Scientists: The Marine Stewardship Council “is failing to protect the environment and needs radical reform”

Are MSC-certified ‘sustainable fisheries’ in fact unsustainable?

Small fisheries that use highly selective, low-impact techniques, such as hook-and-line fishing or hand picking, are often sustainable, but make up only a tiny fraction of MSC-certified fisheries.

As part of ClimateProgress’s effort to focus attention on the grave threat to ocean life, today’s guest blogger is marine-biologist-turned-filmmaker, Randy Olson.

Fisheries economist Jennifer Jacquet and a team of A-list marine biologists today took the Marine Stewardship Council out behind the woodshed and left it limping away with a sore posterior. It came in the form of an Opinion piece in Nature appropriately titled, “Seafood Stewardship in Crisis.”

Jennifer is my former co-blogger (we ran a blog called Shifting Baselines for a couple of years before I got too swamped and she morphed it into her feisty Guilty Planet blog). Her essay shows the world just how big the stick of the science voice can be. She has teamed up with four of the most accomplished marine biologists in the world for a message that has to have hit the Marine Stewardship Council like a 7.0 earthquake.

For starters, just look at the team of co-authors she assembled to back her up on the paper. If you take an introductory course in fisheries biology, one of the first things you learn about is the “Beverton-Holt Model” for population growth of commercial fish species. They published it in 1957. It is part of the firmament of fisheries biology. Beverton died in 1995. Sidney Holt is long since retired. But that tells you how important this paper is — he’s come out of retirement to add his name to the list of authors.

Daniel Pauly is the Director of the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Center and a long time firebrand in the fisheries world with his book “In a Perfect Ocean.” He coined the term, “shifting baselines,” in the mid-90’s to deal with the tendency of fisheries corporations to forget/erase their past. Jeremy Jackson is a historical ecologist who’s 2001 Science paper on needing to know the history of coastal ecosystems in order to understand their collapse was a landmark in ecosystem management. And Paul Dayton is the longest serving member of the Marine Mammal Commission. They are all in their mid to late 60’s and are some of the most powerful voices of seniority and experience when it comes to understanding the population biology of marine organisms.

And what the paper says is that the happy, happy, joy, joy Marine Stewardship Council that was created in 1997 to help everyone feel better about decimating the world’s fish populations, has (big surprise) lost it’s way. The graph they present [above] shows how shortly after M.S.C. formed a partnership with Wal-Mart in 2006 (where Wal-Mart agreed to sell only MSC-certified species) the number of fisheries certified skyrocketed.

The authors question a wide range of moves by the M.S.C. such as certifying as sustainable the Alaskan pollock fishery — a species which saw a 64% decline in it’s spawning biomass from 2004 to 2009. How can that be sustainable, they ask. Same for Pacific hake which has declined by 89% since the 1980’s.

The first sentence of their essay says, “A growing number of consumers want to eat seafood without guilt.” That is a lot of what it’s all about. Everyone loves seafood. Nobody wants to feel guilty about depleting the world’s fish stocks in what is the last major form of wildlife harvesting on the planet (we gave up on things like buffalo long ago when the inevitable outcome happened — they vanished).

The article ends on a soft note by saying, “The MSC can still fulfil its promise to represent””as it claims, “the best environmental choice””if it undergoes major reform.”

They offer a lot of specific recommendations such as looking at the Forest Stewardship Council which has 5 of 9 board members from developing countries where MSC has none of it’s 13 board members from developing countries. They also question the amount of money going into the program versus supporting smaller, inherently more sustainable fisheries and the creation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

So it’s not a total scorched earth attack — just a very loud warning from the science world to, “get your act together.”

Moreover, it is “the voice of science,” at its best.

Update: The Marine Stewardship Council has posted a response on their website that is as long as the original article.  It also seems fairly limp — more of a “here’s our version” presentation rather than, “they’ve got it wrong” (pretty hard to argue with the facts).  Rumor has it they tried to label the authors as “activists” to the folks at Nature, but isn’t that the name that gets hurled at anyone with a brain who disagrees with you these days?

— Randy Olson is the writer-director of the feature films, “Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus,” and “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy.” He was previously a tenured professor of marine biology. Last year he synthesized his two careers with his book, “Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style” from Island Press.

Related Posts:


12 Responses to Scientists: The Marine Stewardship Council “is failing to protect the environment and needs radical reform”

  1. fj2 says:

    Yes, there has to be incredible focus on the value and tremendous services provided by the natural environment.

    This is how we will succeed in reinventing civilization to survive despite itself, perhaps even quite comfortably if we start the healing process soon enough, with great intelligence and sense of purpose.

  2. homunq says:

    Sure, the message of science is loud and clear. And it is certainly in the long term interest of those involved – how much money would the MFC make if there were no fish? But the positions of power are held by people with short-term views.

    Sure, I’d bet on the necessary change happening in time. Because I’ve already bet on it, just by getting born on this planet. But I don’t actually think the odds are so, um, hot.

  3. Colorado Bob says:

    Rain for the June-to-August winter was below average for much of the state’s southwest and was the second-driest on record for Perth, according to the bureau.

  4. Colorado Bob says:

    Rising night time temperatures made this record possible –

    Houston weathers its hottest recorded month
    August average of 87.8 degrees beat highs set in 1980 and 1962

  5. This was one of the best rainfall years in Serbia, the water temperature was between 20 and 22 degrees Celsius, fishermen have complained that this year was especially small fish.

  6. Michael T says:

    Interesting story on yahoo from

    Mass Extinction Threat: Earth on Verge of Huge Reset Button?

  7. Michael T says:

    Another story from the AFP/Yahoo:

    “Disasters ‘scream’ call for climate action: UN”

  8. Michael Tucker says:

    Yes! We are living in an ongoing mass extinction event right now! For years biologists have called it loss of biodiversity but many are now characterizing it as a mass extinction.

    “New research by Macquarie University palaeobiologist, Dr John Alroy, predicts major changes to the rules of evolution…”

    “Alroy’s findings indicate that as a result of a range of factors, the major extinction event currently underway will be much more severe than has been seen in most other major periods of mass extinction. Alroy notes there have been only three mass extinctions on the level of the current one in the last half billion years.”

  9. BillD says:

    Sustainable fisheries is a very important issue. However, the graph with post is confusing and potentially misleading. Surely, catches have not shown such explosive growth over this decade. The graph must be based on changes in the classification of catches, not changes in the catches themselves.

  10. Leland Palmer says:

    With plankton levels falling by 40%, we probably need to stop fishing and whaling at all.

    We could probably still eat fish farmed seafood, so long as the effluent from those operations does not harm the oceans to any great extent.

    Regarding mass extinctions, we of course are in one right now.

    It could be worse than that, of course. We could be so destabilizing the system that a major mass extinction, similar to a very compressed End Permian event will occur, and do so very, very rapidly. We may be on the brink of a methane catastrophe, perhaps the worst one in all of geological history, if current rates of change of greenhouse gases are not curtailed, and hopefully the trend reversed.

    Lovelock says “the system is in failure mode” and he should know, if anyone does.

    We could easily be so destabilizing the system that we could tip the whole thing over, and end up with a climate similar to Venus, I think, killing all life on Earth. If this is impossible, please someone tell me why. :(

    Stephen Hawking has mentioned this possibility, saying “the problem is that the heating could become self-sustaining”.

    The End Permian did apparently stabilize over a period of hundreds of thousands of years, and return a nearly barren planet to stability, via the rock weathering cycle, and oxidation of methane into CO2.

    But the sun is a couple of percent hotter, now. The fact that our planet has found stability at very low CO2 levels in the past few tens of millions of years should perhaps tell us something about where true climate stability lies, with a hotter sun.

    Conversely, if we try to mix a hotter sun with CO2 levels above 350 ppm, the result could be a truly destabilized system, perhaps- one that kills all life on earth.

  11. Randy Olson says:

    CLARIFICATION OF THE GRAPH: you’re right, it is kind of confusing if you don’t have the paper with it. Total world catch of fish is around 100 million tons. You notice this graph is only for 6 million. That’s because it’s only the portion of the world catch that the M.S.C. certifies. So it’s not saying anything about overall world catch — it’s a subset of that.

  12. _Flin_ says:

    Fishing and sustainability is a mess. Whenever any measures are proposed to ensure the seafood of the 21st century, the answer always is “that endangers jobs”. Noone has told me yet what will happen to the fishing jobs without fish.