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Choosing the best fish to eat can be complicated. In many cases, the more you know, the more questions arise: Is this wild or farmed? Local or imported? Produced in an environmentally responsible way? High in mercury? Tainted with antibiotics and chemicals?
In light of these questions, there is a demand for straightforward guidance on seafood. To address the sustainability questions surrounding fish, a number of certification programs have developed sets of standards and labels to evaluate and then market “environmentally friendly” or “sustainably produced” fish. But what do these labels really mean? We examined various seafood certification programs and unfortunately, these labels do not always represent what you might expect.
Marine Stewardship Council:
Although MSC has relatively easy-to-read standards, their readability does not prevent them from being associated with a host of concerns, and in many places, the standards are ambiguous. As discussed previously, the cost of certification to MSC came close to preventing even Alaskan salmon, some of the best-managed fisheries, from entering the recertification process. The criteria do not specifically prevent use of any gear type except explosives and poisons – allowing fisheries associated with high bycatch and seafloor damage to be certified. One example of this is Alaskan pollock – a fish that is caught with industrial trawls.
Although MSC does allow for a comment period when a fishery is up for certification, the Alaskan Ocean Program concluded after a drawn-out challenge to the 2005 pollock certification that its “objection process is not legitimate.” In another example, certification of New Zealand hoki was adamantly opposed by Forest and Bird New Zealand because the fishery was accused of causing many fur seal and seabird deaths. Despite these concerns, certification was granted and then recertified, providing evidence that the MSC certification does not always indicate whether other animals that may interact with the fishery are being protected.
As for carbon footprint, MSC does not address this issue in their scoring criteria.
MSC has certified several sardine and herring fisheries, and other forage fisheries are under consideration. These types of fish are processed into fishmeal and fish oil for use in various products, including animal feed. Depleting forage fish stocks can damage marine food webs and negatively impact food security in developing countries.
MSC has even certified the Antarctic krill fishery. Krill is a small crustacean used to make pharmaceuticals and feed for farmed fish and terrestrial animals. Certification of the Antarctic krill fishery is extremely concerning because the creature is believed to already be experiencing significant adverse ecological impacts as a result of climate change. Because the MSC allows fisheries that do not meet all standards to be certified and labeled, it allows problematic fisheries to ride on the eco-friendly reputation of more sustainable fisheries in the program – this is referred to as the “free-rider” problem. Last, but certainly not least, MSC does not meet all the FAO standards for the eco-labeling of wild fish.
Friend of the Sea (Standards for Wild Fish):
FOS promotes itself as a low-cost alternative to MSC certification and is unique in its attention to a fishery’s carbon footprint. However, certification programs with lower costs (that entail, in the case of FOS evaluation, reliance on existing studies) may not be scientifically rigorous, and FOS’s approach to addressing a fishery’s carbon footprint involves the purchase of carbon offsets, which are highly controversial in terms of efficacy. Though the program does not explicitly ban harmful gear types like industrial trawls, it does not appear to have certified any factory trawl finfish fisheries as of December 2010.
The criteria that FOS relies upon for evaluation are predominantly qualitative, rather than quantitative, which makes them somewhat ambiguous. Additionally, FOS does not require a peer review after initial evaluation, which leaves little room for meaningful stakeholder participation or public comment.
Of significant concern, FOS has certified a fish oil corporation, Omega Protein Corporation. Omega Protein catches the vast majority of the nation’s menhaden, a small filter-feeding fish that is a critical part of the food chain and is believed to play an important role in coastal water filtration. Omega claims to be the “world’s largest producer of omega-3 fish oil and North America’s largest manufacturer of protein-rich fishmeal.”
Although FOS does not appear to create as much of a free-rider situation as MSC, it is likely that there are in fact wide disparities in the sustainability of certified fisheries, due to the qualitative nature of the certification process. Finally, the label is not congruent with all FAO standards for the eco-labeling of wild fish.
International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organization’s Global Standards for Responsible Supply:
The biggest concern with this certification program is the very nature of the fisheries it certifies: fisheries that take small fish or crustaceans that serve as the base of the marine food web and some serve as a key source of protein in food insecure countries.
The IFFO’s requirements generally state that the “fishing gear and fishing practices do not have a significant impact on non-target species and the physical environment,” but do not spell out how this will be measured; nor does IFFO indicate that it bans gear-types associated with higher instances of negative ecological impacts.
The cost of certification to the IFFO’s GSRS is somewhat less expensive than MSC’s but certification lasts for 3 years (as compared with MSC’s 5 years). However, the program is focused on large fisheries and companies, so exclusion based on cost is not as much of a concern here: many of these companies are financially strong.
Other concerns include: the GSRS program, which is intended as a business-to-business label, does not involve significant public input. The standards invoke the precautionary principle, and say that endangered and protected species should be considered, but do not include specific standards for protecting marine animals, and the issue of a fishery’s carbon footprint is not addressed in the company’s criteria for certification. The label is not congruent with all FAO standards for wild fish.
Best Aquaculture Practices:
Table 2 Notes
*Because Global Trust’s standards are not available to the public, it was not possible to verify whether certain concerns apply. Its failing grade on antibiotics and FCR are an assumption based on its certification of one salmon farm.
**Because the Aquaculture Stewardship Council has not yet issued certifications, several of these categories are not yet determined. Because standards are being created separately for different species, different conditions may apply to each species. The issues with mangrove systems and free-riders are problems expected to arise based on Aquaculture Dialogue standards as currently written.
Friend of the Sea (Standards for Farmed Fish):
FOS does ban GE fish and growth hormones, but does not prohibit antibiotics used in fish farming. Like the criteria for wild fish, those for farmed fish are lacking in numerical, quantifiable standards. No peer review of certification decisions is required, which limits the opportunity for stakeholder dialogue and public input. While the standards call for “evidence of a decreasing FCR [feed conversion ratio],” which is a number representing the ratio of the amount of fish that are fed to the farmed fish, in order to produce a pound of farmed fish, no numerical limits are set in FOS’s criteria. This means that large amounts of fishmeal or fish oil (produced from the reduction of wild forage fish) might be used on certified farms. The standards call for “social accountability” but it is unclear what measures FOS takes to ensure that human and worker rights are respected on the farms it certifies.
Global Trust Certifications, Ltd:
Distribution of the Global Trust Certification, Ltd’s standards is controlled, and interested members of the public must fill out a licensing agreement to gain access to them. Cleary, the standards are severely lacking in transparency and public input. Because GTC has certified at least one large salmon farm, it may be assumed that the standards do not prohibit antibiotic use or require limits on wild fish in feed that would meet this report’s qualifications for sustainability. For example, Cooke Aquaculture, which is certified by GTC, has faced widespread community opposition at some of its sites. Criticisms have stemmed from this company’s use of a risky experimental pesticide in the open water, apparent water pollution, and attempts to dramatically expand production despite such opposition from local residents.
Aquaculture Stewardship Council:
Because the ASC is not yet fully functional as of the time of publication, any concerns associated with this certification program remain to be seen. The program will be using separate guidelines for each species, so concerns may be specific to individual types of seafood. One issue that can already be anticipated is the “free-rider” problem. ASC will take the approach of certifying just at the above-average level of environmental performance, similar to MSC, thus allowing products from less-than-sustainable operations to earn the same label as the most sustainable options carrying the same label. Mangrove Action Project and other groups have already challenged the ASC for intent to “support industrial aquaculture and harm local environments and indigenous communities.” Another concern associated with the ASC is that it will support the emergence of the open water finfish industry. The Aquaculture Dialogues, which are creating standards for the ASC to use, are already discussing standards for U.S. production of salmon, seriola and cobia, which currently are commercially produced primarily in open water fish farms.
Read the full report: De-Coding Seafood Eco-Labels: Why We Need Public Standards
Get seafood recommendations: Smart Seafood Guide