Fish certified to be sustainable may not be

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) was launched in hopes of making it possible for firms and consumers to select sustainably-produced seafood. Unfortunately, recent events have seriously undermined its reputation:

  • Their plan to certify Peruvian anchovy is dubious.
  • The MSC-certified Alaskan Pollock fishery is collapsing.
  • The same goes for the Hoki fishery, off New Zealand.
  • The MSC is considering certifying Pacific Hake, over the objections of Oceana and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Jennifer Jacquet, of the Guilty Planet blog, goes so far as to say that “the MSC certification process has been co-opted by industry.”

Those who have been salving their consciences by buying certifiably ‘sustainable’ fish should now give some thought to whether the only truly sustainable option is to abstain from seafood altogether, as both Jennifer and I have reluctantly done.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

8 thoughts on “Fish certified to be sustainable may not be”

  1. Look, I’m all for being sustainable and all- but you’ve made a category mistake. Your diet is not sustainable or not sustainable-that term applies to the fishery.

  2. The point of certifications like MSC (or, indeed, ‘organic) is to let people opt out from the industry in general, and purchase only from sub-elements deemed morally or environmentally superior.

    That is probably still true of MSC fisheries, given how appalling the industry is overall. Still, it is worthwhile for people to know that the fisheries they are certifying as sustainable may not be.

  3. “Still, it is worthwhile for people to know that the fisheries they are certifying as sustainable may not be.”

    Exactly – the fishery is sustainable or not sustainable. The diet is neither sustainable nor not sustainable because the diet does not determine the industry. If one person’s dietary choices could produce the failure of non-sustainable industries, in that case, you could say that one’s diet was “sustainable” or “not sustainable”.

  4. There are several ways in which it is possible for an individual to have a sustainable diet (even with seafood):

    The obvious option is self-sufficiency: growing what you can using your own hands, land, and sunlight. With a river or body of water, you could also eat fish at the rate they grow to maturity.

    You could also eat something in absolutely no danger of being driven towards extinction, such as jellyfish. They are doing wonderfully, since they can take over ecosystems totally destroyed by fishing, and also prosper from nutrient runoff from farms.

    You could also have a genuinely sustainable fishery, with catch rates set at the rate of growth. Iceland has probably come closer to doing this than anyone, though the industry is obviously still dependent on unsustainable fossil fuels. If they went back to sailing, they could make it sustainable (and probably have an easier time of not catching too much).

  5. The whole idea of the MSC is to certify individual fisheries: a certain species caught in a certain place using certain equipment.

    If their certifications were valid, people eating only such seafoods would have sustainable diets by extension.

  6. “Others believe that fish populations can be rebuilt through consumer awareness campaigns that encourage buyers to make prudent choices. One such approach is to label seafood from fisheries deemed sustainable. In Europe, for example, consumers can look for the logo of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a nonprofit started by the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever, which has a large fish-trading division. At first, the MSC certified only small-scale fisheries, but lately, it has given its seal of approval to large, controversial companies. Indeed, it has begun to measure its success by the percentage of the world catch that it certifies. Encouraged by a Walton Foundation grant and Wal-Mart’s goal of selling only certified fish, the MSC is actually considering certifying reduction fisheries, with the consequence that Wal-Mart, for example, will be able to sell farmed salmon shining with the ersatz glow of sustainability. (Given the devastating pollution, diseases, and parasite infestations that have plagued salmon farms in Chile, Canada, and other countries, this “Wal-Mart strategy” will, in the long term, make the MSC complicit to a giant scam.)”

  7. Stroll by any Whole Foods seafood counter and you will see color-coded fish: Green for fully sustainable, yellow for partially sustainable, and red for fish threatened by overfishing or grown on polluting fish farms. Buy a “green” fish and you eat guilt free, confident that you are doing your part to save the ocean and its inhabitants.

    Put down your fork — Whole Foods is not telling you the whole story. The dirty little secret of their seafood rating system is that it ignores the largest and most imminent threat to our oceans: greenhouse-gas emissions. Even if every human on the planet miraculously decided to buy only seafood stamped with the Whole Foods seal of “sustainablity,” marine species will still be doomed.

    This is not a secret threat: Just last month, the International Program on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) — a consortium of 27 of the top ocean experts in the world — declared that effects of climate change, ocean acidification, and oxygen depletion have already triggered a “phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history.”

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