Guilt-Free Fish a Flop


A lot of people who don't want to feel guilty about eating seafood will look for the MSC logo. The MSC (or Marine Stewardship Council) supposedly certifies sustainable fisheries. They aim to reward good fisheries management by providing access to niche markets (the same markets concerned with their bread slicers) and the lure of higher profits (although this hasn't seemed to happen so far). Four recent events reveal the fishiness of MSC-certification -- a process many fisheries scientists supported at its inception but now doubt.

1) Certified wasted fish

Daniel Pauly and I have an article out today at the Vancouver-based Tyee on why the proposed MSC-certification of Peruvian anchovy is a bad idea. Whether or not the fish is caught sustainably is beside the point. The real issue, in this case, is what is done with the fish after they are caught--and, in the case of the anchovy, these tasty little fish are turned into fishmeal to feed factory-farmed fish or pigs and chickens (animals that shouldn't be eating fish to begin with). It's like certifying wood as sustainable and then turning it into mulch.

2) A sustainable fishery shut down?

Next up, our old friend pollock--a fish that makes its way into the McDonald's Filet-o-Fish and a fish that dons the MSC seal of approval. However, according to this recent article in the Economist, the pollock fishery is also in dire Bering straits. Friends at Greenpeace (who never approved of the MSC-certification due to the fact that the certification ignored ecosystem effects, such as how much pollock sea lions in the area need for food) heard that pollock stock assessments are so low that under the fishery rules, the pollock fishery should be shut down for next season. If one of the best managed or most heavily managed fisheries in the world shuts down, what does that say for management? And what does it say for the MSC?

3) An ugly fish with an ugly fate

Hoki is another fish that makes its way into the McDonald's Filet-o-Fish and this fishery off of New Zealand was certified by the MSC in 2001. You can read all about its demise in the New York Times article out last week. Environmental groups have always been concerned about the high levels of accidentally caught sharks and rays, but now it seems that the hoki themselves are in trouble. The hoki stock is in decline and the quota has decreased by two-thirds. If a fishery is in trouble and managers lower the quota, the MSC would say that's a good sign--management is responding to a fishery in trouble. But a fishery in trouble is a bad sign for marine ecology and for the premise of sustainability.

4) Pacific hake doesn't make the grade

Pacific hake is another popular fish for pulverized products like fish patties and fish sticks (see a pattern yet?). It is also up for MSC-certification. Oceana and the Monterey Bay Aquarium have co-authored a 50-page objection to the certification on several grounds. To quote the Oceans letter: "The Pacific hake fishery is being managed closer to the edge of disaster than sustainability." The two groups argue management does not take ecosystem effects into account (like the fact that sea lion feed on lots of hake). Estimates of stock status indicate that the stock is now at the lowest spawning biomass ever observed and is projected to decline further in the next three years under current harvest management.

These examples show how the MSC certification process has been co-opted by industry. But there is some good news: they also show that there is pressure to certify fisheries due to a heartening desire from consumers to have sustainable fish.

The problem is, most fisheries simply aren't sustainable under their current management practices. Putting a logo on them doesn't change that even if consumers might feel less guilt at dinnertime. Fisheries are broken and the MSC is broken as a result. We need to fix them both. And fast.

More like this

Apologies if this is a bit off-topic, but I followed the link in the sidebar for the jellyfish burger pic. Are there any sustainability standards or things I should be looking for when I buy jellyfish? I wouldn't put it on a burger, but it's lovely in salads.

By Charlotte (not verified) on 14 Sep 2009 #permalink

Fisheries are broken and the MSC is broken as a result

Hailing from the Monterrey bay myself, and being an avid fish eater (mainly in the form of sushi and shashimi) along with begin a marine biology student - I have to say it is quite scary to see the state of the current fisheries. I try to limit the fish I eat and follow the recommendation on what types of fish are the most sustainable, but it always seems to be the tastiest fish are the most in danger. I fear it is too late...

I fully understand the MSC argument that the fisheries they certify are not perfect but that MSC is a useful "carrot" to get them to improve - However, slapping the MSC logo on products and telling consumers that these are already sustainable fisheries now and not fisheries working towards future sustainability is just plain WRONG!

"whether or not the fish are caught sustainably is besides the point". Hmmm -- what then is the point of sustainability? Is it to impose narrow judgement values on the ulitmate use of fish or is it to promote harvest levels that provide fish now and into the future. What if 0.5 lb of anchovies produced 1 lb of cultured fish? Would that make it sustainable?

I couldn't agree more with your assessment of the MSC as co-opted by industry. Our organization has been trying to get them to reconsider certifying the Ross Sea toothfish and Antarctic krill fisheries but they won't even listen to the scientists who peer review their reports. It really seems that once they consider certifying a fishery, they find reasons that it lives up to their standards, rather than putting the burden of proof on the fishery.

Red, the point of sustainability is to ensure resource availability indefinitely. With many fish stocks in trouble, it is certainly not sustainable to increasingly turn relatively plentiful fish like anchovies into fishmeal to be used on polluting fish farms when we could be using them to feed people. We absolutely should consider whether such practices are the best possible uses of our resources when we consider their overall sustainability.

Fishmeal Guilt Free (and highly sustainable grass fed) Protein:

Rabbit Burger.
Goat Stew.
Sheep Sausage.
Yak T-bone.
Buffalo Jerky.

Maybe some educational consumer ad campaigns need to be developed and collaborated upon for the fishmeal free protein industry (and the economic salvation of the sustainable fishing industry...).

Marketing is such an interesting arena when introducing sustainable, and or alien product concepts to new cultures. Studying how coffee was introduced into the Japanese tea drinking culture is mind bending, and at first thought to be entirely impossible. Yet, with proper marketing...

Imagine for example in the year 2025, introducing an altruistic sustainable fish free animal protein product in a parallel science fiction universe on the planet Asmu, called: Kentucky Fried Rabbit. Which of course, we would probably not be able to be call this product K.F.R., due to potential legal concerns on Asmu about trademark infringements, so instead we would call it, Texas Fried Rabbit. Then there might be a potential barrage of offended Texans and Animal Rights concerns if such entities existed on Asmu, so then the name would have to be changed again to Martian Prepared Lagomorpha, or âMPLâ for short. Which is even better, because MPL further alleviates any potential emotional discomforts in the partaking of eating cooked animal parts. It is just cleaner this way, trust the experts, clowns are excellent distancing mediums for introducing new emerging markets to carnivore diets on Asmu.

An Asmu ad could sound like this (with of course a pounding techno bass beat rap in the back ground, as food images are assimilated better with music): âYum Yo, lets go down and bucket up, man up on MPL. Fish free. Dude. Yum Yo. Chill yo worry on the empty sea. MPL, so ocean fish be free. Man up Yo...â [Soft robotic synth gender neutral voice over: âMan Up Foods brought to you by Foods For Our Future, because we donât want you to be hungry...â].

âMan Up Foods! Foods for our Future!â (Of course we then © Copyright, and Reserve All Rights to all this stuff on the Planet Asmu...)

I am still working on the thumbnails and copy for inter-galactic Venus vegetable and soy based burger ad campaigns...

By Chris Martell (not verified) on 15 Sep 2009 #permalink

I can only imagine where the link on v-pills would take me.

By the way... WWF (creators of MSC) are now funding and developing a version for aquaculture (ASC) so expect to see "sustainable" farmed raised salmon in the near future next to the "sustainable" chilean sea bass in Whole Foods.

We should probably lay off the wild fishery for a generation, and streamline our fish farming tech. People have been farming fish for thousands of years. It's about time we brought it up to date; to find the fishery equivalent of hydroponic farming; eco friendly, safe seafood. Nature needs a rest! I used to eat swordfish once a week. Now I hate to watch the TV shows where they kill these majestic fish, knowing that they are steadily killing them all off. They should limit the fishery to hand tools; drop long lining and nets altogether, and allow sword and tuna fishing only by harpoon and single hook and lines. Fishing will stop sooner or later, when we run out. Best to stop for a while BEFORE the stocks deplete below the tipping point.

By David B. Ebert (not verified) on 16 Sep 2009 #permalink

Claire - don't you think people would eat those anchovies if they could? Apparently there is no market for them as they would surely command a higher price as human food than animal feed. Why couldn't their "highest and best use" be to produce fish that humans do eat assuming the anchovies are harvested sustainably (not overfished or overfishing occuring).
I am begining to think there are two definition of sustainability- one that is used to speak negatively about almost all fishing and one that understands overfishing and minimizing environmental effects of fishing.

David Ebert - I guess you missed the stock assessemnt that shows swordfish are fully recovered from the overfishing that occurred some years ago. In fact they are now underfished in US waters-- there are not enough fishermen left to catch the US quota.

Red -
You're right about their being 2 definitions one is the adjective that is used loosely by the public and businesses for maintaining a healthy supply of something and the other is MSY which is the inflection point of the population growth curve that is used to determine how much fish to take. Unfortunately fishing a stock down to MSY has been shown to be ineffective at keeping it "sustainable". Regardless of the stock status of Swordfish, we should not be using long-line gear to catch them because of the baycatch of sharks, birds, turtles, and marine mammals.

From NMFS NOAA in regards to the swordfish fishery: "This means that annual mortality and serious injury of certain marine mammal stocks in this fishery are greater than or equal to 50% of the Potential Biological Removal level (the maximum number of animals, not including natural mortalities, that may be removed from a marine mammal stock while allowing it to be at sustainable levels)."


This is the first time I have commented on your blog, I usually read it and agree wholeheartedly with the interesting things that you write here, but this time I have to disagree.

There are a number of issues which you have omitted in your article on the MSC, perhaps one of the major ones is that the NZ hoki fishery has actually started to show signs of recovery (…). Whether this is because of MSC certification or not could be debated, but they have made a number of positive changes in this fishery since being certified which it is unlikely that they would have made in the absence of the MSC conditions.

You can also argue about whether using anchovies for fishmeal is sensible or not (I don't think it is), but this really has nothing to do with whether it is sustainable or not, and therefore has nothing to do with the MSC.

The real problem I have is that you haven't got any suggestions for how else we should go about improving fisheries. It is true that the MSC is cheating a bit when it certifies fish as 'sustainable' (it should say "working towards sustainability", but the marketing guys would struggle to get it off the ground). But the truth is that there is really nothing else that has come close to implementing change in global fisheries.

Sadly not everyone shares your passion for saving the world and fisheries have got into the mess they're in precisely because of the fact that humans are not long-term thinkers. Writing impassioned pleas asking people to stop eating fish is not the solution to global overfishing, maybe the MSC isn't either but it's doing a lot more than anyone else is.


I only have a brief moment and could put "pen to paper" in a more comprehensive fashion a little later if required, however I wanted to quickly address your contention that what the fishmeal is used for "has nothing to do with" whether it is sustainable or not- it all depends on what you consider to be the context ("definition" if you will) of what sustainability actually means...

if world population continues to increase and the demand for meat fed on fishmeal increases accordingly, the demand on the fishery will be that much greater, therefore I would argue that sustainability absolutely has to do with the projected future of and future demands that could be made upon any given species or fishery.

In the case of Peru, as articulated in the September 14th Tyee article Something's Fishy about this Eco-Stamp of Approval, half of Peru's 15 million population live under conditions of critical poverty and a quater of infants are malnourished. One could easily argue that a significant portion of the five to ten million tonnes of anchovies caught in that fishery each year (a large percentage of which are sold cheaply to the Norwegian-owned salmon farms in Chile that consume more fish than they produce) could alleviate those conditions and in the grand scheme of things (perhaps even as in some parts of Europe, elevating the anchovy to a valuable food for humans) be seen as more sustainable than simply the population dynamics of the species itself in that region or if it is "well managed". Add to this the recent collaboration with Wal-Mart, and there comes a subtle shift from certifying "good" fisheries to certifying "big" fisheries...

I believe that fies in the face of any form of "eco-certification" and therefore MSC certification should be challenged in terms of what really is sustainable practice.

MSC is supposed to be ISEAL compliant (International SOCIAL and environmental accreditation) so ethical issues do and should apply to the MSC label in this case.

If you are concerned about the social implications of MSC, you should be outraged at the development and funding of ASC:

A coalition of groups condemned WWF's move to establish the ASC. "We see the ASC as yet another attempt by a Big International NGO to formulate some ill-conceived plan to remedy the problems of unsustainable industrial shrimp farming. These kinds of remedies do not involve the local communities and grassroots movements in the process of defining steps to be taken, and therefore exclude those peoples most affected by the industryâs ongoing assaults as readily evidenced in such locations as Lampung, Indonesia or Muisne, Ecuador, in Khulna, Bangladesh or Choluteca, Honduras," wrote Alfredo Quarto, from the Mangrove Action Project, USA; Natasha Ahmad from the Asia Solidarity Against Industrial Aquaculture (ASIA), Bangladesh; Abdoulaye Diamé from the African Mangrove Network; Juan Jose Lopez from the RedManglar Internacional, Colombia; and Maurizio Farhan Ferrari from the Forest Peoples Programme, UK.[3]

Jim - in regards to posts 14 & 15. MSY is the starting point. We now have Optimum Yield which is supposed to take into account uncertainty and "other factors" in determining the total alowable catch. I think most people familiar with the problems of MSY agree that it is very risky to try to fish right up to MSY. The question is how far down from MSY do you go and what all should you take into consideration in making that very arbitray decision.

Assuming that NOAA has good data on the marine mamals in question and that the 50% benchmark is meaningul in the life history of those particular mamals, then you have a good point. Unfortunatley your original post seemed to denounce fishing for swordfish based on the harvest of swordfish themselves(implying overfishing) and not these other issues.

Red -
Swordfish stocks are at 99% MSY...


What are your opinions on the high percentage of females caught as a result of longline fishing?

My understanding is that as with other billfish, the females tend to be bigger and as such are targeted disproportionately both commercially and for trophy, and because they do not mature until they are about 5 years old (as opposed to 3 years for males) that there is therefore a high probability that they are caught before they've even matured enough to spawn.

(Although I haven't specifically compiled the data, anecdotally I have heard concerns raised on disproportionate and premature female catch with regard to striped bass, shad, menhaden, alewife herring, etc.)

Since you are discussing swordfish, you should know that the Canadian longline swordfish fishery, too, is up for MSC certification. Unless your definition of sustainable includes 1200 loggerhead and 170 leatherback turtles taken on longlines each year alongside tens of thousands of sharks, it's another sure sign the MSC ain't what it purports to be.
see or

Seafood Watch is completely independent of MSC and in fact Seafood Watch has strongly objected to the MSC certification of Pacific Hake. Seafood Watch, in my opinion, if much more reliable because they do not receive money for ranking a fishery.

With respect to comment # 24, the swordfish longline fishery takes both male and female swordfish in all size catagories. It is the harpoon fishery that harvest exclusively large females. With respect to post # 27 by Alex, she failed to mentioned that there has yet to be a single leatherback turtle observed to have died from an interaction with Canadian large pelagic longline gear, that greater than 99% of the loggerhead sea turtles are released alive, and that greater than 90% of the blue sharks that are caught by the fleet are also released alive. Unlike some or most of the other seafood rating systems, the MSC proccess works to improve fishing practices, instead of just complaining about them.

@Troy (Comment 30): If only all those turtles and sharks released alive (when observers are watching, which is rare in the Canadian longline swordfish fishery) survived. And if only rewarding unsustainable fisheries with eco-labels somehow magically transformed them into sustainable fisheries. Unfortunately for the marine ecosystem, that is not the world we live in. Instead, substantial fractions (an estimated 35% for blue sharks and at least 30% for sea turtles) die after being discarded by longliners. And even when the MSC sets forth stringent conditions for a fishery to meet after it is certified (a curious order of events when you think about it, and one originally designed to improve fisheries that already met a minimum bar of eco-friendliness), evidence of those conditions subsequently being met by the fisheries in question is increasingly being shown in the academic literature to be scant to none.

I would personally like to see a certification scheme designed to reward fisheries that already meet strict criteria for environmental sustainability. That's how USDA organic certification works - why can't we demand the same for our oceans?

May 7, 2010

Independent Adjudicator Orders Reconsideration of MSC
Certification of Ross Sea Toothfish Fishery:
Victory for Science and the Antarctic Marine Environment

Today the Marine Stewardship Councilâs (MSC) Independent Adjudicator, Michael Lodge, remanded the proposed MSC certification of the Ross Sea Antarctic toothfish fishery back to the certifier, Moody Marine, for major reconsideration. The adjudicatorâs determination results from an appeal filed by the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), representing the great majority of its member groups.

In his ruling, the Adjudicator identified âserious procedural errorsâ in the approach taken by Moody Marine. For several performance indicators, he found that the scores given by Moody Marine were not justified by available scientific evidence. For the first time in a MSC assessment the Adjudicator has referred the scoring indicators used for two Principles back to the certifier for revisions and reconsideration.

In December 2009, ASOC submitted a formal objection to the recommendation by Moody Marine, Ltd., a UK-based consulting firm, that part of the Ross Sea toothfish fishery be given MSC Certification. ASOC argued that the scarcity of information about the stock and a lack of scientific rigour in the assessment make certification unjustifiable. ASOC also argued that certification would undermine ongoing efforts to have the Ross Sea established as a fully-protected marine reserve, and that Moody Marine had ignored the scientific views of its own expert peer reviewers, detailed scientific concerns raised by 39 marine scientists from seven nations who have worked in the Ross Sea for decades and information provided by ASOC, Greenpeace and other non-governmental organizations. The 39 scientists said that certification of the fishery as "sustainable" is scientifically indefensible.

On December 15 the Adjudicator ruled that serious issues were raised by ASOC and thus an appeal could proceed. ASOC filed a final brief against the certification on March 29, 2010, with supporting documents filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the 39 marine scientists.

âGiven the weight of the evidence, the only rational course of action was to remand the certifierâs report,â said ASOC Executive Director James Barnes. âThis fishery should never have been allowed to undergo full assessment in the first place - there are simply far too many unknowns about this highly vulnerable stock, which is precisely why the fishery is officially classified as 'exploratory' by CCAMLR - the Antarctic body that manages fishing in the Southern Ocean. The adjudicator has agreed with ASOC that Moody cannot justify its scores for a number of crucial indicators.â

Among the major substantive and procedural problems with the assessment raised by ASOC are:
â¢Available information on the life history of Antarctic toothfish is very limited, and therefore the body regulating Southern Ocean fishing - CCAMLR - classifies the fishery as âexploratoryâ rather than âfully assessedâ.
â¢Among information yet to be learned about the Antarctic toothfishâs life history is where and how often the species spawns, as neither eggs nor larvae have ever been found.
â¢The age at which toothfish mature is uncertain, but at ~16 years it is far older than that of most fish, making the species especially at risk of overfishing, since the largest, most fertile adults are targeted by the fishery.
â¢Moody Marine ignored the substantive criticisms of experienced peer reviewers with extensive backgrounds in fisheries science and management.
â¢Moody Marine refused to provide ASOC key documents used in the assessment, in spite of the Adjudicator approving ASOC's document request. But the Adjudicator has no power to compel disclosure of documents.

âThis report is more than slap on the wrist for Moody Marine,â added Barnes. "The Adjudicator disagreed with the reasoning and scoring for several performance indicators, which had been criticized by ASOC."

MSC rules require that ASOC, a non-profit, non-commercial public interest organization, pay 15,000 British pounds (about $23,000 US) up front in order for the Independent Adjudicator to proceed with the case. That fee was paid under protest. Even though ASOC has been vindicated by the Independent Adjudicator, the MSC keeps the money.

âWith oceans around the globe already stripped of their top predators, the Ross Sea is one of the last remaining intact marine ecosystems,â added Richard Page from Greenpeace International. âWe owe it to ourselves, our children and our grandchildren to keep it that way.â

In 2008, an independent analysis of human impacts on the world's oceans published in the journal Science classified the Ross Sea as the least affected oceanic ecosystem remaining on Earth.

For further information contact:

Jim Barnes (ASOC Executive Director)
Email: Cell: +33-6-7418-1994

Richard Page, Greenpeace International
Email: Cell: +44-780-1212966

Steve Smith, Greenpeace International Communications Manager
Email: Cell +31-6-4378-7359

David Ainley (H.T. Harvey & Associates)
Email: Cell: +1-415-272-9499

Barry Weeber, ECO NZ
Email: cell +64-21-738-807

Karli Thomas, Greenpeace New Zealand Oceans Campaigner
Email: Phone +64-21-905582

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