Posted by on June 19, 2017

Recently, I publically asked if the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certification for tuna in the Western and Central Pacific is living up to expectations. MSC had promoted the sustainability of the fishery through a Guardian article, The eco guide to tinned tuna (4 June 2017). Consumers are being urged to buy fish with the MSC blue tick because the sustainability threshold has already been achieved. Is this the case?

Restricted by the 140 character limit of our online life, I tweeted:

I intended to solicit an online discussion. To my surprise, MSC politely reached out to provide some background–a website link, and the original assessors report with conditions. It was great that they were communicative, but disappointing that the information they shared was about intention, not results.

I’ve been watching this fishery for awhile, and have read the annual assessor reports as they’ve been published. In 2012, when the fishery received the coveted blue tick, I held three concerns. The first is the level of acceptable bycatch. The second is the level of acceptable harvest and how the MSC monitor and measure that. And, equally important is who benefits–local communities or multinational companies. Incremental steps have been taken, but my concerns are still live.

Acceptable levels of bycatch

The documentation states the fishery will set their nets around free swimming schools of adult tuna, in a technique called purse seining. To meet the MSC standards, a fishery must be able to ‘demonstrate that it does not put at risk population levels of species caught incidentally (bycatch) including dolphins, other mammals and/or other endangered and threatened species’. Setting nets around free swimming tuna, and taking them one at a time, earns the fishery congratulations. Although, the assessor’s report reveals that silky shark and oceanic whitetip shark are still caught.

Levels of harvest

Pacific Island countries are globally recognised as leaders in tuna management and conservation. But, this does not mean that distant water fleets are not overharvesting the fishery. Under the MSC condition, evidence that the harvest strategy is responsive to the stocks is not available.

Who benefits

The MSC website, set up to showcase the fishery, states that around 5 percent of the 1.1 million tonnes of tuna caught in Pacific Island waters are processed by local enterprises. In 2010, to open up more opportunities for local people, the leaders of the 8 Nauru Agreement countries took the initiative to create their global marketing company for sustainable tuna, Pacifical. They intend to expand the tuna processing industry for sustainable MSC certified tuna, and establish direct relationships with retailers and end consumers.  On the surface this is great, and I commend it. What is not visible is if powerful multinational companies abide by the rules, or find ways around them undermining the local efforts.

Intent or results?

My scepticism sounds like I am undermining something inherently good. That’s not my intention. I admire the Pacific Island countries for taking up this challenge, and for standing in front, as the world-leaders they are. I have never doubted that the fishery could be sustainable, or that the local community could benefit.  My doubt is if these goals are being achieved or if they remain a dream.

Consumers are being urged to buy fish with the MSC blue tick based on the impression that the sustainability threshold has already been achieved.Yet, in many cases, the MSC branding speaks of intent, not actual results. I know MSC is fighting a chicken and egg situation–they can’t push a fishery towards sustainability if there is no market incentive. Nonetheless, the consumer is being fed a half truth.

This is still a fishery in transition. There is still bycatch of silky shark and oceanic whitetip shark. They don’t know if the levels of take are sustainable. And, the Pacific Islands are in the early stages of establishing their processing capacity.

In fact, many of the MSC certified tuna fisheries are in transition. They’ve made a commitment to do better and risk the revoking of their certification if they don’t. But, the timeline involved is often long, and the potential for significant damage in the interim remains high. Many of the assessments are built on assumptions, not hard facts. I can already hear the howls of objections from the MSC crew, but I can point to these assumptions in assessments. That I am not spelling them out here should be accepted by MSC as a measure of good faith. I don’t want to undermine the good work.

I do want transparency. Too often the market is congratulated for its intent and not held to account for its actions. The market can be a powerful tool, but market mechanisms are not perfect, and the simplified messages the promote to consumers are often misleading.

Is palm oil harvested under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil genuinely sustainable? No, it is not. It is still a mono-crop that has displaced many species and destroyed vast areas of habitat. Is it better that the free for all that existed before? Yes, it probably is. Although there are serious problems with some of the inherent assumptions in the certification process.

So, is MSC certified tuna better than the free for all in the other tuna fisheries? Yes, absolutely. And by a significant margin.  If you buy tinned tuna make sure it’s MSC certified. But, know that the management is still not perfect, and there is some distance the travel before it lives up to the blue-tick.

Continue to support the effort, but do so with your eyes wide open.