Eco-babble: Seafood eco-labels not always reliable, says study
- [EXCERPT: "Many of the Marine Stewardship
Council's claims are "eco-babble" and very
misleading .... " " .... Much of the krill
caught is used to feed farmed fish, pigs and
chicken and "any fishery undertaken for fish meal
should not be viewed as responsible or
sustainable, and should not qualify for MSC
certification.... " ]
Fish stories: Seafood eco-labels not always reliable, says study
By Margaret Munro
September 1, 2010
VANCOUVER - So much for guilt-free seafood.
An international program run by the Marine
Stewardship Council purports to certify only
sustainably harvested fish but is "failing" to
protect the environment and needs radical reform,
says a highly critical report released Wednesday.
Many of the MSC's claims are "eco-babble" and
very misleading, Jennifer Jacquet, a University
of B.C. researcher and co-author of the report,
said this week as she checked out the seafood at
Capers, a trendy grocery store in Vancouver.
Fresh halibut was selling for $49.90 a kilogram
under one of the council's aqua blue signs
guaranteeing "sustainability" and "a sound
The certification program is run by the
non-profit council based in London. The MSC's
blue "eco-labels" can be found on seafood sold at
Capers, Whole Foods Markets and Walmart in North
America and many stores in Europe.
Controversy has been brewing over the
certification program for years but the MSC's
recent decision to slap its eco-label on an
Antarctic krill fishery prompted the researchers
to spell out their concerns in the journal Nature
this week. Jacquet is a resource management
specialist who authored the report with noted UBC
fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly and colleagues
in the U.S. and Italy.
In May, the council certified the krill fishery,
despite scientific evidence that suggests the
shrimp-like creatures at the base of the
Antarctic food chain are in decline. Much of the
krill caught is used to feed farmed fish, pigs
and chicken and "any fishery undertaken for fish
meal should not be viewed as responsible or
sustainable, and should not qualify for MSC
certification," the researchers say.
Co-author Paul Dayton, at the University of
California's Scripps Institution of Oceanography,
said the krill certification "is an embarrassment
as it flies in the face of existing data and
denies any sense of precautionary management."
The MSC argues that the less than one per cent of
krill is under fishing pressure.
The report also takes issue with the way the
council's eco-labels adorn fish that have
undergone serious declines.
The U.S. trawl fishery for pollock in the eastern
Bering Sea is the largest certified fishery, with
an annual catch of one million tonnes. "It was
certified in 2005, and recommended for
recertification this summer, despite the fact
that the spawning biomass of those pollock fell
by 64 per cent between 2004 and 2009," the report
"Similar declines in biomass" have occurred in
Pacific hake, the report says, noting that the
hake "was certified in 2009 despite a population
decline of 89 per cent since a peak in the late
The researchers say "certification should not be
granted until a fishery is shown to be actually
The council acknowledges the hake and pollock
have seen "declines" but insist the fisheries
deserve certification. "The stock is rebuilding
and continued improvements in Alaska pollock
biomass is expected as favourable conditions
prevail," said Mike DeCesare, director of MSC
communications in North America.
The council was created in 1997 by the World
Wildlife Fund and Unilever, one of the world's
largest seafood retailers. It has certified 94
fisheries which account for about seven per cent
of the global catch, including several in
It is now assessing 118 more fisheries, including
the Antarctic toothfish, which is sold as Chilean
sea bass. Many environmental groups oppose
certification of the toothfish, and with good
reason, says the Nature report: "Almost nothing
is known about this fish: no eggs or larvae have
even been collected."
Jacquet, Pauly and their colleagues are calling
on the council to adopt more stringent standards,
crack down on its "arguably loose interpretation"
of sustainability, and alter its process "to
avoid a potential financial incentive to certify
If the current certification "scheme" doesn't
undergo "major reform" they say, there are
"better, more effective ways" to spend the MSC's
$13 million-a-year budget, such as eliminating
harmful fisheries subsidies, or creating
marine-protected areas. Such measures could "have
a real impact on the water," said Jacquet.
She said the reality is that there is not enough
seafood to meet the current global appetite.
Consumers need to accept the need to "scale back
on consumption," she said, and at the same time
"hassle" politicians and industry to take
concrete steps to better protect fisheries.
At Capers, the staff selling fish under the MSC
label referred queries to Vicki Foley, in public
relations at Whole Foods Market, which owns
Capers. Foley did not return calls before
deadline. A salesclerk said that Capers is no
longer selling supplements made from krill
because of "ethical" concerns. But she said she
could special-order the krill supplements if
customers want to buy them.
DeCesare, at the MSC, said the report in Nature
is the "personal opinion" of the authors. The
council, he said, bases its certification on
"rigorous and independent science."
"There is no question that improvements in the
MSC standard will continue to enhance its
effectiveness," DeCesare said by email. "But the
facts also demonstrate there is no question that
for more than a decade the MSC, along with its
many partners, has been contributing
significantly to environmental progress around
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