Sustainable Seafood:
the first 20 years

A history of the Marine Stewardship Council

The sustainable seafood movement has made great strides in the last 20 years – but it wouldn’t have got off the ground without the passion and tenacity of a modest coalition of pioneering retailers, suppliers, scientists,
campaigners and philanthropists.

Here, in a specially commissioned history, writers from the UK Press Association tell the story of the MSC’s first 20 years – the highs and lows, the controversies and the breakthroughs – and look ahead to the future of the world’s oceans…

‘Please accept my resignation,’ Groucho Marx once said. ‘I don’t want to belong to any club that will have people like me as a member.’ It was in September 1995, in the Groucho Club, a famous London media hangout, that two men had a conversation that would lead to the conception of a very different club – a club dedicated to safeguarding the future of the world’s oceans. One to which, over time, every kind of player in the fishery chain – from fishers and processors, through to restaurateurs and supermarkets and consumers, would be proud to join.

Mike Sutton was head of the Endangered Seas Programme of WWF International at the time; Simon Bryceson was a PR consultant whose clients included Unilever, then owners of consumer brands Birds Eye and Iglo. Sutton was concerned with what was happening to the world’s seas and oceans. With stocks of common species depleting, whole fisheries – not to mention the communities and livelihoods that depended on them – were under threat. The issue was a potential disaster from both environmental and commercial perspectives.

The collapse of the Northern cod fishery off Canada’s eastern coast highlighted the issue. In 1992, after 500 years of fishing in the area, the Canadian government declared a moratorium when the Northern cod stock fell to 1% of its earlier levels; even today, stocks have still not fully recovered. While the causes of the collapse are complex, there can be no doubt that intensive overfishing of the area, which started to be a significant problem in the 1950s with the introduction of industrial trawlers, was a major factor.

Many of the issues that would become central to the MSC’s work were present here. The new fishing techniques massively increased the area and depth that could be fished. There was also a problem with high levels of bycatch – incidental catch of species of little commercial interest but of importance to the local ecosystem (see Deep Dive: Protecting the birds).

Factors such as imperfect scientific knowledge about the dynamics of the various cod stocks in the area and their relationship to the wider ecosystem led to management under-estimating the seriousness of the collapse in stock status, until the only option left was to close the fishery entirely. And there were people challenges too, as the local community saw the cod as integral not just to their economic survival but to their cultural identity.

The Grand Banks cod was not alone in having these problems. On the other side of the Atlantic, the once highly productive North Sea cod stock was also in trouble, again because of the inability of an increasingly powerful fishing fleet to adapt to changing environmental conditions and cod stock levels, with the result that the stock declined to 15% of its peak in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, European managers within Unilever were voicing concerns about the sustainability of the company’s business model. Birds Eye and Iglo were still flourishing, but supplies of some prime white fish were being depleted at an alarming rate. In Germany, Unilever was under attack from NGOs (non-governmental organisations) like Greenpeace, which was campaigning for the labelling of seafood products with the location of where every fish had been caught. Though Unilever considered Greenpeace’s demands unworkable, the threats helped to sensitise the company about the need for action.

What then was to be done? At the time, an inter-governmental non-binding regulatory regime was being negotiated in the form of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing. As the first global consensus on best practice fisheries management, the voluntary Code would provide the foundation for an international approach to fish stocks, with sustainability at its core.

‘This was a time when WWF was increasingly recognising the need to engage companies who wanted to be part of solving big problems.’

Jim Leape, former WWF International Director General

But people like Mike Sutton wanted to go further. He wanted to find an industry partner prepared to support a different approach – a market-driven system that would protect marine fish stocks and operate along the lines of the Forestry Stewardship Council.

‘This was a time when WWF was increasingly recognising the need to engage companies who wanted to be part of solving big problems,’ recalls Jim Leape, who, as WWF’s Conservation Director in the US at the time, was also Mike Sutton’s boss. ‘And the super-important idea Mike had was to recognise that, just as markets were beginning to show promise as a driver of sustainability in the context of forests, maybe we could do the same thing with fish.’

WWF was a good fit for the challenge, says Leape. ‘WWF is an organisation with a lot of mainstream credibility – it’s one of the best-known brands in the world. So it was well positioned to partner with a company like Unilever, which is serious about its social responsibilities and was, for honest business reasons, concerned about what was happening to fisheries.’

In short, the answer – like the problem itself – had to be a synergy of commerce and conservation.

Salted cod drying, Newfoundland, Canada:

The MSC is born

Following that early encounter at the Groucho Club, the idea of the Marine Stewardship Council developed in conversations between Mike Sutton and Caroline Whitfield of Unilever. Over a series of workshops, what was initially considered an accidental partnership of mutual convenience gained ground through both organisations until, on February 22, 1996, WWF and Unilever convened a press conference to publish a Joint Statement of Intent.

The paper sets out how the two organisations had identified a problem – the growing popularity of eating fish at a time when fish stocks were in serious decline. WWF wanted to ensure more effective management of marine life; Unilever pledged its commitment to long-term fish stock sustainability to ensure a future for its fish business. The common objective? ‘To ensure the long-term viability of global fish populations and the health of the marine ecosystems on which they depend.’

‘Unilever showed real leadership,’ says MSC’s CEO Rupert Howes. They really put their money where their mouth was. They went out to people and said, “If you carry on buying seafood without asking where it has come from, you could be contributing to the demise of the oceans.”’

‘In the 1990s, the world’s fisheries were in a very poor state,’ says Dr David Agnew, the MSC’s chief scientist, whose entire career has been in fishery science and management. ‘This was because most countries – although they signed up to the general principles of the FAO Code – were a long time in putting the recommendations into place. The MSC was a catalyst for many fisheries to take that leap.

‘Basically, what the MSC said was: “This is the way the world has agreed to manage fisheries. Now let’s do it!”’

Declaration of independence

To carry out the job it had set itself, the MSC had first to establish its autonomy from industry and conservation organisations – and to set itself apart from its parents.

‘As with any joint venture of “suits and sandals”, there was affection and tension,’ comments research associate George Radler, in an award-winning paper prepared with Professor Ulrich Steger on the MSC’s transition to independence. ‘Some critics were concerned about premature independence, while others felt that the MSC would never become completely independent.’

Radler and Steger quote an unnamed Unilever manager: ‘Although Unilever was quite a large player in the fish market, we realised that other players had to buy into the MSC. These companies were obviously not going to join the MSC if they considered it to be a “subsidiary” of Unilever.’ Both Unilever and WWF worked hard to separate their obvious interest in the success of the MSC from any perception of interference in the autonomy of its emerging role.

Early in 1996, management consultants Coopers & Lybrand (later merged into PricewaterhouseCoopers) were engaged to develop an organisational blueprint and implementation plan for the MSC. A project manager, Carl-Christian Schmidt, was appointed, along with a shadow Board of Directors.

Schmidt, with a background in fisheries policy and economics back to the 1970s, had worked with fisheries ministries and the OECD on the setting up of the Common Fisheries Policy. His new role meant liaising between two very different bodies. ‘It was a venture with two players that had different languages, different ways of coming to the game, very different ways of behaving,’ he recalls. ‘And my struggle was sitting between those two!’

The MSC was formally registered at Companies House London as a private company on February 17, 1997. This is a key milestone in the MSC’s history, the moment it ceased to be a project of WWF and Unilever and became an independent entity.

In 1998, John Selwyn Gummer, a former UK Minister for the Environment, took up office as the MSC’s first independent Chairman and an international board of trustees was recruited. At a time when many other environmental initiatives were foundering, it was an achievement even to have got this far.

Defining the MSC Standard

Work on presenting the MSC concept and reaching agreement on a set of principles for sustainable fishing took place through a series of meetings around the world with key stakeholders – scientists, activists, industry representatives, policy-makers. ‘To avoid UN-like diplomacy,’ Radler notes, ‘the MSC invited stakeholders who shared a common understanding of the issues of fishing in their individual, rather than their organisational, capacities. This separation, and the neutral locations of the meetings, helped the participants to neglect the baggage from their “home” organisations.’

It was tough but rewarding work. As one participant recalled: ‘The facilitator brought the participants back to their individual responsibilities, encouraged them to pull the drafts apart and put them back together again and to strive for a win-win situation.’

This delicate but vital process culminated in a seminal consultation in December 1997 at Airlie House in Warrenton, Virginia, where stakeholders thrashed out some foundational ‘Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Fishing’. Working in a way that would be characteristic of the organisation, this meeting gave the MSC a working set of ideas developed with inputs from potential stakeholders and reaching consensus among a representative group of experts.

The MSC’s original mission has changed little from its founding days: ‘to create market-led economic incentives for sustainable fishing’. It would establish a broad set of principles for sustainable fishing, set standards for individual fisheries, and communicate and administer these through a certification and logo system. But the MSC saw too that its entire existence relied on the robustness and successful implementation of its assessment and certification process, which in due course would be outsourced to third parties

(see Deep Dive: Assessments unpacked)

The key planks of assessment would relate to:

  • the status of the specific stock being fished;
  • the broader impact of fishing on the ecosystem, including non-targeted species (bycatch);
  • the robustness of management and control functions in place.

Though the Standard has been refined and updated over time, these elements remain the core of the fishery assessment and certification process to this day. And 20 years on from that seminal Virginia meeting, the blue MSC label is now the world’s most recognised and respected badge for sustainable wild-caught seafood.
(See Deep Dive: What’s in a label?)

© Nice and Serious

Spreading the word

To promote the role and value of its fishery certification program, the MSC began outreach work with fisheries organisations, governments, research organisations and environmental groups.

‘I spent the first few years at the MSC travelling Europe, from Portugal to Norway to France to Italy to Germany to Scandinavia,’ recalls Nicolas Guichoux, MSC Commercial Director, who joined in 2002. ‘I’d say to people: “Here is the problem, are you interested in the solution?” That’s how the whole project started, and with time there was more and more interest.’

Nicolas hails from Brittany, the heart of commercial fishing in France, with a cousin who’s a fisher and an uncle who was a fish wholesaler. ‘I discovered the MSC in the late 90s and completely fell in love with its idea and mission because, knowing the difficulty of the fisheries, I could see it was a new incentive tool we could offer the sector, the carrot rather than the stick,’ he recalls.

‘There was a feeling among fishers that the sector was too regulated, things were imposed on them and they didn’t have a say. But MSC offered a voluntary approach that could help them get market recognition for all their efforts. I thought that was the best way to get fishers on board because at least they could see some return on their investment. But despite this, the MSC concept was still not easy for fishers to accept at the beginning.’

By 2004 the educational work had started to touch every continent, from Casablanca to Vladivostok.

Sardine fishing boat in Brittany © Margaux Favret

Learning on the go

Ultimately, no amount of lobbying or stakeholder workshopping could broker agreement on every point. The MSC had to push on, trial some projects, learn from their mistakes.

‘The MSC was really released onto the world in a beta version, and that was maybe the right way do it because it really did mean people had to get focused on how to make it work,’ says Professor Keith Sainsbury, a marine ecologist and sustainable fisheries expert who first became involved with the MSC in 2000, and has served on its Technical Advisory Board (TAB) ever since.

In 2001 the MSC formed its first Stakeholder Council, two members of which automatically became members of the MSC’s Board of Trustees, together with a new Technical Advisory Board (TAB), the chair of which also sits on the Board of Trustees. The TAB – of which Keith Sainsbury was a founding member – would drive the vital work of thrashing out the detail of fishery assessment methodology, the certification and accreditation of assessment bodies (before this became a third-party activity), plus of course the management of the very complex stakeholder interactions that made it all possible.

Turning the MSC’s guiding principles into ‘the nitty-gritty of operational guidance’, however, was no mean feat. ‘At the time, in rapid succession, we were producing these documents that were basically elaborating the operational interpretation of the principles and criteria,’ says Keith Sainsbury. But science and fishing don’t stand still: ‘In between our iterations [of the documentation] we were finding out more and more.’

A key issue that emerged – and what Sainsbury calls ‘a constant tension in the system to this day’ – is that between ‘trying to make clear what it is MSC wants done and then leaving a reasonable flexibility about how it’s applied in a particular circumstance.’ The MSC can’t legislate for every fishery situation, of course; but allow too much wiggle room, and you leave the door open for unwanted practices. ‘We were constantly going back and forth, trying to make the system as simple and clear as we could, but also trying not to over-specify,’ he recalls. ‘And that’s a very big challenge.’

A difficult adolescence

The very first MSC certified fisheries – Western Australia Rock Lobster and Thames herring – were certified in March 2000, after assessments that had begun in 1999. The first two labelled products hit the shops at the same time.

Whole Foods Markets in the US stocked the very first MSC product. ‘It was very expensive but we thought we really need to support this new program. We thought: Let’s just do it!’ says Margaret Wittenberg, former Global Vice President of Quality Standards at Whole Foods Market.

‘This was the first certified, sustainably managed fishery and so for us it was, “Hey we have something that’s certified! This is the start of showing that it can really work!” We did a lot of work on marketing and media awareness too, educating our customers and giving a message to the fishing industry that you’ll be rewarded in the marketplace if you practise good management.’

But the early years were not easy-going, and it would be two more years before MSC labelled products reached the 100 mark.

‘There was this expectation at the start that there would be this enormous uptake of people within the MSC program – that retailers would say, “Of course we’re going to buy sustainable fish and give 100% support to the MSC!”, and that fisheries would fall over themselves to enter into this third-party assessment methodology,’ says Rupert Howes. ‘But that didn’t happen because the market said: no market = no supply; no supply = no market. And fisheries didn’t race to come into the program because it was seen as a bit of a black box – complex, risky and quite costly. So the organisation got off to a rocky start in the first few years.’

Says Margaret Wittenberg: ‘At the outset retailers, including us, wanted more product in order for the MSC’s message to get out there. So it was frustrating – and yet it was also exciting being in the midst of all this as it was being developed. And gradually, as new fish became available – hoki, halibut, tuna, Chilean sea bass – we incorporated them into our offering.’

Resistance, however, came in many forms. Executives from the fishing industry wondered about the detailed steps of the certification process. How could catch be divided on board? Could certified fish really be clearly separated from non-certified, all the way from the dock to the retailer? What about operations that didn’t sign up to the scheme – would compliant fishers be forced to become whistle-blowers?

Some countries, meanwhile, had other ideas. Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Sweden formed a working group with the idea of developing a Nordic ecolabel for sustainable seafood. This idea never saw the light of day, but it did provide the impetus for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (UN FAO) to start discussions on guidelines for ecolabeling of seafood.

Lack of resources was an issue too. ‘A key challenge was the very small size of the organisation,’ recalls Jonathan Peacy, who was the MSC’s Fisheries Director during this period. ‘But this was overcome in part by the very strong support from individual scientists, fisheries managers and donors (See Deep Dive: Founding Funders), who between them believed in the potential of the MSC program and supported its development and implementation.’

Those days are remembered well by Volker Kuntzsch, now CEO of Sanford, the biggest seafood company in New Zealand, whose hoki fishery achieved MSC certification in 2001. Back in the 1990s, he was co-ordinating European fish-buying activities for Unilever. ‘I would go over to London to motivate the team. They were demoralised because things were just not happening. I made sure they understood that we were making progress – we just had to grit our teeth and we would get there.’

Called to account

‘As with any third-party process, there were differing views about where the Standard should be set, about where the bar for sustainability lies,’ says Rupert Howes. ‘There were some challenges, too, to ensure that individual certifications were carried out with absolute consistency.’

Two independent reports in 2004 took a long, hard look at the MSC’s work to date and asked some difficult questions. One was produced by the Wildhavens consultancy on behalf of Pew; the other by The Bridgespan Group on behalf of the Packard Foundation, ever a key MSC supporter. Both in their different ways asked: Where was the evidence that the program was driving real change? And was a market-based approach featuring independent, third-party evaluations of fisheries even viable?

‘Those reports, which called for demonstrated proof of our impact, were a real formative moment for the MSC,’ says Dr Agnew. As a result the MSC introduced independent peer review, strengthened certifier training and redefined the Standard, all with a view to bringing greater accountability to the certification process.
(See Deep Dive: Maintaining the Standard)

‘What we did over that first decade was really focus on improving the quality and consistency of individual assessments, strengthening the robustness of the third-party process, strengthening the requirements for evidence, stakeholder engagement and transparency,’ says Rupert Howes, who was appointed CEO in 2004, not long after the reports came out.
(See Deep Dive: Meet the CEO)

‘Basically, it was about building a credible program that would enable us to track the evidence that change was being made and delivered, and be in position to defend certification decisions.’

Along with this process of ‘certifying the certifiers’, the challenges highlighted the importance of governments needing to demonstrate the support of the MSC, and of engaging big brands and industry players. To this end, the early years of the MSC’s work had a strong business-to-business focus, to help embed the commercial value of sustainable fishing along the entire supply chain, as the organisation worked to build industry trust and grow partnerships.

‘I did about 100,000 miles a year for my first three or four years,’ recalls Rupert Howes. ‘We had to reconnect with NGOs, funders and partners in order to rebuild support and trust for the MSC. It was hard work, but necessary in order to address the challenges raised by those reports. It was vital to rebuild bridges with key stakeholders and supporters who were starting to doubt the potential effectiveness of the MSC.’

Strong governance and the widest possible stakeholder engagement were the priorities, so the MSC board was reorganised again, to reflect greater diversity and a much broader church of expert views and inputs – from industry, the harvest side, science, the markets, the NGOs. ‘The MSC had to learn humility and ensure we were listening to all parties equally,’ says Rupert Howes.

‘Although we provide a mechanism for measuring and demonstrating best practice, and can drive change and improvement where needed, much of the key work is done by others – which makes it essential that all of their views are aired and shared. The actual transformation happens through the leadership and actions of our many partners – fisheries large and small improving practices on the water, traders and processors building sustainable supply chains, retailers and brands pioneering market commitments, marine scientists and NGOs providing insights and engagement, and consumers choosing sustainable seafood. And each has a voice that must be heard.’

Throughout this difficult period, the MSC maintained the support of two of its long term and most valued funders, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. In 2004/5 American Foundations provided half of the MSC’s funding. At this critical time the support of British Foundations such as the Garfield Weston and Esmée Fairbairn Foundations was also crucial. Later the Dutch Postcode Lottery Foundation also became a significant funder.

‘This funding was a lifeline to the MSC,’ says Rupert Howes. ‘Our donors understood our vision and also that achieving long-term results requires dedicated and ongoing commitment.’
(See Deep Dive: Founding funders)

MSC board in 2015

Early adopters

Over time, the outreach work paid off. Retailers and wholesalers in Germany, Switzerland and the UK were among the earliest adopters – notably Migros and Coop in Switzerland, and Metro, Lidl and Iglo in Germany.

In 2003 another early adopter, Sainsbury’s, committed to stocking only sustainable wild catch by 2010 (see Deep Dive: The retail pioneers), Two more major European seafood brands, Iglo Group and Findus, came aboard in 2004 with MSC-labelled product. And in 2005, Walmart in the US announced its commitment to source all its fresh and frozen fish from MSC certified sources. Soon the rest of Europe began to follow, with consumer markets in Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark opening up to MSC produce in quick succession.

‘Lidl was a particularly important milestone because it sent an incredible signal to the supply chain,’ Nicolas Guichoux recalls. ‘Germany today accounts for more than one third of the volume of MSC certified products sold. It really is a heavyweight and much of that is due to Lidl’s early engagement.’ Nicolas tells a story which neatly illustrates how the MSC approach enables sustainability goals and commercial drivers to work hand in hand to the benefit of both.

‘When Lidl decided to start with the MSC in Germany in 2006-7, we only had ten fisheries certified and one of them was Alaska pollock in the USA, which is the main wild-caught species consumed in Germany,’ he recalls. ‘But they were also looking for certified herring – it’s the second largest wild-caught species consumed in Germany. But at the time we didn’t have any MSC certified herring fisheries in the program, so Lidl sent a signal to the supply chain that they wanted herring. Then their direct competitor in Germany, Aldi, made the MSC part of their sourcing requirement too. And just four or five years after that, most of the North East Atlantic herring fisheries were either MSC certified or in assessment, some of which had to make quite significant management improvements to become MSC certified.’

One of the first retail players to build sustainability into its procurement process, Lidl Germany now sells only MSC-labelled fresh and frozen private label products in its permanent selection. ‘The origin of our products is extremely important to us,’ says Jan Bock, Director Purchasing at Lidl Germany. ‘We want to make sure that there’s not only fish for today, but that we can also offer a broad fish assortment to our customers in the future.’

In 2012 the fisheries ministry in Moscow announced its intention to join the MSC program because Russia had discovered that, without certification, its fish was losing traction in the German market.

‘That’s what I love about this model,’ says Rupert Howes. ‘You can use it to move the market in a positive way. I have no doubt that, in our global capitalistic society, market based solutions can be real catalysts for change.’

Getting with the program

On the fisheries side, the MSC initially looked to countries which already had a high bar on sustainability, like Norway, USA and Canada. The MSC also targeted Iceland, but here it took longer to convince people of the value of the MSC program. (See Deep Dive: The art of diplomacy)

From northern Europe and north America, the certifications would spread to southern Europe and then south-east Asia and developing countries around the world (see Deep Dive: Into Asia).

In 2003, Sainsbury’s began funding a three-year project to investigate the management of tuna fisheries;the first one to be certified, AAFA Pacific albacore, entered into assessment in 2005 and was certified two years later. Fisheries from Japan and Norway entered assessment for the first time in 2005. That same year, Alaska pollock, the world’s largest whitefish fishery, was certified, while the UK’s Thames herring fishery became the first ever fishery to renew its certificate.

‘For me the certification of the Alaskan pollock fishery was a real game-changer, because suddenly millions of tons of sustainable white fish were being delivered to the market,’ recalls Rupert Howes. ‘That meant at last that we’d overcome the obstacle of no supply to provide growing market demand.’

Over time, the mass-consumption species were joined by more niche species and more specialised products. Mexican Baja California red rock lobster became the first certified fishery in the developing world in 2004, while Oregon pink shrimp became the first certified shrimp fishery in 2007.

That same year also saw a fishery fail for the first time – the North Eastern Seas Fisheries lobster fishery, due to lack of data on stock levels. (See Deep Dive: Learning from failure)

‘We want fisheries to improve and we should recognise them when they do. Positive change means productive, healthy oceans.’

Pat Caleo, MSCs Asia Pacific Director

As a voluntary, open program, the MSC has not shied away from engaging with fisheries that some groups believe should never have been certified. (See Deep Dive: How the toothfish bounced back)

“As we understand more about the impacts of fishing, more fishing operations are changing for the better. They’re recovering their fish stocks, reducing their impacts and putting better management in place. That means that some fisheries with bad reputations are becoming sustainable,’ says Pat Caleo, MSC’s Asia Pacific Director. ‘We want fisheries to improve and we should recognise them when they do. Positive change means productive, healthy oceans.’

Fast food and chocolate

Back in the shops, meanwhile, the combination of European market demand and endorsement by Walmart quickly opened up the MSC to the US and Canadian consumer markets, and took the program and its products to a whole new level of acceptance and recognition. Suddenly, retail seafood firsts started to fall like dominoes…

In 2007, the 1000th MSC-labelled product was launched (by Japanese retailer Aeon), and KLM in the Netherlands became the first airline to introduce MSC certified fish on its flights.

In 2010, Mars Petcare launched the first-ever MSC labelled petfood, in Europe, while fish and chip shops in the UK adopted MSC certified products for the first time. In 2011, Pick n Pay in South Africa became the first African retailer to commit to sustainable sourcing, while Birds Eye Iglo announced its entire cod and haddock fish finger range would carry the blue MSC label.

That same year, the mighty McDonald’s chain made waves with its commitment in Europe to source its iconic Filet-o-Fish exclusively from MSC certified fisheries. McDonalds USA, Canada and Brazil followed shortly after. The chain continues to push the sustainability agenda, and in 2016 its entire Spanish operation – more than 490 restaurants – became the first national chain to offer MSC certified tuna on its menu, sourced from the Pacific.

‘Nine years ago, only 1,000 labelled products were on the market globally,’ says Nicolas Guichoux. ‘Today there are more than 20,000 products with the blue MSC label. This is an important milestone and recognition of the enormous commitment made by fisheries and retail partners around the world.’

And the consumer innovations keep on coming. ‘We are now seeing the ecolabel used on seafood pizza in Finland, and in food supplements like cod liver oil,’ says Nicolas. ‘We have seen some baby food products with the label on. And I’ve even seen a certified surimi product with chocolate flavour, but I’m not sure if that has caught on...’

Growing together

By 2008 there were 100 fisheries in the program (either in assessment or certified) – among them the first certified fisheries from Norway, Germany, Canada and Japan. And thanks to its many supporters and partners, interest in the program from responsible fishers around the world was starting to show remarkable growth.

It was a significant moment when Japan came on board. Fish is a national obsession for the Japanese, who consume 10% of the world’s entire supply, so it was a real boost when, in 2006, MSC labelled fish went on sale in Japan for the first time, in Tokyo’s National Azabu supermarkets. Shortly after, national chain Aeon launched a range of MSC labelled products too. More recently, funding from the Packard Foundation has helped the MSC to scale up its operations in the country too.

The global uptake continued. In 2009, the Vietnamese Ben Tre clam fishery became the first in South-east Asia to receive MSC certification. (See Deep Dive: Getting the national vote) Initially a small-scale and domestic operation, it could now begin exporting its products to higher-value markets in Europe and North America, which has led to an increase in the prices it can charge at the quayside.

The Suriname Atlantic seabob shrimp fishery became the first certified tropical shrimp fishery in 2011, while the Ashtamudi clam fishery became the first fishery in India to be MSC certified in 2014.

Back in Europe, meanwhile, the first ever Spanish certified fishery – Pescafria-Pesquera Rodriguez, fishing Barents Sea cod –came on board in 2012. The European program saw an increase of over 50% in fisheries participation in the MSC program between 2012 and 2017. Iceland and Denmark set 100% MSC targets for their national industries, and have both made serious progress. The first Finnish fishery entered assessment in 2017.

Progress wasn’t always straightforward though. ‘In India there was initially concern from many key stakeholders about what the impact of certification might be on them as one of the top exporters of seafood,’ says Dr Yemi Oloruntuyi, Head of the MSC’s Developing World Program. Continuous engagement with MSC and support from WWF in India, however, eventually helped the Ashtamudi fishery to certification.

2015 saw two more milestones. The Australia pearl oyster fishery became the first of its kind to enter MSC assessment. And the Zoneco scallop fishery in Zhangzidao became the first-ever certified fishery in China, followed next year by China Southern Fishing (Shenzhen) Co Ltd (CSFC), a longline Albacore tuna fishery. ‘We will continue to support the rest of China’s sustainable seafood movement as it embarks on this journey,’ says Samuel Chou, President of CSFC.

A key strand of the MSC’s work in recent years has been supporting improvements in small-scale and developing world fisheries. These have historically been under-represented in the program, even though of the 120 million people employed in fishing, 90% work in small-scale fisheries, and almost all of these workers live in developing countries. (See Deep Dive: making small sustainable)

‘The MSC plays an important role in getting the sustainability dialogue on the table at various levels – with the market, with the fishing industry, and in and around management discussions around fisheries globally,’ says Christine Penney of Clearwater Seafoods. ‘It sets a high bar of sustainability, and there are still a number of global fisheries that aren’t likely to be able to achieve that level in the short term,so that is both a challenge and an opportunity. The MSC has created the incentive for those fisheries to make improvements and to evolve towards the Standard.’

Making a difference

For decades Canada’s cod fisheries were a byword for abundance – until the collapse of most cod stocks in the 1990s led to closures of the fisheries and devastating job losses in fishing communities. Over 30,000 people in Newfoundland and Labrador lost their jobs overnight – the single largest employment effect in Canadian history.

In the same waters today, there are some positive signs. In 2011, for example, a cod fishery in the 3Ps management area off the Newfoundland coast began an extensive fishery improvement project (FIP) with input from industry, government and NGOs, and went on to achieve MSC certification in 2016. More FIPs are now under way with Canada’s Northern cod stocks, the main fishing area which closed in 1992. ‘Early signs are positive, and if such commitment and collaboration continues, the hope is that gradually these cod stocks will also recover to a point at which they can be certified,’ says Jay Lugar, MSC Program Director in Canada.

Since 2011, the MSC has been looking back at past performance and measuring the impact of its program, with results published annually in its Global Impact Reports. The many positive effects of the program – among them increased yields, sustainable harvests, reduced bycatch and seabird mortality, and in some cases higher prices for fishers – are backed by solid evidence.

Says Dr Agnew: ‘Fourteen years of data from northern Europe show that MSC certified fisheries now target more abundant fish stocks at a more sustainable fishing rate than they did before certification. By contrast, uncertified stocks in Europe show much greater variability in terms of biomass and fishing effort, with the average fishing effort remaining too high to ensure productive fish stocks.’

‘Haddock and Pollock have had a turnaround,’ says Volker Kuntzsch. ‘Total catches worldwide are improving and I am 100% sure that is down to the effort from the MSC. I think it has definitely worked.’

As of 2017, over 12% of the world’s marine wild caught fish is MSC certified, a figure that has doubled since 2010. Almost 300 fisheries in almost 40 countries worldwide are certified to the MSC Standard – across the broadest range of species, ecosystems and territories – which means they are harvesting their catch in a way that allows the population to remain healthy and productive for generations to come. In April 2017, the MSC announced its new strategic plan with a goal of 20% global marine catch certified or engaged in the MSC program by 2020, increasing to more than a third by 2030.

(See Deep Dive: looking ahead to the next 20 years)

Scottish Pelagic Sustainability Group Ltd North Sea herring fishers © Franck Hollander / WWF

A game-changer

‘The MSC has gradually grown up and become a very important entity in the whole fisheries world,’ says Carl-Christian Schmidt, who was there right at the beginning and is today Chair of the Nordic Marine Think Tank.

‘It has made a humongous change to the way that governments and businesses think about sustainability. Without its approach of using market-based economic instruments to drive environmental causes, we would not have achieved the discussions on climate change and trading CO2 that we have had. In my view, it has shown that market-based systems are a way forward to address the environmental problems we are facing. The MSC was a game changer.’

‘MSC has been a catalyst not just for us as a retailer, but for our customers to be more thoughtful about the food choices they make. And we should thank them for that,’ says Judith Batchelar, Sainsbury’s Head of Brand.

As the MSC has evolved, it has also recognised the importance of educating and engaging consumers. Delivering long-lasting changes in ocean health requires a high degree of awareness and support, not only from industry partners, but just as importantly from the buying public, who vote with their wallets. Other seafood labelling schemes and guides have evolved over the last 20 years. Many of these schemes support and complement the MSC program, but they can lead to confusion. So it’s vital that shoppers understand that – with its unparalleled scientific base and independent auditing methodology – the MSC blue label is all shoppers need to look for to be sure that the seafood they buy and eat has been produced sustainably.

'When consumers see a restaurant or a business with the MSC logo on display, they know that the work has been done for them.’

Mitch Tonks

'Consumers want to know that they’re eating sustainable seafood,’ says Mitch Tonks, proud owner of five Rockfish restaurants in Devon, UK, a MSC ambassador, and winner of the MSC’s ‘Good Catch’ Award in 2017. ‘But they don’t want to get caught up in the detail, they want to know that that’s been done for them. When consumers see a restaurant or a business with the MSC logo on display, they know that the work has been done for them.’

All in all, the MSC has helped to make possible a club of which even Groucho Marx might have been proud to be a member.

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