Misleading labels

Seafood ecolabels are everywhere. In just ten years, around twenty logos have invaded the French market. However, we know with hindsight that these labels are not always as virtuous as their marketing suggests in other certified sectors (farming, timber etc.).

BLOOM has identified this problem as a barrier to sustainable and ethical fishing practices. We have contributed to public consultations, co-signed scientific studies, objected to dubious certifications etc.
On this page, we provide a brief account of this ongoing battle.

All labeled fish are not “sustainable”

Beyond the confusion created by the large number of labels one can find on the market, 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 public opinion as one the most destructive in the world. The Advertising Authority ruled in favor of BLOOM and banned this false advertisement.

The “responsible fishing” label

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]

For several years, BLOOM has been very critical of the MSC. We co-authored a scientific publication on the topic and also participated to several public consultations:

BLOOM was also stakeholder in the evaluation of several controversial fisheries in order to prevent their certification. We contributed to the assessment of the following fisheries:

In June 2016, Frédéric Le Manach also joined the MSC Stakeholder Council, which was shut down in June 2017 and replaced by a smaller group, whose members were selected by… the MSC’s board!

Are public ecolabels the solution?

Ecolabels traditionally originated from private initiatives, whose credo is to use the market to encourage consumers and retailers to choose certified products. These initiatives were developed in total independence from public institutions, and their proliferation has now been a concern for some time. Until recently, only Iceland and the United States (Alaska) had developed public certification schemes for seafood. In France, the ecolabel “sustainable fishing” has just emerged but its environmental standards are extremely low and it will not prevent unsustainable fisheries such as deep-sea bottom trawling, reduction fisheries, pulse fishing or Danish seine fisheries from being certified. For example, it is said page 11 of its standards that “an impact is considered to be low as long as it does not irreversibly affect the habitat “.

For many years, the European Commission has been discussing the establishment of a public ecolabel or minimum criteria for existing ecolabels, with poor results so far. BLOOM has contributed to the public consultation: “A European ecolabel for aquaculture and fisheries products” and has recommended to opt for minimum criteria.

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.

[9] Intermarché announced its intention to be phasing out off deep-sea fisheries and subsequently withdrawn for the MSC assessment.

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