Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) standards were described as “too lenient and discretionary” by a study recently published in the journal Biological Conservation. Now, the sustainable fishing certifier has presented the journal with its official response, and offered its perspective on the matter to WholeFoods.

The study, titled “A Review of Formal Objections to Marine Stewardship Council Fisheries Certifications,” analyzed the 19 formal objections that MSC has received to its fishery certifications over its 15 year existence. According to the study, these objections represented 12% of MSC certified fisheries, and those fisheries account for 35% of MSC-certified seafood by weight. Only one of these objections, to the certification of the Faroese Northeast Atlantic mackerel fishery, was upheld by MSC. In summarizing their findings, the authors wrote that “loopholes and loose wording in MSC standards allow for controversial fisheries to be certified.”

Three general principles are followed when third-party certifiers set out to determine whether a fishery is sustainable under MSC standards: the target fish stock must be sustainable, the operations must have low impacts on the ecosystem, and they must be effectively managed. The study concluded that these principles were violated in some cases. For example, MSC-certified longline swordfish fishery in Canada has high levels of bycatch, according to New York University, which employs one of the study’s authors. The targeted catch of 20,000 swordfish, says the study, annually results in the catching of approximately 100,000 sharks and other marine life.

The study, published in the journal’s May 2013 issue, was made public prior, and at press time MSC had submitted its official response, which the group anticipated the journal would publish as is customary. MSC says the study included information that was incorrect, misleading and poorly referenced. “The MSC is an open and transparent nonprofit organization, and its governance is structured to ensure that all voices are heard and questions or concerns about any aspect of the program can be raised, but the authors did not take advantage of that opportunity,” says the Council.

Specific points that MSC raised in its rebuttal included: most references used by the authors relate to previous critiques of the MSC program by some of the same authors; the structure of the objection process was mistakenly considered to be a win/lose situation, i.e., most of the fisheries objected to have made several changes due to the objection process and after certification; claims that MSC is not compliant with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) Code of Conduct are wrong; the study included incorrect information about MSC objections fees; and that cited flaws to MSC’s traceability system are misleading.

Many other points were cited in MSC’s rebuttal. For instance, they challenged the study’s assertion that MSC standards do not address ecosystem concerns for some small species, like krill. MSC also noted that no objections had been filed about these ecosystem concerns. MSC certifies companies that supply krill oil to the dietary supplement industry. In 2012, Accenture Development Partnerships found MSC to be the best seafood sustainability certification program at adhering to World Wide Fund for Nature’s criteria for such programs.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, June 2013