Jan 302012

Some rather troubling news for eco-labels this month with the decision by the Alaskan salmon fishing industry to withdraw from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) programme. A decade ago, Alaska salmon became the first fishery of serious scale (with due apologies to Western Australian rock lobster and Thames herring) to become MSC certified and supermarket chains dutifully snapped up this welcome sustainable alternative to its tasteless and ecologically devastating farmed cousin.  It was a great moment. Or so we thought.

The reason for the decision to leave, says the industry, is that the process of having the fishery re-certified every five years is too cumbersome and expensive. It cites a 50-year history of responsible management, and claims that there are other ways in which it can demonstrate its product’s sustainability credentials. Importantly, some seafood companies argue that the competitive advantage of certification is waning as more and more products bearing the MSC stamp hit the marketplace.

At first sight, this decision seems totally kamikaze from a commercial point of view.  Just as supermarket plans, some of which I have had a hand in designing, call for 100% certified sustainable seafood by this year or that, one of the flagship products that will them help meet those targets pulls out of the most respected certification programme around. But no industry would be stupid enough to pull out of an eco-labelling system without gauging market reaction first. Would it?

Groups like MSC spend most of their working hours being attacked. The industry complains the standards are too rigorous. Environmentalists scream they are too lax. Retailers seek clarity so they can plan for supply. Governments snooze. Certifications stall for months or even years as objections are filed, conditions are negotiated and political wrangles threaten progress at every turn.  You don’t join the MSC for an easy life, and the Alaska salmon industry (made up of some of America’s largest seafood processors) has clearly decided life in the programme is just too tricky.

In the five years during which I ran the MSC, governance rows and standoffs between conflicting parties (including those who should have been on the same side as each other) started life as irritating squabbles and ended up as one big, giant, monstrous farce. I have still never shared in public the manoeuvring and shenanigans that marked my final year at the MSC, and will not do so for fear of undermining the organisation that gave me my start in the conservation world. It would also embarrass far too many people. No-one, myself included, emerges from it unscathed. It represented the conservation movement at its most self destructive and imbecillic, fuelled by foundations spending other people’s money who should have known far better. It was an ugly period that preserved entrenched prejudices but very few fish.

There is a serious point at stake here. Although anyone at the MSC will anticipate regular tantrums from hard line conservationists and frustrated mutterings from seafood buyers and sellers in a hurry to make a profit, I certainly hadn’t banked on a (relatively) uncontroversial MSC fixture like Alaskan salmon throwing in the towel. In my day we spent hours trying to work out how to kick a fishery out of the programme so Greenpeace and others might stop thinking we were a front for the industry or a Satanic incarnation.  We failed, because there was, at the time, no compelling argument to do so. We did not spend even a second preparing for industry itself to say ‘Enough is enough – we’re leaving’. I suspect the current MSC did not either. It’s important to understand that the Alaksa salmon certification is among the least controversial and polarising of all major MSC certifications. That’s why we should be taking this development very seriously indeed. This isn’t a predictable storming out by a college candidate about to fail their exam.

The worrying thing is this sets a precedent and others may be tempted to follow. There is nothing like safety in numbers. There are even bigger fisheries in the programme with bigger complaints about the insane structures that at times make it impossible for the MSC (and other certification groups) to function effectively. And the reality is that supermarkets need high volume fisheries to supply the products they sell. Alaskan salmon is a better sustainability bet than its rivals any day. With or without a label. This is the calculation they have made. What will a retailer that delists the product replace it with? Greenpeace still refuses to support the Marine Stewardship Council, so that often welcome kick up the backside to the big chains doesn’t exist either. A good fishery is refusing to use a label granted to fisheries that everyone knows are a lot worse than Alaska salmon. It’s not a sustainable proposition, in this form. 

Some will argue that as more and more MSC products flood the marketplace it won’t matter either way, and the Alaskan salmon industry will look like ignorant and hasty rednecks for withdrawing from the programme. Time will tell. But if others follow, it will prove once and for all that the paralysis and bureaucracy inherent in the MSC’s governance (which was light touch by design until it was hijacked by those more concerned with process than outcome) is a multi million dollar death sentence, administered slowy and painfully. If not for the organisation then for the real issue at hand: sustainable seafood.  I have no doubt that the auditing the Alaska salmon industry says will replace MSC will be inferior to the system used for the last ten years. But I’d be hard pushed to tell a retailer to delist the product just because it didn’t carry the blue stamp of approval. And that is something I never thought I’d say. I’ll be watching other fisheries with great interest. Especially in Alaska.

Conservationists are right to attack bad certifications and stand up to big busines and its lobby groups. But if their gift to the oceans is the mind numbing governance that drives progressive and well managed industries away from the MSC table, it will be a poor legacy indeed. 




  3 Responses to “What Alaska’s pullout tells us about the Marine Stewardship Council”

  1. This article represents a critical opinion from an indisputably educated source. Mr. May knows the MSC better than nearly anyone else on this planet, and his views are based on information to which many others are not privy. With that in mind, perhaps the most fascinating thing about this piece is that May seems to have found AK salmon breaking ties with the MSC to be a surprise.Personally, I think that the real surprise here is that the MSC didn’t see this coming.AK salmon fisheries had been muttering about this for years. While they are certainly not perfect — and while lumping them all together under one label really doesn’t reflect the reality of how diverse they are (I’m not criticizing here, I lump them together too… I just wanted to admit that it’s probably not the most accurate thing to do) — they are leagues ahead of some of the other less defensible fisheries that have snatched up the blue-and-white check-mark lately. If I were a salmon fisherman in Alaska who was doing my best to manage a sustainable fishery with honor and foresight, why would I want to be tied up in a group that also represented Ross Sea toothfish, New Zealand hoki, longline-caught swordfish, and other dubious operations? Better yet, why would I -pay- for such a categorization?This schism with the AK salmon industry will hopefully come as a wake-up call to the MSC. Certification has the opportunity to be an incredibly important and positive part of the sustainable seafood movement — but only if the velvet rope functions effectively and those fisheries that are allowed into the program actually deserve the term "sustainable."

  2. Obviously MSC is unsustainable! At least seems like it according to one of its ex-clients anyway. Competitive business strategies are at play. Own certification is not to be sniffed at – its called branding. UK retailers have that already anyway. Third party certifications are driven by perceived marketplace desire and aspirations rather than consumer pressure. The UK retailer race accelerates towards first-to-market to lever maximum PR. Standards/certification competition abound (I can list 10). The rest of the world moves along at a different speed. As my focus is Africa the concern I have is that for African countries to enter into these sophisticated markets requires a certification (whichever) – effectively creating a barrier to entry.Of course you can always buy a certification – ´cos that´s what it is. And therein lies a great opportunity to get support/funding/development aid. It´s a good story but is certification lock in desirable for African development? Should only existing fisheries be certified or are their moves under way to expand fisheries (into new areas) in tandem with certifications?

  3. From a person on the ‘inside’ Brendan gives some good insights.Iceland as I pointed out in my blog (http://www.seafoodsource.com/blogs.aspx?id=14106&blogid=3953) made the start to this because they did not want to be bogged down with process and at the end of the day wanted their Government to show leadership by making the strong point that they would manage their resource from Iceland and not have their resource managed from another country by faceless people who continually change or break the rules to suit their own purposes and relied on charitable funding.Monopolies, money and greed are all relevant here.I bet if you could tally up all the money that has been spent in this area it would be a scary total – that money could have gone to sorting out Africa’s problems.I think and hope that this situation will now enable countries to adopt the Certification based on FAO Code and thus control their own destiny.Large buyers should support that process as it will give them the greatest choice of product for their shelves in the long term.

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