European Cetacean Bycatch banner loading

"Man is but a strand in the complex web of life"

Internal links buttons



Marine Stewardship Council under fire
Can ocean friendly labels save dwindling stocks?

New Scientist page 5 vol 178 issue 2395

17th May 2003

THE "ocean friendly" label on supermarket fish is failing to protect fish stocks, claim environmentalists. They say the eco-labels certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, which identify the produce of sustainable fisheries, are simply a cover for industrial fishing methods that kill seals and seabirds, damage the seabed, and empty the seas of scarce fish stocks.

"People have a right to assume that when they see an MSC label on a fish, these kinds of things are not happening," says Gerry Leape, head of marine conservation at the US-based National Environmental Trust. "Right now they can't.” Unless the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) cleans up its act, he says, green groups from Greenpeace to the Sierra Club may withdraw their support for the labels.

The MSC vehemently denies these criticisms. It defends its practice of offering certification to fishing companies that promise to improve their methods, rather than waiting till they have made the improvements. "Overfishing is a 200-year-old problem, but I believe we are starting to see tangible results through labelling," says Brendan May, the MSC's chief executive. He says the green groups' desire for a perfect system was undermining pragmatic efforts to improve fishing practices.

The London-based MSC was established six years ago as a marine equivalent of the successful Forest Stewardship Council, which certifies sustainably harvested timber. The MSC allows its label to be used on fish taken from seven stocks, around 0.7 per cent of the world's fish catch. It has never rejected an application.

Last December it certified New Zealand hoki, which are widely used in fish fingers. Leape told a meeting in London this week that trawling for hoki kills an estimated 1000 fur seals and 600 endangered albatrosses a year. May says a timetable has been agreed with the fishing companies to improve things. "In any case, it's a better option than North Sea cod."

Leape also condemned the planned certification of Patagonian toothfish, also known as Chilean sea bass, caught in South Atlantic waters around South Georgia. He says too little is known about toothfish biology, and certification would upset efforts to curb a parallel illegal trade in toothfish caught elsewhere. "Customers don't distinguish between fish of the same species caught in different places," Leape says.

But May says that it is just such distinctions that are the basis for the MSC's work. "Our work is scientific. We can't reject certification for political reasons."

Fred Pearce

See also

Marine Stewardship Council under fire - In deep trouble, we need a sure-fire way to stop fish being hunted to extinction - 17th May 2003

Marine Stewardship Council under fire - Old men of the sea have all but gone - 17th May 2003