By: Our Correspondent

Signs are that all is not well in the land of eco-labeling, especially
when it comes to fish. Last month, Jennifer Jacquet and Daniel Pauly of
the University of British Columbia Fisheries Center and four other
scientists published an opinion piece in Nature ("Seafood stewardship in crisis,")claiming
that the Marine Stewardship Council, the leading organization for
certifying sustainable wild-capture fisheries, is "failing on its
promise" to provide a label for sustainable products consumers can trust
to "promote the best environmental choices in seafood."

Along with
the Forest Stewardship Council, the Marine Stewardship Council is
frequently cited as a successful example of cooperation between an
environmental NGO and the private sector. Established in 1999 by the
World Wildlife Fund and British-Dutch food giant Unilever, MSC became an
independent non-profit organization in 1999. Nearly one in four adults
in the USA, Canada, UK, Germany, France and Japan now recognize MSC's
"blue check" eco-label, up from 9 percent in 2008, according to a study
by AMR Marketing Research.

Jacquet and Pauly's criticism consists of five points:

1.
The MSC's "third party" certification system creates potential
conflicts of interest because lenient certifiers might expect to receive
more work performing assessments and the required annual audits.
Moreover, when objections are filed, the case is referred to an
independent adjudicator whose role is not "to review the subject fishery
against MSC principles and criteria but to determine whether the
certification body made an error."

2. The MCS re-certified the
US trawl fishery for pollack in the Eastern Bering Sea, with an annual
catch of 1 million tons, "despite the fact that the spawning biomass …
fell by 64 percent between 2004 and 2009." Jacquet and Pauly claim that
similar declines have occurred in other MSC fisheries, including Pacific
hake.

3. In 2009, an MSC-accredited assessor recommended
certification of Austral Fisheries' and Australian Longline's Heard and
McDonald Islands (HIMI) fishery for the Antarctic toothfish. Little is
known about the life cycle and biology of the toothfish, which is
marketed as Chilean sea bass. Activists from the Antarctic and Southern
Ocean Coalition, a Washington D.C. based environmental group, filed
objections to the certification.

Last week, however, the MSC
announced that the HIMI toothfish fishery will enter the full assessment
process. The assessment covers two longliners and a trawler responsible
for an annual catch of more than 2,500 tons, which is primarily sold to
markets in the US, Japan and China.

4. Last May, MSC certified
the Antarctic krill fishery for Oslo-based Aker Biomarine, which
harvested 8,600 tonnes of krill for the aquaculture market during the
first half of 2010. Antarctic krill, a shrimp-like crustacean in the
Southern Ocean and the Ross Sea, have estimated biomass of over 500
million tons. Krill are a major food source for whales, seals, penguins,
squid and fish.

Although the stewardship council says less than 1
percent of krill stocks are currently under pressure, critics cite a
2004 paper in Nature showing that krill populations have been
declining, possibly because of climate change — krill larvae feed on
algae growing on the underside of sea ice, but the extent of sea ice
coverage in the Antactic is rapidly diminishing. Total catch this season
is expected to be 150-180,000 tons, an increase of about 40 percent
over last year.

However, the most important issue, according to
Jacquet and Pauly, is that most of the krill is intended for fishmeal to
feed factory-farmed fish, pigs and chickens so it cannot be regarded as
responsible or sustainable. The Washington DC based Pew Environment
Group has objected to certification. However, current MSC assessment
rules do not consider the end use of a product.

5. Jacquet and
Pauly say MSC is biased toward larger, capital-intensive fisheries and
neglects small-scale fisheries using selective, low-impact technologies
such as hook-and-line fishing, which they claim make up only a tiny
percentage of MSC certified fisheries. They note that for products such
as coffee in the Fairtrade scheme, "certification is available only to
cooperatives of small producers; large plantations are not eligible."
They also call for better representation from the developing world on
MSC's board of directors.

Without reforms, Jacquet and Pauly
conclude, the donor funds that currently go to support MSC would be
better used "lobbying to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies, or
creating marine protected areas."

Last January, the WWF and the
global management consulting company Accenture issued a report on seven
fishery certification schemes against a set of WWF criteria focused on
their effectiveness in addressing the health of fisheries and oceans.
None of the seven seafood certification and eco-labelling schemes
received a perfect score across all criteria, but the MSC received the
highest weighted average score (95.63 percent), followed by Naturland
(64.56 percent) and Milan-based Friend of the Sea (55.83 percent).

But
Jacquet and Pauly are not MSC's only critics. Their own article notes
that Greenpeace, the Pew Environment Group and some national branches of
WWF have protested over various MSC procedures and certifications.
Daniel Pauly is an expert on over-fishing and project leader of the Sea
Around Us Project. He was an advisor to the MSC during its formation and
has gone up against MSC before. In 2009, he accused the MSC of bending
to pressure from the Walton Family Foundation and Wal-Mart to certify
"reduction fisheries" that raise wild-capture fish in fish farms,
feeding them ground-up fish.

MSC also came under criticism last
January for certifying British Columbia's sockeye salmon fishery at a
time when stocks in both the Fraser and Skeena Rivers were seen to be in
serious decline, but Kerry Coughlin, MSC Regional Director for the
Americas, defended the organization's approach, noting that the MSC
process focuses on how a fishery is managed, not at how stocks and
biomass vary from year to year. "The closure of all fishing in the
Fraser last year was a sign of appropriate management," Coughlin
explained. "In an unsustainable fishery, fishing would have been allowed
to continue."

It is not unusual in the world of conservation
and environmental work for the perfect to become the enemy of the merely
good. Fisheries management is hardly an exact science, and it is
unrealistic to expect that all well-managed fisheries run on sound
principles of sustainability should be immune to downward fluctuations
in biomass.

One can hope the MSC will seriously consider the
points made by Jacquet and Pauly regarding potential conflicts of
interest for assessors and— if there are excessive risks — take
appropriate steps to minimize them. The assessment process for the Heard
and MacDonald Islands Antarctic Toothfish fishery will clearly be an
important test case.

The Convention for the Conservation of
Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which governs Antarctic fishing, has
classified this as an exploratory fishery and limited the take to a
precautionary catch level of 3.47 million tons in the Atlantic-bordering
sections of the Southern Ocean. The objective is to collect information
needed to make it possible manage this fishery in the future, but some
critics believe that the maximum annual limits should be reduced,
particularly now that Norway is operating three ships and China is
expected to rapidly increase its krill fishing fleet.

"If China
starts fishing in a big way, catch will expand rapidly, outstripping our
ability to orderly manage it," said Steve Nicol, a marine ecologist
with the Australian Antarctic Division in Tasmania, quoted in
Schiermeier's Nature News piece on Antarctic krill fishing cited above.

For
MSC, the key question is not whether this fishery will be certified,
but whether the assessment process will be open and comprehensive,
taking into account of our so far limited understanding of these large,
deep-water fish predators, and also whether the review will be seen as
objective and reasonable by the fishing industry as well as
conservationists, some of whom understandably view the toothfish as
another Orange Roughy disaster in the making.

We can also look
forward to the results of a detailed analysis of the environmental
impacts that have resulted from the first ten years of MSC's fisheries
certification programs that MSC has just commissioned fisheries
consultancy IMRAG Ltd. to undertake MSC has just commissioned fisheries
consultancy IMRAG Ltd.

But two of Jacquet and Pauly's criticisms
seem less than reasonable. Both the practical implications and the
ethics of using fish meal to feed domestic food animals are matters of
contentious debate. MSC's mission and responsibility correctly focuses
on "recognizing and rewarding sustainable fishing practices, influencing
the choices people make when buying seafood, and working with our
partners to transform the seafood market to a sustainable basis" It
should not be distracted from this focus by being required to evaluate
enduse issues, matters that should be addressed elsewhere.

Krill
is used for direct human consumption in both Japan and Russia. Should
the proportion of the end-products of a fishery that are used for direct
human consumption be considered as criteria for sustainability?

The
second questionable point relates to their charge that MSC assessments
are biased against small-scale fisheries using low-impact techniques,
and suggestion that MSC should copy Fair Trade's practice of restricting
certification to cooperatives of small coffee producers.

MSC
needs to provide access to small-scale artisanal fisheries and address
the issue of costs for assessments and audits that effectively restrict
smaller players, but without relaxing its sustainability criteria. But
as long as exploitable fish stocks still remain anywhere in the world —
and how long that will be is an open question — large-scale capital
intensive fishing operations will continue to account for a large
proportion of global wild capture fisheries. Suggesting that large-scale
fisheries and fleets willing to operate responsibly and sustainably
should be arbitrarily excluded from participating in the leading
certification scheme isn't just missing the point — it would be utter
folly.

Eliminating harmful subsidies to fisheries and creating
more marine protected areas are both crucially important to halt or
slown the rapid decline in world fish stocks. But helping consumers make
responsible decisions about seafood consumption and supporting
fisheries which practice sustainable management are also vital to
achieving that goal. If there are weaknesses or problems with the MSC's
assessment process, they should be fixed. But in the short span of ten
years, the Marine Stewardship Council has made immense contributions to
saving our oceans, and deserves our full support.

This is condensed from Robert Delfs' blog, Images & Words.