Putting the MSC on the hook for
certifying unsustainable fishing

On The Hook launched in August 2017 to address growing concerns amongst many conservationists, academics and ocean advocates that the Marine Stewardship Council ecolabelling program was, and is, failing to deliver its goal of ‘oceans teeming with life’.

On The Hook is now calling on the Marine Stewardship Council to undertake a full independent review of its Standard and operations.

Our story

We believe that the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) ecolabelling scheme could and should be a force for good. As a market-based incentive for sustainable fishing, the MSC was intended to cut through and deliver real change on the water quicker than could be achieved through governmental action.

However, its certification process is increasingly being exposed as a weak indicator of ‘sustainability’. To this day, the MSC continues to certify highly damaging industrial fishing practices, while remaining inaccessible to many small-scale developing world fisheries, and concerns about certified fisheries range from habitat damage and bycatch to human rights abuses.

On The Hook launched in August 2017, bringing together NGOs, academics, industry, politicians and many other ocean advocates to call for reform to aspects of the MSC Standard relating to MSC-certified tuna fisheries.  Our work initially focussed largely on MSC-certified tuna fisheries, specifically the 2018 recertification of the world’s largest tuna fishery – the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) fishery. 

We contested this certification on the basis that the PNA was a ‘compartmentalised’ fishery. This meant that a fishing vessel and crew could use the same fishing gear one day to fish tuna sustainability, receiving the MSC certification, and then on the same trip also be hauling up turtles, sharks, juvenile tuna and other protected species unsustainably. We were also concerned by the levels of shark finning in this fishery in the years preceding recertification.

As a result of our successful campaign, and with the help of our allies, the MSC has now banned ‘compartmentalisation’, meaning that fisheries are required to present ALL of their activities for a holistic assessment of the fishery’s overall impact.

MSC is also currently considering strengthening its requirements regarding shark finning as part of its ongoing Fisheries Standard Review.

Independent review

Although changes such as the ban on compartmentalisation and reconsideration on shark finning are certainly steps in the right direction, progress from MSC lacks teeth. The threat posed to the ocean by unsustainable fishing is existential and much more needs to be done. For this reason, in June 2021 On The Hook relaunched to call for a full, external review of the Marine Stewardship Council.

Over the course of the campaign, fundamental flaws in the MSC model have continued to expose themselves and we have been repeatedly disappointed at MSC’s lack of genuine engagement with its stakeholders and critics. Piecemeal policy change will no longer cut it and far-reaching reform is needed to retain credibility and consumer trust. It is not time to give up on the model entirely, but we remain miles from a gold-standard.

MSC’s own Fisheries Standard Review process is not proving capable of delivering the scope and scale of change needed. The process is extremely slow and only open to stakeholder input in small windows on pre-determined topics. Additionally, it is not just the Standard that needs a reset but the entire mindset, governance structure and operations of the organisation.

We believe that an external root-and-branch review is needed with the starting point being: does the current MSC model achieve what we need to see in the world? If not, why not? What are the common threads linking controversial MSC certifications? How could these be solved? In defining and sharing answers to these questions, we hope to provide MSC with a clear roadmap to proactively initiate change.

How you can help

You can let the MSC know that you want to be sure that when you buy MSC-certified fish, it comes from a fishery that only conducts sustainable fishing.

Follow us on Twitter at @OnTheHookMSC for updates and to support our campaign!

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