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UK Audit Criticizes Marine Stewardship Council

| By Mark J. Palmer, International Marine Mammal Project
Topics: Dolphin Safe Tuna, Dolphins, Tuna Industry

A United Kingdom panel has raised serious questions about the “sustainable” labeling of seafood by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which is based in the UK and certifies fisheries worldwide.

The UK House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has been looking at seafood sustainability and ocean health since April 2018.  While MSC was included in the proceedings, a number of other organizations, such as the UK’s On the Hook Campaign, raised a number of questions during the hearings about the MSC process and results.

MSC has certified dozens of fisheries around the world as “sustainable” under their standards.  Unfortunately, the MSC labeling, which seeks to encourage consumers to buy sustainable seafood, has resulted in certification of several fisheries with questionable “sustainable” activities.

EAC has questioned the “sustainable” labeling for some fisheries that continue to fin sharks on board their vessels, a key violation of one of MSC’s few strict standards.  Furthermore, a fishery for tuna has been certified as “sustainable” for catching tuna using purse seines on free schools of fish, but the vessels also catch tuna using Fish Aggregating Devices (usually rafts under which fish congregate) to also capture tuna, which is not eligible for MSC’s sustainable labeling. 

The MSC process is time-consuming and expensive, leaving many fisheries with limited means unable to have their products certified, while larger operations, many of which have arguably higher impacts on fisheries, are able to qualify.

The EAC concluded that:  “To ensure continued consumer confidence in the MSC certification, we recommend the MSC addresses specific criticisms raised… into its five-year review and strengthens its standard accordingly. These criticisms include its unit of assessment, the need to factor in carbon from ships into its standard, concerns about shark finning (where we look forward to the publication of data verifying the reduction of this practice in 2019) and barriers to entry for small scale fisheries. The review should be transparent and ideally independently evaluated.”

The International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP) of Earth Island Institute has challenged the MSC certification of tuna purse seining conducted by setting nets on dolphins by Mexican tuna companies, in which thousands of dolphins die every year.  Both IMMP and the World Wildlife Fund, which helped establish MSC, agreed that the MSC was wrong to certify the Mexican tuna fishery while downplaying the impact on dolphins.  But despite repeated protests over several years to the MSC, our concerns were not addressed. 

MSC is conducting further reviews of their standards, but critics question if MSC will indeed resolve these issues to benefit the marine environment.



Photo from biologist Samuel LaBudde's undercover film of dolphins dying in tuna nets.