Feature Story

Incentivising sustainable fishing through certification

June 30, 2017

hands take fish out of fish net.
Harvest controls on fishing need to be implemented where they are absent. Photo: Shutterstock.com

By Rupert Howes, CEO, The Marine Stewardship Council

Our oceans are in trouble. Acidification, plastics and other pollution, and climate change present enormous challenges, and we have little time to act to avoid pending catastrophe for humanity and marine ecosystems worldwide.

On the positive side, the sustainability of oceans and their critical role in providing food, livelihoods, climate stability and “blue growth” has been rapidly rising up the political agenda. After a lack of mainstream interest and attention, there has been an explosion in high-level ocean events and conferences.

In 2014, John Kerry, then US secretary of state, kicked off a series of Our Oceans conferences in Washington. The next will be hosted by the EU in Malta in October. The Economist held their fourth World Ocean Summit in February this year. And most recently, in June 2017, the United Nations held the Ocean Conference in New York. The event featured a call to arms to save oceans from continued decline and was billed as “the game changer that will reverse the decline in the health of our ocean for people, planet and prosperity”.

The United Nation’s sustainable development agenda with its 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), signed by 193 nations, aims to transform our world and safeguard the global commons. Although the goals are not legally binding, governments are expected to develop national frameworks to make sure they are delivered. This may be humanity’s last best chance to deliver a fundamentally more equitable and sustainable world; one that operates within ecological and planetary boundaries, with systems of production and consumption shifted onto a sustainable footing.

Using markets

There is a dedicated oceans SDG, number 14: conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources. Goal 14.4 – which is particularly relevant to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) – sets an ambitious target to regulate harvesting, end overfishing and pirate fishing, and restore fish stocks as fast as possible.

The time frame – designed to achieve all this by 2020 – is singularly ambitious, but ultimately achievable. We know what the issues are and what solutions are needed. While there is no silver bullet, I passionately believe that credible market-based programmes, like the MSC, have an important part to play.

Over the last 20 years the MSC has matured from a bold and innovative idea to a proven concept. Well-managed fisheries are rewarded by a market that is increasingly demanding sustainable and fully traceable seafood. Incentives include supplier preference for certified fisheries in existing markets, access to new ones and, for some, a price premium. Critically, other fisheries are incentivised to improve so as to achieve certification. None of this happens without the leadership of the market and the engagement of marine conservation NGOs.

Growing change

The MSC’s global impacts report (pdf) documents the growing evidence of change. MSC-certified fisheries have more stable biomass, reduced impacts and improved management through better scientific understanding, according to the report’s findings.

Certification is driving real and lasting change in the way our oceans are being fished, including the adoption of voluntary closures of fishing grounds, modifications to make fishing gear more selective, and reductions in bycatch and discards of sea birds, juvenile fish and other unwanted species.

There are now over 400 fisheries, landing nearly 12m metric tonnes of seafood annually, engaged in the MSC programme. Together they represent nearly 14% of the global wild marine harvest. Over 25,000 MSC-labelled products are now available in more than 100 countries, with consumers spending an estimated $5.2bn (£4bn) on MSC-certified seafood in 2016.

Yet this is not enough. The world needs healthy, productive and resilient marine ecosystems for food, livelihoods and climate stability. And we need to move and scale up much more quickly to have any chance of delivering SDG 14’s fisheries targets. So, the MSC has committed to engage 20% of the marine harvest in the programme by 2020 – a mere 30 months away – and over a third of global marine catch by 2030. That will be an incredible achievement, but we cannot deliver it alone.

We will need stronger deep market engagement and commitment to sourcing sustainable and traceable seafood from the retail and food services, and government action to ensure that fisheries are managed appropriately. At the very least, harvest controls on fishing need to be implemented where they are absent, and the World Trade Organization must conclude its 16 years of discussion on ending the harmful fishing subsidies that drive overfishing. We will also need action from everyone who eats seafood to demand assurances that their choices are not contributing to the oceans’ demise.

It can be done. In the last 12 months alone, sales of MSC-certified and labelled products grew by 40% in the UK. Half of British landings are now MSC-certified and four supermarket chains – Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose and Lidl – now offer over 100 individual, labelled products at all major price points. Premier Inn offers certified, sustainable and traceable seafood in its 635 hotels across the UK. And McDonalds, a long-term supporter, will only sell MSC-certified Filet-o-Fish across Europe, the US, Canada and Brazil.

The market may not be a panacea for resolving all the ills and threats facing our oceans, but it can be a driver of much-needed transformation. If we cannot fix this aspect of ocean sustainability – and there is no excuse not to do so – we have little hope of resolving climate and acidification challenges.

After all, as Karmenu Vella, the EU commissioner for environment, maritime affairs and fisheries put it: “Forests are our planet’s green lung, but oceans are its blue heart. It is now up to all of us to keep this blue heart beating.”