05 May 2020
The sham of the MSC label
05 May 2020
The biggest fishing label’s reality uncovered
BLOOM and co-authors from the universities of New York (United States) and Dalhousie (Canada) just published a new study demonstrating that fisheries certified as ‘sustainable’ by the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) label are mainly industrial ones, often using destructive fishing methods, unlike what suggests the communication deployed by the MSC.
> The most destructive fishing methods in the world, such as bottom trawls and dredges, have accounted for 83% of catches MSC-certified between 2009 and 2017
In 1997, a wave of optimism shook the international marine conservation community. This rare event, given that marine ecosystems are only getting more degraded, was caused by the creation of the MSC labelling system. As its name suggests, the ‘Marine Stewardship Council’ label was supposed to ‘guide’ the general public, and in turn the entire fishing industry, towards sustainability. Citizens could finally buy fish “guilt-free”. 20 years later, disillusionment is bitter for the scientists and NGOs who supported the launch and the approach of this ecolabel — initially created by the WWF and food giant Unilever, and which has since then become the world leader in seafood ecolabels.
Critics, shy at first, became more numerous and severe, questioning both the lack of ambition of the label and the application of its standards, as well as the impartiality of the certification process. MSC officials responded to criticisms by repeating that the label warranted that “no destructive fishing practices” were used. An assertion repeated countless times, but never verified.
This has now been done.
BLOOM and its co-authors conducted an exhaustive analysis of all MSC-certified fisheries since the origin of the label. “Our results unequivocally reveal the extent of the MSC label fraud: in stark contrast with its affirmations, the MSC label in fact mostly certifies industrial, destructive fisheries” explains Frédéric Le Manach, BLOOM’s scientific director and lead author of the study.
“Furthermore, we have scrutinized the MSC’s communication and uncovered that the label hid this fundamental defect by largely highlighting small-scale, low impact coastal fisheries“, he continues.
> Read BLOOM et al.’s study as well as our advocacy document summarizing this study
The MSC has become an obstacle to sustainable fishing
By manipulating small-scale coastal fishers in its communication, the MSC greenwashes industrial fishing and facilitates, or even maintains, their access to markets at the very moment when citizen awareness is growing in distrust of industrial production methods. Never has a modesty apron been more useful to industrials than at a time when citizens, tired of lies and agri-food scandals, take note of the irresponsibility of the industrial sector and turn to other habits and consumption circuits.
“We no longer believe in the MSC. We had faith in the past, but it has drifted too far and is non-recoverable. The MSC has become an obstacle to sustainable fishing. Serving as a marketing shield for the world’s industrial fishers, the MSC now prevents any possibility of structural change in the fishing sector by legitimizing the worst practices” comments Frédéric Le Manach. At a time when citizens are more determined than ever to support virtuous local fishing, they are helpless, lacking a reliable tool to guide their responsible purchases. In its advocacy document, BLOOM asks retailers to stop being accomplices of the MSC’s lies by hiding behind this misleading label, instead of setting up restrictive requirements to guide their purchasing policy.
To go further
Results in brief
- BLOOM and co-authors from the universities of New York (United States) and Dalhousie (Canada) have calculated that industrial, high-impact fisheries have accounted 83% of MSC-certified catches between 2009 and 2017, but only 32% of the MSC’s photographic illustrations over the same period.
- In contrast, small-scale, low-impact fisheries have accounted only 7% of the certified volumes between 2009 and 2017, but 47% of the illustrations. The MSC label thus created its alternative reality, “guilt-free”, to fit to that desired by citizens who are increasingly concerned about their purchases’ environmental impact.
- Almost 500 fisheries assessment reports were analysed to determine the distribution of certified catches by gear and scale. This corresponds to all the data available from the first certified fisheries in 2000 until the last data collected, at the end of 2017.
- All images (almost 400) showcasing a fishing activity were extracted from all the MSC reports available online as well as from the international Facebook page of the MSC. This analysis only begins in 2009 because no official document was available online prior to this date. These images were analysed and compared to the certified catch data.
Main critiques about the MSC
- Criteria to obtain the label are too lax: any fishing method, even the most destructive, can be certified. Only explosive and poison fisheries cannot apply for MSC certification.
- The firm responsible for evaluating the fishery is chosen and remunerated by … the fishery! The MSC model is based on the grey area of corruption: clientelism, confusion of interests, bias.
- Citizens and NGOs have no recourse should they disagree on a certification: the existing objection process is very costly and completely ineffective. So far, objections have mostly failed. In the art of cultivating conflicts of interest, the MSC process stipulates that the ‘judge’ supposed to arbitrate objections is chosen and remunerated by the MSC…
Key figures on the MSC label
- 1997: creation of the MSC label by WWF and Unilever to develop a ‘market-based solution’ to tackle overfishing. The MSC is created with the status of a non-profit organisation.
- 2000: the first fisheries are certified.
- 2017: 210 fisheries are certified (as of 31 December).
- 2019: the MSC has become leader by certifying 15% of the world’s annual catches. Nearly 40,000 references, or one million tonnes of seafood, bear the MSC logo. Trade giants like Walmart, Carrefour, McDonalds, Ikea or Amazon ‘Fresh Sold’ sell — sometimes exclusively — MSC-certified seafood products.
- 2019: royalties levied on MSC-certified products generate 25 million euros per year to the brand, or 80% of the MSC’s income.4
- 2020: an investigation reveals that the MSC has nearly 40 million euros in net assets (buildings, bank deposits, financial investments etc.), thus making the MSC a classic capitalist object far removed from a non-profit charity.
Notes and references
 Fiorillo (2020), available at: https://www.intrafish.com/opinion/why-is-the-marine-stewardship-council-hoarding-its-cash-/2-1-758524.