Below is a summary of FOODTALKS – Beyond MSC: Where next for seafood sustainability?, which was held online on 21st June 2023. You can find the video to watch the talk in full at the bottom of the summary.
Chair: Charles Redfern, Fish4Ever
Speakers: Amy Hammond, Head of Ocean & Blue Economy Practice at Seahorse Environmental, coordinated the On the Hook campaign and independent review of the MSC; and Momo Kochen who has extensive experience in small scale fisheries worldwide and currently works at the Sustainable Fisheries and Communities Trust contributing to Community Catch, a new benchmarking initiative with a certification element aimed at artisan fisheries.
Overview: Fish and seafood matter, but they get overlooked in many debates about food. For many people the ‘Blue Tick’ checkmark of the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) has become a recognisable benchmark for sustainability in fish and other seafood. We’ve seen it on our supermarket aisles, fresh counters, restaurants and fast-food chains. The MSC was founded in 1997 by Unilever and WWF as a certification scheme for wild fish. Approximately half the fish consumed directly by humans in the world currently is wild and the other half farmed. Some 20% of the total wild fish catch is MSC certified and in tuna this figure rises to just under 50%. The MSC is now THE reference point for sustainable fishery policies of major retailers and brands, with some like Tesco and Carrefour pledging that their wild fish would be 100% certified by a specified date.
Originally the MSC was widely supported by NGOs and independent fisheries experts. Fishers in general are slow to embrace and engage in schemes that are essentially market led and so one of the challenges has always been to bring them onboard. At the same time a growing number of experts engaged in fisheries, both professionals and NGO’s, have become increasingly disillusioned and dismayed. In fact WWF itself has challenged a number of individual certifications and has added it’s name to those seeking reform and improvements to the MSC standard. This is why we ask the question “where next for seafood sustainability?”
The On the Hook campaign was developed initially to challenge the recertification of the PNA, the world’s largest tuna fishery, but was then widened to review the MSC more widely. MSC has a theory of change so is not in fact interested in working just with the best example fisheries but rather wants to engage with the whole of the fishing industry which means the most industrial fisheries down to smaller local fishers. The MSC is agnostic about gear types and therefore open to fisheries where the equipment and methods used are well known to have high impacts, be it on the eco-system or in by-catch terms. The MSC is keen to help fisheries on a journey of improvement. BUT this by definition means the MSC is not the gold standard it often claims to be and which even, more problematic, the multi-national big retailer and distributor supply chain always insists is the case.
Initial certifications were broadly well seen but then pressure arose to meet retailer and brand pledges and therefore certify more and more volume which has led to the charge that the standards were been watered down and unsustainable fisheries were been certified. In addition, MSC certification that has leaned far too heavily in the direction of industrial fisheries, which accounts for up to 90% of the volume in the case of tuna, can be blamed for entrenching inequalities in global fisheries.
The MSC has got a definition of sustainability that is broadly still centred on the theory of Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) with a requirement to have strong management rules in place to be able to maintain the MSY in perpetuity. This definition is regarded as out of date. Key aspects of sustainability are missing, such as carbon footprint, the effect of subsidies and political lobbying (for example to protect catch quotas or push for higher limits or push for subisidies which work against sustainability objectives) or even animal welfare, but even on metrics which do form part of the MSC approach, biodiversity or eco-system impact for example, the MSC gets criticised. The big hole in the MSC definition though is the way it looks at sustainability. It is not a holistic definition. It omits social considerations and impacts and as such seems at odds with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals which puts ecological and social sustainability on a par as basically indivisible.
Small-scale fisheries are really important – they provide 40% of the global catch, but 90% of the employment (source: Hidden Harvest report). There are around 60 million involved directly in small-scale fisheries and 53mn involved in subsistence fishing worldwide. At a UK-level, around 80% of vessels for fishing in and around the UK are small-scale. However, that doesn’t equate in volume terms, as large vessels hoover up the majority of the volume.
There’s no one size fits all approach that works with small-scale fisheries. Small-scale fisheries are pretty invisible at policy level, at regional and national level… They’re just not at the table. All of the pressure is on the small-scale community to make commitments (from some retailers) come true – environment, traceability, human rights… and additional costs are often put onto the community, otherwise they run the risk of losing market access.
What has worked well are (i) data collection that is relevant to fishers and their daily lives (ii) combining environmental and social projects – to create the incentives for engagement (iii) long-term engagement and (iv) Fair Trade certification. Community Catch evolved out of the growing frustration with the MSC, the awareness that small-scale fisheries were not fitting into the ‘existing system’ and more importantly the MSC-centric buying system in place with big retailers and big brands who are not currently accepting a plurality of approaches to sustainability. Often the problem is not the MSC per se but the refusal to allow a diversity of voices and different approaches.
Community Catch is a market-based development initiative: a ‘switchboard for small-scale fisheries, guiding them towards market access, empowerment and the tools & support infrastructure they need on their journey. The idea is to offer a certification route that would be sufficiently strict and comply with standard setting requirements whilst also addressing the issue of accessibility and affordability. Certification is not always what small scale fisheries are themselves looking for so Community Catch intends to provide through it’s digital platform, the tools and a supported improvement journey to help small scale fisheries advance towards sustainability.
The Community Catch initiative is still in draft mode and participants are acutely aware of the amount of distance still to travel and the need for Community Catch itself to open itself up to more diverse and inclusive participation as the initiative develops. The starting point differs from the MSC by been small scale/artisan fishers centred rather than retailer centred. Asked whether the MSC would still exist in 2030, the speakers and chair all answered in the affirmative. It was acknowledged that fisheries and seas sustainability are extremely complex topics and that the MSC had, in its recent widespread review and revision of standards (not yet applied), addressed a number of the criticisms but that it had also not gone far enough and had rowed back on earlier promises. The time has come for new approaches and pathways to be developed.
‘‘What can we do as citizens?” If you do choose to eat fish, make sure you know where it came from – and support local low-impact fishers where possible. Make sure you know if it’s farmed or wild. But in general try to find out a little bit about the background and ideally look up the fishing methods so you have an idea of what the potential impacts or damage could be.
The Chair declared at the beginning of this Talk his own participation in both On the Hook and the Community Catch initiative. Food Talks is open, constructive and participative with half the session devoted to discussion and all questions freely offered and answered.