Conditions Allow For More Sustainable-Labeled Seafood

Feb 11, 2013
Originally published on February 13, 2013 1:24 pm

Part two of a three-part series by Daniel Zwerdling and Margot Williams.

Next time you walk up to the seafood counter, look for products labeled with a blue fish, a check mark, and the words "Certified Sustainable Seafood MSC." Then ask yourself, "What does this label mean?"

The MSC — Marine Stewardship Council — says that the "sustainable" label means that fishermen caught the seafood with methods that don't deplete its supply, and help protect the environment in the waters where it was caught.

But many environmentalists who have studied the MSC system say that label is misleading. "We're not getting what we think we're getting," says Susanna Fuller, co-director of marine programs at Canada's Ecology Action Centre. She says the consumer, when purchasing seafood with the blue MSC label, is "not buying something that's sustainable now."

If the label were accurate, Fuller says, it would include what she says is troubling fine print: The MSC system has certified most fisheries with "conditions." Those conditions spell out that the fishermen will have to change the way they operate or study how their methods are affecting the environment — or both. But they have years to comply with those conditions after the fisheries have already been certified sustainable.

Gerry Leape, an oceans specialist who sits on the MSC's advisory Stakeholder Council on behalf of the Pew Charitable Trusts, says the MSC's policy is baffling. "It's misleading," he says, "to put a label of sustainability on a product where you still don't have the basic requirements."

Representatives from major foundations and environmental groups have repeatedly asked the MSC's board of directors to change its label. As long ago as February 2004, more than two dozen representatives drafted a list of urgent reforms that they said the MSC needed to carry out to establish "credibility." One of those reforms says the "MSC should remove the word sustainable from its claim." Environmentalists have continued to pressure the MSC to label seafood with positive but vaguer terms — proclaiming, for example, that the products come from fisheries that are "well managed" or use "best practices."

But MSC executives have refused to change their label. Rupert Howes, the MSC's chief executive, says even though most fisheries have conditions, the sustainable label "means people can go on catching" that seafood knowing that "they can be confident they can continue doing that into the future, as will their children."

Howes says, "If I see that logo, I've got assurance that the seafood products or fish that I'm buying with that label has come from a well-managed sustainable fishery."

The debate swirling around the MSC and "sustainable" seafood echoes the debates about other industry programs that promise to protect the environment, from organic farming to energy-efficient appliances. Are the promises genuine or hype?

Since it was founded in 1997, the MSC has become the most influential organization in the world that tells consumers which seafood is supposed to be good or bad for the environment. Today, MSC-certified fisheries account for roughly 8 percent of the world's seafood catch, worth more than $3 billion, according to the MSC website.

Howes and the MSC's supporters say the organization has helped push fishing companies to use better, more ecologically sound methods. Many environmentalists and scientists agree that the MSC has made progress, but they say it's deceiving consumers into thinking that the choices they make at the market have a bigger impact than they really do. And consumers are often paying more when they make that choice. Industry executives say MSC-labeled seafood often costs more than other products.

Case Study: The Fraser River Sockeye Salmon

To see how those perspectives clash, consider the battle over sockeye salmon from the Fraser River in British Columbia, Canada. The Fraser River is one of the world's most important sources of wild salmon — and sockeye are one of the most economically valuable species. Chefs love sockeye's texture and flavor. The fish generate thousands of jobs in the fishing and processing industries. They're a valuable export. And Fraser River sockeye are an important food and ceremonial symbol for Canada's First Nations, or native tribes.

So it was international news in late 2009 when government researchers reported that the Fraser's sockeye population had collapsed. Scientists predicted that almost 11 million sockeye would return from the ocean that year and fight their way back upstream to reproduce. Studies suggested that fewer than 2 million actually came back.

The population of Fraser River sockeye has zigzagged like an EKG since humans began keeping track, but their average productivity has steadily declined since the early 1990s. When the population went into free fall, Canada's leaders formed a commission to investigate.

Canadian officials appointed a Supreme Court judge, Bruce Cohen, to lead the Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River. They gave him the power to subpoena documents and witnesses, and the power to compel them to testify under oath. By their own count, the commission staff would eventually end up calling 170 witnesses to testify during 133 days of hearings. They pored through thousands of pages of studies, reports and government documents — some of them previously secret.

So many researchers were stunned when the MSC made an announcement just after the Cohen commission started its investigation: The MSC would label sockeye from the Fraser River "certified sustainable seafood." Industry leaders said they needed the label to sell Canadian sockeye in Europe, where supermarket chains were demanding sustainable-labeled products.

"Here we are, seeing this precipitous decline in Fraser sockeye, and then this crash, absolute crash," says Craig Orr, executive director of Watershed Watch, a prominent Canadian conservation group. "And then you have [the MSC] coming in on behalf of the commercial fishing industry saying that the Fraser River sockeye industry is certifiably sustainable. You know, it just didn't seem to make sense."

Conditions Allow Sockeye Approval

Orr says to see why it doesn't make sense, read the list of more than two dozen conditions that the Fraser River sockeye industry has to meet under the MSC's rules. Some of those conditions require the salmon industry and Canadian government's fisheries department to conduct basic research on sockeye salmon — research that critics say should have been done long ago.

For example, scientists say there are roughly 30 different kinds of sockeye, or stocks, caught in Canada's Fraser River. Studies show that while some appear to be in good shape, several species have been declining dramatically. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has "red listed" some of them because they are "threatened." Yet the certification team from the firm that evaluated the fishery for the MSC, Intertek Moody Marine, acknowledged that nobody had studied those salmon stocks enough to understand exactly how the industry is affecting them.

Many scientists and environmentalists argue that the MSC should require fisheries to gather crucial evidence and then apply for its label. Instead, the MSC will allow the fishing industry to certify Fraser River sockeye as sustainable for at least five years, while the industry and government gather that evidence — and meet other conditions.

Evidence suggests, however, that the fishing companies that catch sockeye have not been living up to their promises. Under the MSC's rules, every fishery that's certified must hire a commercial auditing company to check annually to see if it's meeting the conditions on time. After its 2012 audit of Fraser River sockeye, Intertek Moody reported that the fishing industry had failed to meet more than half of the 30-plus conditions attached to it. Yet MSC still allows the industry to label the sockeye sustainable.

Surveys of fisheries labeled "certified sustainable," including one conducted for the MSC, show that many fisheries fail to meet their conditions — at least not on schedule.

'Sustainable Word Is Fraught With Difficulty'

Take a look at scallops from eastern Canada, which were certified by the MSC system in 2010 — with conditions. The labels don't tell consumers that the fishing industry harvests most of those scallops by dredging, a method of dragging giant rakes across the ocean floor.

Some environmental groups argue that the MSC should flatly refuse to label any seafood sustainable if it is harvested with dredges. Studies show that using dredges can cause drastic changes in the ocean, disrupting the balance of species in the water and transforming the ocean floor.

MSC executives counter that some boats can dredge carefully, without causing serious damage. So they agreed to label Canadian scallops sustainable with conditions. The fishing companies will have to study how their use of dredges off Canada's coast impacts the environment.

Fuller says that's backward — like telling a child, "You've been really bad, but I'll give you a lollipop, and then I want you to show me how much better you can be," she says. "It just doesn't work, right? You've already got the lollipop."

"The sustainable word is fraught with difficulty, undoubtedly," says the MSC's Howes. "We keep coming back to the science." He adds, "Each unique fishery has been assessed by those scientists. It has met the [MSC] standard, and they have deemed the amount of data that is available is sufficient to enable them to make that decision."

And Howes says the system of granting conditions is one of the main strategies for protecting the oceans. By requiring fisheries to meet conditions, the MSC system is providing incentives for them to do better. Howes says "expectations of perfection" could obscure "the good that is undoubtedly happening."

Executives at supermarket chains that sell MSC-labeled seafood have been watching with a mixture of confidence and concern as controversies like these unfold. Carrie Brownstein, who oversees Whole Foods' seafood quality standards, says she is confident in the MSC system of evaluating and certifying fisheries.

"I don't think there's a program out there in the world, no matter whether they're working on seafood, or they're working on makeup or shampoo, that doesn't have some people that are extremely happy with what they do and some people that aren't," she says. "We watch the process, and we're trusting this process."

But Bob Fields, a senior buyer for Wal-Mart and Sam's Club, says he and his colleagues have decided not to carry some products with the MSC label because environmental and other groups have convinced Wal-Mart they are fraught with potential problems. One of them is the so-called Chilean sea bass, or toothfish. Fields says Wal-Mart will "just back completely away," from MSC products on a case-by-case basis, if they're convinced it's too risky.

In late 2012, Canada's Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River released its final report, after a roughly two-year investigation. The commission concluded that there's no single cause that explains their "two-decade decline."

Instead, the commission concluded that "sockeye experience multiple stressors" that can damage their health and kill them — possibly including the boom in salmon farming along their migration route, climate change and pollution. And the commission warned that unless the government and industry follow its long list of recommendations, the plight of Fraser River sockeye could get worse.

Despite the report, the MSC still says sockeye salmon from the Fraser River are certified sustainable.

Researcher Barbara Van Woerkom contributed to this story.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Renee Montagne. These days, you can buy sustainable fashion and sustainable home landscaping and, as we've been hearing this week, a growing number of products at your local supermarket; among them, certified sustainable seafood. That promise comes from an international nonprofit called the Marine Stewardship Council, or MSC.

WERTHEIMER: Studies show that most of the world's wild fisheries are overfished, or near their limit. The MSC says its sustainable label guarantees that fishermen caught that seafood in ways that don't deplete their supply or threaten other animals in the environment.

MONTAGNE: But as NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports in today's Business Bottom Line, many environmentalists say the label can be misleading.

DANIEL ZWERDLING, BYLINE: Sockeye salmon are a big deal in Canada. They're a big deal in the United States. So it made international news in late 2009. The population of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River, in British Columbia, had collapsed.


ZWERDLING: NBC was all over this story. The Fraser River is one of the most important salmon producers in the world.


ZWERDLING: And Canada's leaders formed a commission, to investigate why. The sockeye population has gone up and down since humans began recording it. But the average has been steadily declining over the past 20 years. The government appointed a Supreme Court judge to lead the commission. They gave him the power to subpoena documents and witnesses.


ZWERDLING: Here's how Canadian radio described it.


ZWERDLING: So, many researchers were stunned only eight months later when the Marine Stewardship Council made an announcement: the MSC was going to let the fishing industry label sockeye from the Fraser River Certified Sustainable Seafood.

Craig Orr runs a prominent conservation group, he got one of the Canadian government's top awards for public service. He asked the MSC, how can you do this?

CRAIG ORR: Well, here we are seeing this precipitous decline in Fraser sockeye, and then this crash - absolute crash. And then you have this organization saying our fisheries are certifiably sustainable. It just didn't seem to make sense.

ZWERDLING: The MSC is the most influential system in the world that decides which seafood is environmentally correct. You can buy seafood with the MSC logo at Wal-Mart and Target. McDonald's Filet-O-Fish are certified sustainable. The chains point to their MSC labels to show they're socially responsible.

And Rupert Howes is proud.

RUPERT HOWES: I mean, what gets me out of bed to work at the MSC - and I've been chief exec for the last eight years - is a passionate belief that what we're doing is making a difference.

ZWERDLING: Howes is MSC's chief executive. He works at their headquarters in London. Howes says the MSC set up its system to be as objective and scientific as possible. The MSC puts out detailed guidelines that define what a fishery has to do to get the label Certified Sustainable. Then any fishery that wants the label has to hire a private auditing firm to decide if it complies. So far, the MSC system has granted its label to around 200 fisheries. They've turned down only around 10 that applied.

HOWES: What we're trying to do is provide an easy mechanism for seafood buyers and the general public to say, if I see that logo, I've got assurance that the seafood products or fish that I'm buying with that label has come from a well-managed sustainable fishery.'

ZWERDLING: And environmentalists around the world said it was a great idea back when the MSC got started in the 1990s. But today, a lot of them have second thoughts.

SUSANNA FULLER: We're not getting what we think we're getting. And I think people don't know that.

ZWERDLING: Susanna Fuller co-directs the Marine program at the Ecology Action Centre in Canada. And she says here's one of the main things you don't know: When you see the label at your seafood counter, Certified Sustainable...

FULLER: You're not - you're not buying something that's sustainable now.

ZWERDLING: Let's take a step back for a moment. Suppose that you had to decide: Is the sockeye fishery in the Fraser River sustainable? You'd have to ask industry a long list of scientific questions. For instance, there are roughly 30 different kinds of sockeye or stocks caught in the Fraser River. And studies show that some of them are declining more dramatically than others.

So, how many of those threatened kinds of sockeye is industry catching? How can industry prove they're not making the problem worse? And now, suppose that industry told you, sorry, we don't have that information. How would you respond? Well, the MSC system basically told them, don't worry. We'll label your sockeye sustainable now as long as you promise that you'll get that information to us within five years. The MSC calls those promises conditions.

FULLER: It's kind of like saying, you know, to a child, like, well, you've been really bad, but I'll give you a lollipop, and then I want you to show me how much better you can be. It just doesn't work, right? You've already got the lollipop.

ZWERDLING: In fact, most seafood that the MSC labels sustainable has a list of conditions in fine print - Fraser River sockeye has more than 30 conditions. And surveys have found that the fisheries don't live up to a lot of them.

Representatives of major environmental groups and foundations have repeatedly told the MSC: Remove the word sustainable from your label - or the MSC could lose credibility. Executives at MSC have refused. I asked the MSC's president, Rupert Howes.

How can you say any fishery is sustainable, you know, bam, you are sustainable. How can you say that when there are still basic things that scientists don't know about the fish and how they reproduce and the impact it's having on the ocean floor and the impact it's having on other life in the sea?

HOWES: The sustainable word is fraught with difficulty, undoubtedly.

ZWERDLING: But Howes says I'm missing the point. He says no human endeavor is perfect. When the MSC system certified that a fishery is sustainable, and then gives it a list of conditions, he says they're giving the fishery an incentive to do better.

HOWES: The fundamental point is they have assessed the evidence of that unique fishery and deemed it sufficient to meet, as you quite rightly pointed out, MSC standard. The conditions are then there to improve that knowledge. And this is what I mean about the dangers of expectations of perfection obscuring the good that is undoubtedly happening.


CAPT. GORDON BOTKIN: Victoria traffic in this Delta.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Delta traffic roger, you've already made arrangements with the Granny hatch?

ZWERDLING: A few months ago, I rode along on a salmon boat on the Fraser River, near Vancouver.

BOTKIN: Well, it's down about five and a half fathoms, so 35 feet, maybe a little more.

WERTHEIMER: The U.S. and Canada have a joint agency that monitors salmon, and they were sending out boats like this one to sample how many sockeye were making it back from the ocean.

ZWERDLING: The captain was Gordon Botkin. He unreeled a net from a huge drum until it stretched almost all across the river, then he reeled it in after half an hour. He got eight sockeye salmon.

BOTKIN: Watch it, take an eye out with that thing. I've been fishing salmon since 1967.


BOTKIN: Yeah. I've seen the trend, there's been less fish. It's been pretty dramatic in the last 20 years. My income and my production of fish has gone down, down, down.


ZWERDLING: Not long after we made this trip, the Canadian government commission that's been investigating sockeye put out its final report. The Commission concluded that a long list of forces, from industrial development to climate change, will likely make things worse.

The Marine Stewardship Council didn't flinch. Sockeye salmon from the Fraser River are still certified sustainable.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.


MONTAGNE: NPR's Margot Williams was the co-reporter on that story. And there's more about the controversies surrounding the Marine Stewardship Council at


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.