Sustainable Seafood Certification and the Feds

Juvenile Swordfish at the market - Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Juvenile Swordfish at the market – Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Would having NOAA Fisheries certify seafood as sustainable be a good idea?

As I suspect most readers are aware, there are currently a handful of third-party, nonprofit business that have, for a long time, provided an “eco-label” for some market seafood. The Marine Stewardship Council is probably the largest and most well-know of such organizations. Through rigorous criteria they certify seafood products as “sustainable.”

There are also plenty of environmental organizations that create and distribute lists of marine products that they consider to be sustainable as well as those that aren’t (e.g. those politically correct wallet-sized seafood cards that are so cool to pull out during dinner and make the guy next to you feel like an ass for ordering, God-forbid, the salmon). Even NOAA has its FishWatch website.

Having the information to make well-informed choices gives the do-good consumer a sense of triumph when they’ve bought or ordered something that has supposedly not contributed to the global decline of marine resources. (Go right to heaven, pass go, collect $200). The intended end result is that fewer people buy or order those products that aren’t deemed sustainable. Thus, there would theoretically be less demand for the unsustainably harvested product, while well-managed fisheries would be rewarded for sustainable practices. The hope is that a growing market for certified sustainable seafood would generate incentive for other fisheries to demonstrate they are fishing sustainably or to improve their performance so that they too can be eligible for certification.

My view of such programs is predictably dark, because I’m a New Yorker among other things, but also because I’m generally a “realist” (I prefer that term to “pessimist,” “glass-is-half-empty” or just “unpleasant person”). Really, I think such market-based conservation initiatives are futile at best. They’re a tremendous waste of money/resources at worst. I know I’m gonna get crucified for making such a statement, but in my admittedly limited frame of reference, nine out of 10 people don’t give a shit about such “eco-labels.”

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Seriously, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most people just don’t care whether the fish that they eat is sustainable or not. Maybe it’s the company I keep, but if it’s on the menu, or behind the glass and looks good, most get it, not thinking twice about where it came from or whether or not it’s eco-friendly. Then there are those people who might actually care about whether or not a product is sustainable, but, hey, man, people are just busy and don’t take the time to know what’s what. Intuitively, most figure that if it is on the menu or behind the glass, then it must be legal and therefore sustainable (make note of this for later). Lastly, there are those people (ehm, like me) who understand which fisheries are well-managed/sustainable and which aren’t. But if it’s on the menu it’s already dead, and someone is gonna eat it, so then, well. …

The point is, I’m pretty sure the above covers 98percent of the fish-eating population. Yes, there is the 2 percent that carry around those cards or only buy the more expensive products with the blue MSC label on it. But does that really make a difference? There’s little incentive for people to be informed or to act responsibly, save for maybe that fleeting feel-good moment when you think you’ve done the right thing – or perhaps the sick sense of satisfaction you get when you’ve made that dude beside you feel bad for ordering the Chilean seabass or Patagonian toothfish, or whatever the hell they are calling it these days.

With of course some exceptions (e.g., the “save our swordfish” campaign back in the 90s) these market-based conservation initiatives do little. Yes, I know they only sell MSC-certified seafood at Walmart. But who the hell buys their seafood at Walmart!? I think Whole Paycheck, oops, I mean Whole Foods has the same standard, but that’s another small fairly insignificant demographic. In my eyes, where real marine conservation comes to pass is where laws, like the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation Act, are made, at the NMFS, and around the council and commission tables where regulations are set and fisheries are legally constrained. I wanna be all happy-go–lucky – a team player – but the market-based stuff isn’t terribly relevant in my mind.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Enter this new recommendation that U.S. seafood harvested under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Act (the law that governs the how the nation manages federal marine resources in federal waters) should be labeled as “sustainable” in domestic and export markets. Last spring the Mid Atlantic Council even passed the following motion: “That the Council recommend an amendment that would authorize NMFS to provide the U.S. industry with a sustainability certification program and certification mark, which would provide the industry with the ability to promote and sell its seafood products, in both domestic and export markets, as sustainable based upon the requirements of the act.” And yeah, I voted for it. Mostly because it was sprung on us, no one really had any time to think about it and, at first glance, it seemed reasonable. But is this really a good idea? I’ve been thinking about it lately for a couple of reasons.

The first is that NOAA Fisheries asked the Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee (MAFAC) to explore the creation of a NOAA certification mark or other acknowledgement that could certify sustainability of domestic wild-caught and aquaculture fishery products. MAFAC has organized a working group to investigate the topic and develop a recommendation. The topic is also quite relevant in that it appears to be included in the Senate version of the Magnuson reauthorization I mentioned in my last post.

I do get why the commercial fishing industry might want this. The MSC certification process is no walk in the park. It is ridiculously expensive, because in order to be considered, a for-profit, third-party certifier has to be hired, which costs anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000, depending on the size of the fishery and complexities of the process. And after certification, fisheries undergo annual audits costing upwards of $75,000 per audit. That’s not all. To maintain the certification, the fishery has to be recertified every five years. Whether they’re sustainable or not, fisheries comprised of small individual owners just can’t afford to participate. Thus the larger companies dominate the sustainable seafood market. And dare I mention the conflict-of-interest perception. Because assessors have a financial incentive in recommending fisheries and getting more work/profit from the resulting annual audits, certainly I can see why such certification might be suspect.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

But I’m still a little confused. Would such federal certification simply mean that fisheries managed under the Magnuson Act and not subject to overfishing and/or not overfished would be labeled “sustainable” for marketing purposes? Or would it mean that NOAA Fisheries would have to get into the certification business by developing new applicable criteria? While, yes, it would be good find a way to get the commercial industry out from under the thumb of the expensive, time-consuming MSC process (not to mention the conflict of interest issues), I see major problems with both.

Let’s touch on the prior first. The idea is that seafood harvested in the United States is inherently sustainable as a result of the rigorous U.S. management process that ensures fisheries are continuously monitored, improved and sustainable. This is somewhat true for those fisheries successfully managed by the councils. But some would argue that, while indeed we are rebuilding stocks because of the 1996 and 2006 provisions of the Magnuson Act, the majority of which have already rebuilt, we still aren’t sufficiently managing fisheries in an ecosystem context. In other words, we aren’t adequately accounting for predator/prey relationships etc. Right now there is no statutory requirement for ecosystem-based fishery management in the current law.

Certainly, MSC sustainability criteria for forage fish are more rigorous than what the Magnuson Act requires. MSC uses a variety of criteria to gauge “sustainability,” such as levels of bycatch, impacts of fishing gear on habitat, impacts of the fishery on the ecosystem and food web. Federal management to account for such factors isn’t in place yet. I’m pretty sure most forage fisheries managed under the Magnuson wouldn’t be eligible for the MSC label (e.g., herring, mackerel, squid and butterfish). If we believed that the current Magnuson Act sufficiently covered ecosystem based management, fishery managers and policy makers wouldn’t be spending so much time trying to broaden into ecosystem-based fishery management to make our fisheries truly “sustainable” in the larger context.

By certifying those fisheries managed under Magnuson, we’d be endorsing the status quo, single species management system as sustainable. And once a product is labeled “sustainable,” it’s likely there’d be little to no incentive to make improvements to the management and operation of the fishery. In other words, because these fisheries are certified “sustainable,” additional regulation would be superfluous.

Perhaps more important than any of this is the Magnuson Act itself. As I noted in my recent post, the act is currently up for reauthorization. If certain people or certain organizations get their way, the requirements to end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks, an absolute requirement for “sustainability,” could be significantly weakened or simply go away. If that were to happen, are we still to consider fisheries managed under the Magnuson Act “sustainable”?

And what if what we’re talking about here is NOAA Fisheries getting into the certification business by developing applicable criteria for a still largely undefined “sustainability” concept? If that’s the case it would likely be a long and messy process. Just as there are many ideas on what needs to be changed about the Magnuson Act in the next reauthorization, there would be many different ideas of what constitutes a “sustainable” fishery. In reality, there really isn’t an agreed-upon definition of “sustainable.” Note that MSC probably has the most comprehensive criteria for assessing fisheries. Yet it still ends up certifying fisheries that some organizations have disagreed with and in several cases challenged. That’s a pretty good indication of how difficult this whole thing could and likely will be if NOAA were to go that route.

Lastly, I can’t help but recognize the conflict of interest that would be inherent should NOAA Fisheries get involved in promoting the resources it manages for sale. NMFS’ mission is “stewardship of living marine resources for the benefit of the nation through their science-based conservation and management and promotion of the health of their environment.” In my mind, marketing seafood for private interest profit certainly doesn’t jive with government’s role as stewards of a public resource.

Such a thing is entirely appropriate for a private entity uninvolved with the management process – but not when the body responsible for managing the resources it’s promoting gets into the business. One could certainly draw the conclusion that, in the end, what we are suggesting here is that NOAA pass judgment on its own performance.

So, no, I don’t believe any “sustainable” certification is really that critical as far as protecting a stock/preventing overfishing, etc. It’s too indirect, especially given the general fish-eating public’s overall ambivalence and lack of knowledge about fisheries. Yes, perhaps a federal certification standard would help in that respect. It’s far easier for the general public to understand that if it’s managed under federal law then it’s sustainable (assuming we could ever agree on what “sustainable” actually means). But as I noted, such a certification isn’t as simple as just saying it’s sustainable just because the feds are managing it. Man, I wish it were that easy. Because I understand that the MSC process just sucks.

I don’t wanna nix this idea all together, because I think it has some merit, but the problems noted above would have to be addressed. And, who knows, something like this could actually lock NMFS and the councils into managing stocks to a newly defined level of “sustainability” (although that’s probably optimistic). But the bar will have to be set high – higher than it is now. And, honestly, right now, I see the tide shifting in the other direction. I guess we’ll see how it all plays out. Stay tuned.


After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Loyola College in Maryland, Captain John McMurray served in the US Coast Guard for four years as a small-boat coxswain and marine-fisheries law enforcement officer. He was then recruited to become the first Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association New York. He is currently the Director of Grants Programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York. He is the owner and primary operator of “One More Cast” Charters. John is a well known and well published outdoor writer, specializing in fisheries conservation issues. In 2006 John was awarded the Coastal Conservation Association New York Friend of Fisheries Conservation Award.

Posted in Conservation
One comment on “Sustainable Seafood Certification and the Feds
  1. avatar Ken says:

    his certification is further validation for the efforts of an industry which worked together to progress from the brink of oblivion to prosperity.”
    New Bedford, MA (PRWEB) December 20, 2013

    Today, the U.S. Atlantic sea scallop (Placopecten magellanicus) fishery, the most valuable fishery in the United States, was certified as being in compliance with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) standard for sustainable, well-managed fisheries.

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