December 6, 2022
Project Director, International Fisheries Conservation – The Ocean Foundation
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has provided the leading set of sustainability standards for the seafood industry for more than 20 years. At the end of October, it officially rolled out the latest version – Fisheries Standard, version 3.0. Four years in the making, the MSC claims that v3.0 “contains significant improvements to help address some of the most difficult issues facing the oceans, including better protections for marine biodiversity and incentivising stronger ocean governance.” But unfortunately, it’s not all as rosy as the MSC may want us to believe.
First on its list of improvements are the changes to its harvest strategies requirements for international fisheries. The Standard now has an entirely new section for fisheries managed by the regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) – Section SE. Some of the new provisions will indeed hold fisheries to a higher bar. For one, Section SE can only be used, “if there is evidence that the RFMO is committed to the development of a harvest strategy that includes a management procedure (MP) tested within a management strategy evaluation (MSE) framework.” This effectively prevents any fisheries from entering MSC assessment until there’s been a formal commitment by the RFMO to do an MSE.
The second major improvement in the new standard is that certified fisheries will need to both adopt and fully implement a harvest strategy. Unlike in the previous standard, Version 3.0 requires certified fisheries to eventually achieve a perfect score of SG100 for the harvest strategy elements. This will avoid situations like skipjack in the Indian Ocean, which has kept its certification despite the fact that catches have exceeded the limit by up to 30% in every year since a harvest control rule (HCR) was adopted in 2016.
So, what’s the problem?
Unfortunately, the new standard falls short in several areas. Section SE doubles the time allowed for closing harvest strategy-related conditions from 5 years to 10 years. Currently certified fisheries will have the option to be reevaluated using Section SE and will then be given an additional 5 years to close their conditions. This option is even available to fisheries that have already been granted extensions on their harvest strategy conditions in the past. For example, in 2011, the MSC certified its first skipjack fishery in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO). Under v3.0, they will be given until at least 2028 to secure a successful harvest strategy – meaning they will remain certified despite not having a functioning harvest strategy for almost 20 years!
Last year, the MSC warned that 22 WCPO tuna fisheries were at risk of losing their certifications. This year, they gave them a reprieve in v3.0. Granted, if a fishery chooses to move to Section SE to have more time on harvest strategies, they will eventually – but not immediately – need to comply with the other elements of v3.0, including tighter restrictions on ghost fishing from lost fish aggregating devices (FADs), monitoring and surveillance, and shark finning.
Currently certified fisheries have until the May 2023 deadline to decide whether to switch to Section SE or stay with the current harvest strategy requirements found in v2.01, but it’s all or nothing by stock. If the majority of fisheries targeting a stock agree to switch, they all have to switch.
For over a decade, the MSC’s harvest strategy and harvest control rule requirements have accounted for half of the scoring on Principle 1 – Sustainable fish stocks, making the MSC a major driver for harvest strategy development. The question is now whether v3.0 will help to ensure more robust and successfully implemented harvest strategies, as the MSC asserts, or whether it will instead primarily be a driver for further delays. With several harvest strategy condition deadlines looming for key tuna stocks, that answer will soon be clear.