“Certifiers must sharpen their criteria and close any loopholes,” said Rainer Froese, a senior scientist at the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research and lead author of the study, who said consumers should still buy certified seafood. “Given that there are thousands of [fish] stocks, there needs to be some guidance on which ones you can eat and have a good conscience.”
MSC officials have questioned the Marine Policy analysis, saying it exaggerated the rate of overexploitation by not adequately accounting for year-to-year fluctuations in fish stocks. “The MSC standard is consistent with best practice and specifically excludes fisheries that are overfished,” David Agnew, the council’s director of standards, said in a statement.
“They don’t certify perfect fisheries. They certify well-managed fisheries,” said Michael Sutton, the Monterey Bay Aquarium vice president, who helped set up the certification system while working at the environmental group WWF International.
The debate over the effectiveness of seafood certification systems has sparked several competing academic papers in the past few years, although the Marine Policy analysis was the most comprehensive overview so far. An upcoming publication in the Reviews in Fisheries Science suggests fisheries improved their environmental performance throughout the certification process; other papers in journals such as Nature, Fauna & Flora International and Conservation Biology have argued these requirements need to be strengthened.
For operators such as Scott Taylor, co-founder of Day Boat Seafood in Lake Park, Fla., spending more than three years and over $100,000 to be certified by the MSC in December was a worthwhile business proposition. Taylor sells swordfish caught with long lines and buoy gear in his Atlantic Ocean fishery, and he has pledged to have observers on all of his boats within five years to ensure that they minimize the number of turtles and sharks caught accidentally.
“There has to be a way to differentiate the product” as environmentally friendly, Taylor said of the benefit to fishermen of an MSC certification. “Does that mean there’s a financial incentive for them? In short, yes, there has to be.”
But several researchers and environmentalists question whether every MSC-certified fishery meets those high standards, and they say that a few questionable ones undermine the better-managed fisheries. On Thursday, the council approved the eastern Canada swordfish long-line fishery, which kills roughly 35,000 sharks and a few hundred endangered sea turtles each year.
“The bar has been lowered gradually, and now they certify everything that moves,” said Daniel Pauly, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia Fisheries Center who once supported MSC certification.
Kerry Coughlin, the MSC’s regional director for the Americas, said in a statement that the Canadian swordfish fishery “has committed to efforts to further protect turtles, ensure the sustainability of the swordfish stock, and monitor and research shark bycatch. Working together, all parties involved have advanced efforts to ensure a sustainable harvest that does not harm other marine populations.”
Meanwhile, some fisheries, including Iceland’s and several in Alaska, are opting for the Irish-based Global Trust Certification, which evaluates their performance on the basis of U.N. guidelines that several scientists said are less stringent. Global Trust spokesman Michael Carroll said his group holds fisheries to a high, internationally recognized standard.
For some American consumers, the credibility of these standards is critical. Snejana Andjelkovic, shopping at the Whole Foods store on P Street NW in the District, said she scrutinizes labels “because I care about the environment and what I eat, what I put in my stomach.”
Pointing to the Chilean sea bass sitting on ice — from a small fishery off the Falklands that was certified by the MSC — Andjelkovic said she wouldn’t buy it, because the vast majority of Chilean sea bass is caught illegally and unsustainably. “They say it’s okay,” she said. “That’s not true.”
Others at the same counter, such as Jessica Max, an information technology recruiter, were more confused by the labels.
“I care about things like frozen and fresh,” she said, buying shrimp and MSC-certified Chilean sea bass. “I would appreciate if they were more meaningful and consistent.”