a poster child example.

The MSC label

Monopolizing the market,[4] the MSC has already certified as “sustainable” many fisheries despite science.[5],[6] One of the main objectives of the MSC is to sign partnerships with big brands such as Walmart, Carrefour and McDonald, which want a “100% sustainable” supply. However, such an objective makes it impossible to identify genuinely sustainable alternatives and does not leave room for more virtuous labels. Moreover, this strategy pushes the MSC to lower its standards to reach its goal, contrary to its vision of an “ocean teeming with life”.

Despite advertising its transparency and participation of stakeholders, the MSC remains deaf to criticism. A 2013 study showed that only 5.3% of the 19 formal (and expensive) objections to certifications, only one had paid off (i.e. 5.3%).[7] A 2015 update — conducted by the MSC — confirmed this low rate of success, as a second objection was successful, this time out of 31 (i.e. 6.4%).[8]

References

[1] Czarnezki (2014) Greenwashing and self-declared seafood ecolabels. Tul. Envtl. L.J. 28: 37-52.

[2] ISEAL’s “good practices”: http://www.isealalliance.org/our-work/defining-credibility/codes-of-good-practice; Standards ISO: http://www.iso.org/iso/home/standards.htm

[3] FAO (2009) Guidelines for the ecolabelling of fish and fishery products from marine capture fisheries. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome (Italy). 108 p.

[4] MSC certifies over 10% dof the World’s fisheries: https://www.msc.org/global-impacts/key-facts-about-msc

[5] Christian, et al. (2013) A review of formal objections to Marine Stewardship Council fisheries certifications. Biological Conservation 161: 10-17.

[6] Hadjimichael and Hegland (2016) Really sustainable? Inherent risks of eco-labeling in fisheries. Fisheries Research 174: 129-135.

[7] Christian, et al. (2013) A review of formal objections to Marine Stewardship Council fisheries certifications. Biological Conservation 161: 10-17.

[8] Brown et al. (2016) On the road to fisheries certification: The value of the Objections Procedure in achieving the MSC sustainability standard. Fisheries Research 182: 136-148.

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