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Scientists debate seafood certification systems
Published:  11 May, 2012

The efficacy of seafood certification systems has been debated at the 6th World Fisheries Congress in Edinburgh, as part of a series of topical sustainability panels.

The debate covered advanced sustainable practices across the international seafood sector, which is required to support healthy seas and the societies that depend on them. Developing best practices in fisheries, fish farms and the seafood supply chain are varied, but in recent years Standards, Certification and Labelling have played a more prominent role.

Standards, Certification and Labelling covers a range of facets relating to policy; communities; food security; market access; data and science. Within the seafood industry, there is an accepted consensus that the environmental credentials of seafood can at times be confusing due to the multiple seafood rating systems currently in place.

The panel also examined the opportunity and reality of Standards and Certification in transitioning fisheries towards sustainability including the role of Fisheries Improvement Projects (FIPs).

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is the best-known certifying organisation, with currently over 100 fisheries and many more seafood products certified. David Agnew, Director of Standards at MSC, was a keynote speaker at the event. He comments: “The overall aim of certification should be to assure suppliers and consumers of long term sustainability where sourcing is concerned. The MSC certification requirements deliver this assurance.  Fisheries that are overfished will not meet the MSC standard, and one has had its certificate suspended this year as a result of a decline in stock size below a safe biological level.”

The most stringent and widely used certification is that of the MSC, which has certified 148 wild-caught fisheries, or approximately 7 per cent of the global supply. MSC certification currently requires an average score of 80 on each of three principles assessed with 31 performance indicators. If a fishery gains only a 60 on an individual indicator conditions are raised that require improvements in specific time frame. Currently, 7 to 10 per cent of fishery units that are fully assessed fail.

“The MSC programme very deliberately allows fisheries to qualify for certification without meeting the 80 level on all indicators. We have produced a range of papers that demonstrate improvements in the management of fisheries that are incentivised by certification,” says Agnew.

According to the latest assessment of world fisheries by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the number of seafood stocks that have been depleted by overexploitation continues to rise globally, documenting the ongoing failure of most fisheries management bodies to implement sustainable fishing practices for the majority of their stocks.*

This is a message that was reinforced by Rainer Froese, a senior scientist at the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany. Mr Froese reiterated his call for the need for guidance on which fish stocks can be consumed with a clear conscience. He said: "Labels have a role to play in guiding consumers to sustainable seafood. However, labels have to live up to their promise. Our analysis of the status of certified seafood showed that about 30% of the stocks were too small and were suffering from too high fishing pressure. Clearly, these fisheries need to be de-certified."

This analysis is rejected by David Agnew, pointing to the close scrutiny of fisheries required throughout the period of MSC certification:  “Ongoing engagement between certification bodies and fishers bring about a rapid reaction and response to events such as declines in recruitment, and this is where the MSC scrutiny can deliver real environmental benefits. Fisheries that are overfished will not meet the MSC standard; fisheries that do not have an appropriate management strategy to maintain stocks at productive levels will not meet the standard, and fisheries have had certificates suspended for those reasons this year.”

Organised by The World Council of Fisheries Societies, the focus of the 6th World Fisheries Congress (WFC) is “Sustainable Fisheries in a Changing World”.

More than 1,400 delegates are expected over the five days, to hear from speakers from industry, science, fishing and aquaculture.

The goal of ecolabelling certification programmes is to create market-based incentives for better management of the environment, an approach which has become an increasingly important tool in the promotion of sustainable seafood products around the world.

To read Rainer Froese’s recent academic paper ‘Evaluation and Legal Assessment of Certified Seafood’, please visit

*Froese R, Proelss A. Evaluation and legal assessment of certified seafood. Mar. Policy (2012), http://dx.doi.or g/10.1016/j.marpol.2012.03.017

To read the MSC’s statement in response to Rainer Froese’s paper go to

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