Founded in 1996 by the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever, the MSC is a global voluntary certification scheme. The scheme is widely used and recognised, with an estimated 15% of global fish catch MSC-certified.[1, 2] There are two separate standards that work together. The Fishery Standard relates to sustainability of wild-capture fisheries. The Chain-of-Custody Standard relates to traceability and requires everyone in the supply chain to meet the standard to use the eco-label. Conditional certification can be achieved if a fishery is near the threshold and develops an action plan to make the improvements needed.

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) blue tick logo, with the words "Certified Sustainable Seafood"

Achieving MSC certification means that the way a particular fishery is fished meets the evidence-based standards of sustainability, developed by scientists, the fishing industry and conservation groups, which factor in the sustainability of the stock, ecosystem impacts and effective governance. The assessors determine whether the standards are met by looking at quantitative and qualitative evidence, rather than requiring specific tools or approaches to be used. However, MSC certification is not universally accepted as ‘sustainable’.[3] Some concerns relating to MSC certification include that it can be achieved in fisheries that use damaging fishing techniques, such as bottom trawling, which may mislead consumers about the impacts of the fishing effort to harvest the fish. In particular, the certification of some orange roughy stocks has been controversial given the use of bottom trawling in this fishery (which causes harm to habitats and ecosystems e.g. corals and sponges, see case study: Orange roughy stock health).

Half of the volume of Aotearoa New Zealand’s wild-caught fish are certified to this sustainability scheme, with much higher rates for deepwater fisheries compared to inshore fisheries. In total, there are eight species (across 18 stocks) that are certified to MSC standards in Aotearoa New Zealand: hoki, hake, ling, southern blue whiting, albacore tuna, orange roughy, Antarctic (Ross Sea) toothfish, and skipjack tuna/aku.[4] However, hake – an MSC-certified species – recently fell below its soft limit in HAK7,[5] demonstrating that certification does not necessarily preclude issues with stock sustainability.

A strength of the MSC standards is that fisheries have to maintain certification, not just achieve it once. Ongoing improvements in fishing sustainability are key to gaining and maintaining certification, which can include approaches such as establishing new harvest strategies, developing measures to minimise bycatch, mitigating fishing impacts on vulnerable species, habitats and ecosystems, and changing governance or policy practices. In addition to annual audits to make sure standards are continuing to be met, recertification has to be achieved every five years. In that time, the standards will have evolved to reflect improved knowledge and understanding about the wider impacts of fisheries, making sure that the bar for sustainable practice continues to be raised. Going forward, efforts to include or increase the weight of certain criteria such as social standards and climate change impacts of the fishing practices may help to make the standard more holistic.[6]

The independent and transparent assessment and verification is another strength of the MSC. Being independent helps to build trust with consumers and retailers. The process also allows for people or organisations to object to the certification of particular fishery. However, the level of scrutiny an assessment receives depends on the local context and in places where there are limited financial resources or NGO presence these processes may be less effective.[6]

Because of the need to maintain certification, changes liked those experienced in hake could lead to the stock losing its certification. A lack of available data, which is a significant issue for some of Aotearoa New Zealand’s fisheries may also be a barrier to achieving or renewing certification. These issues need to be considered in the context of MSC providing market access to international markets.

50% of Aotearoa NZ's fisheries are MSC-certified (by volume) compared to 15% for global fisheries. The species that have been certified in NZ include hoki, hake, ling, southern blue whiting, albacore tuna, orange roughy, Ross Sea toothfish and skipjack tuna

Percentage of fished volume certified by MSC and the species of certified stocks for Aotearoa New Zealand.

References and footnotes

[1] Bellchambers, L. M. et al. (2016) Adopting Marine Stewardship Council certification of Western Australian fisheries at a jurisdictional level: The benefits and challenges, Fisheries Research, 183, pp. 609–616.

[2] Roheim, C. A. and Zhang, D. (2018) Sustainability certification and product substitutability: Evidence from the seafood market, Food Policy, 79, pp. 92–100.

[3] See ‘Review of the MSC standard – claim and reality’; Make Stewardship Count; ‘Critical changes needed to improve the MSC Standard’.

[4] Katsuwonus pelamis.

[5] Fisheries New Zealand (2019) Review of sustainability measures for Hake (HAK 7) for 2019/20. Fisheries New Zealand Discussion Paper No: 2019/05.

[6] Hadjimichael, M. and Hegland, T. J. (2016) Really sustainable? Inherent risks of eco-labeling in fisheries, Fisheries Research, 174, pp. 129–135.