26 November 2020
MSC words vs. MSC actions — The case of subsidies
26 November 2020
On 23 November, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) made a statement that left us speechless. In a press release issued on its website, the MSC indeed announced adding its voice to a call made by over 170 NGOs — including BLOOM — to urge the WTO to end harmful subsidies this year. This is pure greenwashing, given that the MSC does not fight against harmful subsidies. On the contrary, it benefits from them and supports them.
Light years away from the MSC’s well-polished communication and strong public statements by its CEO Rupert Howes, facts show two things that should immediately discredit the MSC.
1. The MSC has removed all incentives to cut harmful subsidies from its standards
While the previous MSC standards required that “the management system provides economic and social incentives for sustainable fishing and does not operate with subsidies that contribute to unsustainable fishing”, this already rather vague language completely disappeared in the next version of its standards published in April 2014. As a result, nothing no longer requires anything even remotely constraining with regards to subsidies in the MSC’s currently applicable standards.
Quite ironically, the MSC justified its massive step backward in 2014 by arguing that its previous requirements “may have caused an inappropriate obstacle to the certification of small-scale and developing world fisheries”. However, the exact opposite has been demonstrated by the same cohort of authors — including from BLOOM — that the MSC quoted in its press release: far from representing an obstacle to small-scale, developing world fisheries, ensuring that harmful subsidies are banned is the only way to protect them, not the other way around.
2. Many, if not most, MSC-certified fisheries have been (and still are) massively subsidized
As expected, removing all incentives to cut harmful subsidies certainly did not result in more “small-scale and developing world fisheries” being certified, on the contrary. In May 2020, we showed that only 7% of MSC-certified volumes were coming from small-scale fisheries. None were, e.g., from Africa. The divide between small-scale and large-scale MSC-certified fisheries has only grown since the first certification in 2000, as it increasingly certifies large-scale, destructive fisheries, further undermining the United Nations’ SDGs it pretends to advocate for.
> Read our report on the sham of the MSC label
In fact, there are countless MSC-certified fisheries that have benefited from harmful subsidies over time, and which directly contribute to overcapacity, overfishing, and the destruction of marine ecosystems. Among many others, let us only cite:
- The ‘SZLC, CSFC & FZLC Cook Islands EEZ South Pacific albacore, yellowfin and bigeye longline’ fishery (certified in 2015), whose certification was objected in part due to the allocation of harmful subsidies. In particular, the certifier’s report stated that “the client fleet vessels were built under the 11th and 12th ‘5-year plans’ of the [People’s Republic of China] to expand their deep-water fisheries”, and also that “the Client also acknowledged that Chinese vessels, including client vessels, were in receipt of Chinese Government Subsidies”. Therefore, it is highly likely that these subsidies were, in fact, construction subsidies, i.e. the most criticized of all;
- The expansion of China into deeper and more distant waters is not restricted to tuna fisheries in the Pacific Ocean. In fact, the heavy (harmful) subsidization of China’s fleet is well known, so any MSC-certified Chinese vessel should be seen as having received harmful subsidies. This would, for instance, be the case of the Chinese vessels involved in the ‘PNA Western and Central Pacific skipjack and yellowfin, unassociated / non FAD set, tuna purse seine’ fishery, a fishery that BLOOM and partners of the On The Hook coalition have strongly criticized. This fishery indeed showcases issues ranging from harmful subsidies to shark finning, and from the heavy use of Fishing Aggregating Devices to human rights abuse;
- Closer to us, in Europe, we could also cite Dutch vessel ANNELIES ILENA (formerly known as the ATLANTIC DAWN) — 144.6 meter-long! — which has regularly fished in Mauritanian and Moroccan waters over the past decade. These agreements each cost EU citizens 50–60 million euros on an annual basis and therefore greatly improve the profitability of the vessels involved. Although not MSC-certified for this substantially subsidized activity in African waters, ANNELIES ILENA — which purportedly benefitted from the trifling sum of… 100 million euros in public subsidies — is MSC-certified for other activities in the Atlantic, along with a dozen other vessels longer than 100m.
The bottom line is two-fold: 1) the MSC benefits from harmful subsidies and supports them, despite its nice speeches, and 2) the MSC does not protect the ocean, but rather legitimizes fishing practices that are widely condemned.
Before pretending to be a champion fighting harmful subsidies, piggy-backing on truly engaged NGOs, the MSC should better clean up its own backyard. Otherwise, it will only serve industrial lobbies who pretend that harmful subsidies can result in sustainable fisheries.
Notes et references
 Note that — although this is not clear from its press release — the MSC has not joined the coalition. Press release available at: https://www.msc.org/media-centre/briefings-statements/msc-urges-world-trade-organization-meet-2020-deadline-harmful-fishing-subsidies.
 MSC Fishery Standard — Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Fishing — V1.1. Published in May 2010.
 “At least a general summary of information on subsidies, allocation, compliance and fisheries management decisions should be available to stakeholders on request”. MSC Fisheries Standards v2.0.1, published in August 2018.
 See summary of changes at: https://www.msc.org/docs/default-source/default-document-library/for-business/program-documents/fisheries-program-documents/msc-fisheries-certification-requirements-v2-0-summary-of-changes.pdf?sfvrsn=9c675ba_14.
 Schuhbauer et al. (2020) The global fisheries subsidies divide between small- and large-scale fisheries.
 Le Manach et al. (2020) Small is beautiful, but large is certified: a comparison between fisheries the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) features in its promotional materials and MSC-certified fisheries.
 The only MSC-certified African fishery at that time was a large-scale, deep-sea bottom trawling hake fishery based in South Africa.
 See e.g. Mallory (2016) Fisheries subsidies in China: quantitative and qualitative assessment of policy coherence and effectiveness or Sumaila et al. (2019) Updated estimates and analysis of global fisheries subsidies and Pauly et al. (2014) China’s distant-water fisheries in the 21st century.