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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Fisheries heavyweights pound MSC

Today, Marine Stewardship Council finds itself where it doesn't want to be: in the spotlight taking a public whuppin' from some smart people in the journal Nature.

The authors of the opinion piece, including Jennifer Jacquet and Daniel Pauly of University of British Columbia and Jeremy Jackson and Paul Dayton of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, take MSC to task not only for its certification of specifically troublesome fisheries such as the Alaskan pollock fishery and the Antarctic krill fishery, but also for their broader acceptance of bottom trawl fisheries and fisheries that are done solely to produce fish meal and fish oil rather than human food.

You know what made me start doubting the MSC label even before this, and even before MSC certified Fraser river sockeye? Cat food. Apparently, over in Europe the MSC logo is going to start showing up on select bags of cat food that are made with only MSC-certified fish. This is supposed to happen in 2010. I mean, I guess this is better than the alternative, but it makes me wince for everyone involved: for the fishermen whose efforts only lead to cat food (honestly...think about that for a second), for the fact that society can consider "cat food fisheries" to be a sound use of marine ecosystems at all, for the sad sappy suckers who will buy the stuff with an assuaged conscience, and for the fact that the MSC logo will be showing up on the bags themselves.

I mean, I gave up for 3 months after I read this headline. I didn't even get out of bed. Just lay there. So much wrong with very, very much.

While many other people have specific problems with various MSC-certified fisheries, one of the major sticking points with me is more basic: at best, the MSC logo on something only means that the fishery met a certain set of criteria (and paid the requisite thousands of dollars). The MSC logo does not mean that the product is a good idea. Animal feed derived from whole fish that are caught for the purpose of being reduced to meal and oil is, to me and to many others, not a good idea at all, and an MSC logo won't change how fundamentally bad the idea is - but it will likely make people feel that they don't have to worry about it because it's 'sustainable'.

Perhaps it's unfair to blame MSC for this - it is the demand from the larger society, after all, that lead us to feed wild fish to domestic animals. However, MSC's very own vision statement contains the fundamental judgment that the conservation of marine life is done for ours and future generations - a commitment which should seem to fly in the face of certifying 'cat food fisheries'.

MSC Vision: "Our vision is of the world’s oceans teeming with life, and seafood supplies
safeguarded for this and future generations"

Are they living up to this vision? They can and will continue to argue the details - click here for their response to the Nature piece. However, the deepening concerns held by many people in the fisheries world, combined with MSC's blithe acceptance of fisheries that reduce fish to meal and oil, makes me question whether or not they've lost their way - which is one of the points that the Nature authors ultimately make.

MSC may still turn out to be a good thing. It has the attention of the public, and therefore of industry and government as well, and thus it can be a powerful tool to change fisheries for the better. However, I get the sinking feeling that someday soon we're going to see this headline and know that all is lost:

"Mr. Burns' Omni-Net Slurry Fishery Earns MSC Certification".
Finally - a slurry that you can enjoy with a clear conscience


  1. MSC is a slight improvement over "eco" companies that just slap their sustainable label on anything. Orange Roughy for example -

  2. Thanks for your comment - and for sure, an MSC label does have meaning and it does speak to some important things - traceability, to name one important example. I just think that people tend to think that MSC certification speaks to a broader range of things than it actually does.

    It's still better than opportunistic green-washing, though - eg your hilarious/morbidly depressing orange roughy example. A "run" of orange roughy - that was rich. I submit that an orange roughy run, if it existed, would be the most boring spectacle in the natural world.

    That reminds me - one of these days I'm going to write about Canada's very own orange roughy...a little guy called the longspine thornyhead. It's a sad tale.