NOTE *I received no compensation from the MSC and am a completely independent party.*
I’ve had the chance to go visit some of the MSC certified fisheries in the Western Central Pacific Ocean in the past. As a skeptic by nature, I went with a suspicious mind and was transparent that if I observed anything I didn’t like or disagreed with, I would tell them and not conceal the negative information from the public. This is still applicable to this day for the MSC and for any other seafood industry or NGO participant that I independently observe.
After the whole Seaspiracy ordeal, as a trained lawyer, it was important for me to provide a platform for the MSC to respond. To remain impartial, these inquiries were crowd sourced from the general public. I also invited Kip Andersen and Ali Tabrizi from the film to engage and have their questions answered. They declined….Here are your questions, and their answers.
1- What are some examples of industrial fishing methods that can be considered sustainable?
There are examples of sustainable fisheries across all vessel sizes, and the common factor for preventing overfishing is the effective control of how much fish is caught. One example is “supertrawlers” – large vessels that in addition to fishing are equipped as processing facilities aboard the vessel. The larger size allows fish to be processed quickly after harvest, and also allows fishing to be dispersed rather than concentrated around ports. Making boats larger by including processing facilities aboard does not affect the size of their nets or how much fish is caught.
Alaska Pollock, one of the largest sustainable fisheries in the world, is a great example of this kind of fishing. The fishery processes its catch on board straight out of the ocean, wasting nothing.
2- How do fisheries prove that they are not catching unwanted species, what’s being done to reduce it and who monitors it?
A lot of work goes into this, and a lot of people are involved in the process.
Fisheries management authorities need accurate data on the catch and effort of different fleets in order to establish the status of fish stocks and set sustainable fishing limits.
The MSC sustainable fishing standard requires certified fisheries to collect a range of quality information, in order to support effective fisheries management, but does not prescribe how this must be achieved. At-sea monitoring is a vital part of maintaining credibility in our program, and may include fisheries placing human observers on vessels, electronic monitoring of location and other technologies to show compliance, such as cameras.
MSC certified fisheries must provide evidence that they are actively minimizing unwanted catch. Fisheries that need to improve in this area must set goals — and meet them — to keep their certificates. Otherwise, they risk having their certification suspended.
A good example of this is the Western Australia rock lobster fishery which drastically reduced its impact on sea lions.
3- How do you support small fisheries with true conservation practices?
First, it’s important to note that fisheries of all shapes and sizes are engaged in the MSC program – from an artisanal clam fishery in India, to hand-harvested Bahamian lobster fishery, to one of the largest sustainable fisheries in the world – Alaska pollock.
The MSC dedicates 5% of all royalties from MSC certified product sales to the Ocean Stewardship Fund. The Fund gives out grants to innovative research and supports fisheries at all stages on the path to sustainability including small-scale fisheries and fisheries in the Global South that are committed to improving their fishing practices and achieving MSC certification.
4- What is the most sustainable fish to eat for normal consumers? And what’s to avoid?
Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer to this question. For example, one stock (population) of yellowfin tuna in one region may be healthy and caught by a well-managed fishery with minimal impact on the surrounding environment. In another region or another fishery, they may be taking too much of the yellowfin tuna stock for them to replenish, naturally, or potentially even doing harm to the habitat in which the fish lives.
Picking a seafood product based on the species is not the best way to identify if a seafood product is from a sustainable fishery. The best way to know if the fish you’re buying at the grocery store is environmentally-friendly is to read the packaging, ask questions of your fishmonger/retailer, and look for third-party certifications that verify the seafood you’re purchasing can be traced through the supply chain to a sustainable source.
5- How are you helping with fishing nets and gear being dumped in the ocean?
The MSC sustainable fishing standard includes requirements from fisheries to minimize gear loss as part of a broader requirement about minimizing operational waste such as lost fishing gear, oil spills, and on-board spoilage of catch, among other things. There’s a great example of a MSC certified fishery in Mexico that uses biodegradable lobster traps to prevent ghost gear.
In addition, the MSC provides grants to projects that focus on addressing ghost gear through its Ocean Stewardship Fund, such as this project in the Seychelles where communities intercept and recover discarded fishing gear to protect coral reefs.
6- What is your definition of sustainability?
The MSC defines “sustainable fishing” as catching seafood in ways that ensure the long-term health of a stock or species and the well-being of the ocean, and that the fishery is managed by a responsible organization that can adapt to changing conditions. Fishing must be at a level so it can continue indefinitely, and other species and habitats also remain healthy.
For example, if you think about a fish population as a bank account – you can’t take more than you have, and if you take more than you earn or deposit, you’ll eventually empty the account. It is illegal to take from someone else’s account, and there are bank employees responsible for full accounting of all transactions.
7- What can an average consumer do today to encourage sustainable fisheries?
This is such an important question because consumers have the ability to make a difference by “voting with their forks”.
There are three simple things you can do when shopping for seafood or ordering fish at your favorite restaurant:
1. Ask the store/restaurant if they sell sustainable seafood: It always helps to ask – you might be surprised to find sustainable seafood hiding in plain sight. Of, if a store or restaurant isn’t serving sustainable seafood yet, your question could prompt them to start.
2. Check the logos on packaging, menus, and grocery store signage: Look for a logo on product packaging or menu that indicates environmental sustainability or responsible farming from an independent organization. For example, when you see the MSC blue fish logo, it means the seafood item is wild-caught, certified sustainable, traceable through the supply chain, and fighting seafood fraud and mislabeling.
3. Look for sustainable seafood ratings: If a product isn’t certified, ratings can indicate whether your choice is generally ocean-friendly (remember: it is not best practice to look for “sustainable species” to identify seafood from a sustainable fishery). Seafood Watch ratings give great broad guidance on which species are “Best Choice”, “Good Alternative” and which you should “Avoid” according to global environmental indicators.
We encourage all consumers to think critically about the issues facing our ocean that matter to you, and to vote with your forks accordingly.
8- What do you know about the salmon threat from the pollock fishing industry?
There are a few key ways that the MSC certified Alaska pollock fishery ensures minimal salmon bycatch. Within Alaska pollock fishing grounds, certain areas that are known to have salmon populations are closed down and avoided. Crews share information among one another to help each other avoid salmon.
Another method for avoiding non-target species is understanding the differences in behavior among fish species, and only fishing in parts of the water column that are more likely to have pollock. For example, the Alaska pollock fishing crew adjusts the opening of the net, keeping the net closed down, and not too high in the water column, to avoid salmon..
There are also several scientific innovations within the Alaska pollock fishery to help avoid unwanted catch. Sonar cameras mounted to the mouth of the nets allow the captain to see schools of pollock as they’re entering the net, and also to avoid unwanted fish. There’s also a small camera mounted to the net that monitors salmon as they escape through the salmon excluder.
Salmon and pollock have different swimming behaviors, so salmon excluders allow salmon to escape while they retain the pollock.
9- Should we keep eating seafood?
Yes – fish is a nutritious protein with lots of important health benefits.
Not eating fish removes your impact on the supply chain and on the environment. However, by choosing sustainable fish you can have a positive impact and influence on the long-term future of fisheries and the ecosystems that support them. If caught in a way that protects the environment and ensures seafood supplies for the future, wild-caught fish can be a healthy and sustainable food with less impact to the environment than many land-based farmed foods.
Eating sustainably-caught fish also helps to sustain communities and livelihoods. An estimated 60 million people, many of whom live in developing countries, are directly or indirectly employed in fish and seafood industries (UNFAO 2020).
For millions of people, seafood is their main source of nutrition, and specifically protein. Wild caught seafood has been found to have a lower carbon footprint compared to other protein sources such as chicken & beef. Due to a growing global population, we need to find sustainable sources of food.
10- Does the blue tick mean I am causing no lasting harm to our ecosystems?
As food consumers, we all have an impact on the environment. However, with any natural system, ensuring we don’t cause lasting damage is a key way to understand our individual and collective impact.
All fisheries certified to the MSC Fisheries Standard must provide evidence they are actively working to reduce unwanted catch and are not significantly threatening marine species. They undergo annual audits to ensure they continue to meet the MSC Standard, and must undergo re-certification every five years. Otherwise, they will lose certification.
In addition, the MSC Fisheries Standard is regularly reviewed so that it remains relevant and effective. Revisions are undertaken to incorporate widely accepted new science and fisheries management best practice, as well as improve its implementation and address stakeholder concerns. Stakeholders from all sectors (scientists, fisheries managers, NGOs, fishing companies, brands, etc.) are at the heart of our review, helping identify issues, develop solutions, and test proposed changes.
If you choose seafood products with the MSC blue fish label you can be assured that the fish was caught in a way that isn’t causing lasting harm to marine ecosystems.