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The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an independent non-profit organization which sets a standard for sustainable fishing. Fisheries that wish to demonstrate they are well-managed and sustainable compared to the science-based MSC standard are assessed by a team of experts who are independent of both the fishery and the MSC. Seafood products can display the blue MSC ecolabel only if that seafood can be traced back through the supply chain to a fishery that has been certified against the MSC standard.

The mission of the MSC is to use its ecolabel, for which the MSC receives royalties for licensing it to products, and fishery certification program to contribute to the health of the world’s oceans by recognizing and rewarding sustainable fishing practices, influencing the choices people make when buying seafood, and working with partners to transform the seafood market to a sustainable basis. Another organisation, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, promotes and certifies sustainable aquaculture.

When buyers choose MSC-certified fish, well-managed fisheries are rewarded for sustainable practices. In turn, the growing market for certified sustainable seafood generates a powerful incentive for other fisheries to demonstrate they are fishing sustainably or to improve their performance so that they too can be eligible for MSC certification. In this way, the MSC program helps to harness market forces to incentivise positive environmental change.

A study found that MSC-certified fisheries show improvements that deliver benefits to the marine environment. Benefits included: increased stocks; improved management of stocks; reduced bycatch; expansion of environmentally protected areas; and increased knowledge about ecosystem impacts amongst fishers.

A further study published in the scientific journal PLoS One found, following the first comprehensive analysis of global fish stocks targeted by MSC-certified fisheries, that certified stocks are healthy and maintained above levels that ensure continuing sustainability.

The MSC was founded in 1996, inspired by the Grand Banks cod fishery collapse. In 1999 it became independent of its founding partners, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Unilever. MSC has a staff of around 140 spread across the headquarters in London, regional offices in London, Seattle, Singapore and Sydney, and local offices in Edinburgh, Berlin, The Hague, Paris, Cape Town, Tokyo, Reykjavik, and the Baltic region.

The MSC program is open to all fisheries regardless of size, scale, location and intensity and runs a Developing World Program to ensure equal access to the program.

As of February 2016, there are over 20,000 seafood products available with the MSC ecolabel, sold in around 100 countries around the world. As of May 2016, there are over 280 fisheries that have been independently certified as meeting the MSC’s environmental standard for sustainable fishing and over 90 are currently undergoing assessment. Around 3,300 companies operating in 34,500 sites have met the MSC Chain of Custody standard for seafood traceability. The MSC works in partnership with a number of organisations, businesses and funders around the world but is fully independent of all.

The MSC environmental standard for sustainable fishing was developed over two years through a consultative process involving more than 300 expert organizations and individuals around the world. It is consistent with the ‘Guidelines for the Eco-labelling of Fish and Fishery Products from Marine Wild Capture Fisheries’ adopted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2005.

Fisheries that want certification and to use the ecolabel pay US$20,000 to more than $100,000 to an independent, for-profit contractor that assesses the fishery against the MSC standard and determines whether to recommend certification. The assessors are independently accredited to perform MSC assessments by Accreditation Services International (ASI). After certification, fisheries undergo annual audits costing $75,000 per audit and are recertified every five years.

Because a certified fishery must achieve average scores of at least 80 across the three principles it is possible for a fishery to be certified with a score of between 60 and 80 for a small number of performance indicators. In these cases it is called a conditional certification: conditions are placed on the fishery, which it must fulfil within a set period, in order to remain certified. Even though the fishery is operating sustainably, it must introduce a plan of action that will raise its performance to the more precautionary level demanded by the MSC standard by increasing any score of between 60 and 80 to at least 80 within a set period of time. In almost all cases, scores of 80 have to be achieved for all performance indicators by the end of the first certificate period (five years).

To remain certified, fisheries also have to undertake an annual surveillance to check that they continue to meet the MSC standard. After 5 years, the fishery must be reassessed in full if it wants to continue to be certified.

The Marine Stewardship Council is a program for wild fisheries and does not include aquaculture production.

Some types of ‘enhanced fisheries’ can be certified but there is a well-defined type of enhancement to which the MSC standard for sustainability can be applied:

To ensure a robust assessment and to ensure that the independent team of experts has all the available information on the fishery, the assessment process is open to a range of stakeholders to participate – this could be other fisheries, NGOs, governments, or other bodies.

Stakeholders are invited to participate in the process from the outset, and throughout the assessment, stakeholders are given the opportunity to submit information and comment on reports, all of which are made public and available for anyone to see on the MSC website.

The MSC is governed by a Board of Trustees of up to 15 members. In addition a Technical Advisory Board and a Stakeholder Council advise the Board. The structure of these bodies involves a wide range of stakeholders with different views so that decisions reflect many sectors and interests.

The Board sets the strategic direction of the MSC, monitors progress and ensures the MSC meets its objectives. The MSC Technical Advisory Board is made up of 15 experts in the fields of marine science, policy and seafood supply chains: it advises the MSC Board on technical and scientific matters. The MSC Stakeholder Advisory Council ensures that the opinions of groups with a stake in sustainable fishing and seafood supply are heard by the MSC Board. It comprises up to 17 members who represent a broad range of sectors and geographical areas, including fishing organisations, NGOs, consumer groups, retailers, and others.

Through these bodies, the MSC is continually improving its program, and stakeholders are invited to contribute to its development through regular meetings of the Stakeholder Advisory Council and public consultations.

The MSC manages a second standard called Chain of Custody for traceability. If seafood is to be sold with the MSC ecolabel, every business in the supply chain must be assessed and certified by an independent body against the MSC Chain of Custody standard. This ensures that only seafood from a certified sustainable fishery is sold with the MSC label.

As of March 2019[update], the use of DNA barcoding by the MSC has reduced species mislabelling (sometimes done fraudulently) to less than 1% among covered products, compared to the sector average of roughly 30%.

The MSC is a registered charity and non-profit organisation and depends on various sources of funding. From 1 April 2011 to 31 March 2012, the MSC’s total income was £15 million. Total expenditure for the same period was £12 million. The MSC Board recognises it as generally good practice to hold reserves as a protection against any financial difficulties in the future. A reserves target of 6 to 9 months’ cover is considered to be necessary, at least as an aspiration, given the MSC’s absence of a subscribing membership and uncertainty, as a market-based program, of its various income streams.

In 2009 Greenpeace published a comprehensive assessment of the MSC. Overall the report states several positive effects, but also many aspects that make the MSC a weak certification.

Jared Diamond’s 2005 book Collapse discussed MSC and the similar Forest Stewardship Council as good examples of collaboration among environmentalists and businesses for a sustainable economy.

Andrew Balmford’s book Wild Hope (Chicago University Press, 2012) devotes a chapter to the MSC as a successful strategy for achieving conservation goals through a collaborative, market-based solution.

Since 2009, the MSC has been criticized for certifying fisheries that have, in the view of some, questionable sustainability. The most controversial certification has been that of the Ross Sea Antarctic toothfish fishery. Some scientists and stakeholders in the seafood industry consider the fishery “exploratory”, since so little is known about it. However toothfish has been fished commercially for over 30 years and the fishery has been closely managed by Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources since 1982. Scientists had accused the assessor, which recommended the fishery for certification, of ignoring unfavorable data. The independent adjudicator later sent back the recommendation for certification to the assessor for reconsideration. The fishery was certified with adjustments to the scoring on the contested indicators and additional requirements for providing scientific data to aid research on toothfish stocks.

The MSC received criticism from Greenpeace and the Pew Environment Group among others over its certification of Antarctic krill. Although the fishery may have been healthy, critics believed that “scientific data on the fishery’s impact [wa]s lacking, and that the council’s decision [wa]s thus based on guesswork”. As a result, Whole Foods Market stated it would stop selling all krill oil supplements even with the ecolabel.

As part of the MSC certification the krill fishery committed to further scientific research and 100% observer coverage, specifically addressing the concerns about risks posed to other species by krill fishing. Fishing pressure on krill is very low – less than 1% of estimated biomass – and the management rules established by CCAMLR ensure fishing activities minimise risks to the krill population or other species.

In early 2010, the MSC was criticised by environmental groups like the Sierra Club for certifying the British Columbia sockeye salmon fishery when stocks in the Fraser River (a part of the fishery) had been in decline since the early 1990s.
The year before, the salmon run of the Fraser River (a part of the fishery) was only 1.4 million (M) of a predicted 11 M salmon and had prompted the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to launch a judicial enquiry.
The 2010 run was 30 M and the 2011 run is estimated to be greater than 4 M. The Fraser Sockeye 2010 think tank at Simon Fraser University stated that the large 2010 run was due mainly to the cyclical peak of fish from the Adams River and that returns were high only for a subset of tributaries. However, it stated that “the large unresolved uncertainties […] highlight our collective uncertainty about the relative roles of climate change, aquaculture, and fisheries management in determining salmon returns”.

An appropriate management response to the decreased stocks was taken and the fishery was closed to allow the stocks to recover. The fishery is now operating successfully and has an ongoing commitment to protecting weak populations and decreasing bycatch. Catch level is set in-season in accordance with each year’s run size.

In February 2011, several European WWF chapters objected to certification of the Denmark North Sea plaice fishery. The concerns raised were taken into account and the fishery concerned implemented a habitat strategy to ensure enhanced protection of vulnerable habitats through measures such as closed areas, gear modifications, technical developments and targeted research.

However, in an independent study of seven different seafood ecolabelling and certification programs, commissioned by WWF International and carried out by Accenture Development Partnerships in 2009, the MSC ranked highest across all 103 criteria. The study was repeated in 2012 and the MSC again was determined ‘best in class’, scoring twice as highly as the next nearest certification program analysed.

Some scientists like Sidney Holt and Daniel Pauly have suggested that a system where assessments are carried out by commercial contractors paid by the fisheries creates a conflict of interest because assessors have a financial incentive in recommending fisheries and getting more work and profits from the resulting annual audits. However, the practice of companies paying external auditors for assessments to independent standards (such as accounting or quality standards) is widespread throughout all business and non-profit sectors. Third party assessment by accredited certifiers, independent of the standard setter, is also a key feature of the United Nations FAO guidelines on ecolabelling fisheries and fish products, and one of the criteria that the global community of MSC stakeholders value in the MSC program.

In December 2016 Private Eye reported that a leaked internal WWF document concluded that because the MSC receives royalties from licensing its ecolabel (providing 75% of the organisation’s revenue) there is a conflict of interest and it has relaxed its sustainability requirements, enabling more products to carry its label, thereby increasing its own income.

In 2018 Open Seas and the National Trust for Scotland formally objected to MSC certified scallop dredging practices.