What Is The Marine Stewardship Council?

by Finlay Procter

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an independent non-profit organisation that seeks to set a recognised standard for sustainable fishing and therefore limit overfishing in the ocean’s wild fisheries [1]. Established in 1996 through a collaboration between the World-Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Unilever, and inspired by the 1994 collapse in the Newfoundland cod population, the MSC issues a widely recognised ‘blue-tick’ label for seafood products that are determined to be sustainable [2]. 

How does MSC certification work?

In order to be sold with a blue label, seafood products have to pass two separate MSC Standards. As part of the MSC Fisheries Standard, fisheries are assessed by accredited independent certifiers. Every fishery must meet three core principles to achieve certification: 1) there must be an adequate and sustainable fish population that remains productive and healthy; 2) the fisheries’ environmental impact must be minimal; and 3) certified fisheries must be effectively managed, complying with local laws and being able to adapt to changing environmental circumstances [3]. 

As part of the MSC Chain of Custody Standard, seafood products must be handled sustainably ‘from ocean to plate.’ Globalised supply chains can be very complicated, and thus every company within that supply chain must have a valid Chain of Custody certificate. Five principles are assessed during this certification process: 1) companies must purchase certified products from certified suppliers; 2) certified products must be clearly identifiable; 3) certified products must be separated from non-certified products across the supply chain; 4) certified products must be traceable, with volumes recorded; and 5) companies must have a good management system that addresses the requirements of the Standard [4].

Theory of Change

The MSC argues that this certification approach can protect the productivity and biodiversity of ocean ecosystems through their Theory of Change [5]. The Theory of Change suggests that if retailers and restaurants choose MSC certified sustainable seafood, consumers will preferentially purchase seafood with the blue MSC label [6]. This in turn would increase market demand for MSC certified products, and accordingly more businesses will choose to improve their practices in accordance with MSC Standards. Therefore, by working with fisheries, suppliers, and retailers, the MSC can encourage a more sustainable seafood market. 

Does the MSC work?

The principal question remaining is whether the MSC has achieved its aim to create a more sustainable market for seafood products. Does the MSC, and its certification process and accompanying Theory of Change, work? 

Without a discernible global fishing authority, the MSC approach is more effective than an anarchic system. Ruth Westcott of the environmental alliance Sustain argues that ‘in the absence of governments looking after our oceans, “the MSC is definitely the best we’ve got” in terms of consumer labels’ [7]. As of 2016, there are over 20,000 seafood products available with the MSC label, and over 280 fisheries have met the sustainability criteria of the MSC Fisheries Standard [8]. The MSC’s use of DNA barcoding has reduced species mislabelling to less than 1% amongst certified products, compared to the industry average of 30% [9]. Sustainable fishing practices in MSC certified fisheries have led to substantial recoveries in some severely depleted fish populations, for example Patagonian Toothfish and Namibian Hake [10, 11].

However, the MSC has faced criticism in recent times [12]. Questions have been raised about the impartiality of its independent certifiers, its enforcement practices, its funding systems, and its actual impact on fish populations [13]. More than 50% of the MSC’s revenue now comes from label licensing fees, and many have argued that this has created a conflict of interest, as the MSC is now financially incentivised to get larger businesses, that may not otherwise meet the sustainability criterion, certified. Furthermore, the MSC has been accused of certifying fisheries with high levels of ‘bycatch’ of endangered marine animals such as sharks, turtles and cetaceans [7].

With appetites for seafood increasing globally, it is more important than ever to ensure that fishing practices do not threaten marine biodiversity [14]. Whether the MSC fulfills this need to any meaningful extent is a debate well beyond the scope of this article, and worthy of much further analysis. 


[1] MSC, ‘Oceans at Risk’, URL: https://www.msc.org/what-we-are-doing/oceans-at-risk [Accessed 09 Dec 2021].

[2] Zwerdling, D. & Williams, M., (2013), ‘Is Sustainable-Labelled Seafood Really Sustainable?’, URL: https://www.npr.org/2013/02/11/171376509/is-sustainable-labeled-seafood-really-sustainable [Accessed 09 Dec 2021].

[3] MSC, ‘The MSC Fisheries Standard’, URL: https://www.msc.org/standards-and-certification/fisheries-standard [Accessed 08 Dec 2021].

[4] MSC, ‘The MSC Chain of Custody Standard’, URL:  https://www.msc.org/standards-and-certification/chain-of-custody-standard [Accessed 08 Dec 2021].

[5] MSC, ‘Our Approach’, URL: https://www.msc.org/what-we-are-doing/our-approach [Accessed 08 Dec 2021].

[6] Sustainable Brands, (2016), ‘Majority of Global Seafood Consumers Putting Sustainability Concerns Over Price, Brand’, URL: https://sustainablebrands.com/read/stakeholder-trends-and-insights/majority-of-global-seafood-consumers-putting-sustainability-concerns-over-price-brand [Accessed 10 Dec 2021].

[7] McVeigh, K., (2021), ‘Blue ticked off: The controversy over the MSC fish label’, The Guardian, URL: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jul/26/blue-ticked-off-the-controversy-over-the-msc-fish-ecolabel [Accessed 09 Dec 2021].

[8] MSC, ‘Our Collective Impact’, URL: https://www.msc.org/what-we-are-doing/our-collective-impact[Accessed 10 Dec 2021].

[9] Smithers, R., (2021), ‘Fake hake: species frauds deterred by sustainability standards study finds’, The Guardian’, URL:  https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/mar/19/fake-hake-species-frauds-deterred-by-sustainability-standards-study-finds [Accessed 10 Dec 2021].

[10] MSC, (2018), ‘Back on the menu: How smarter fishing practices, improved management and MSC certification have transformed toothfish’s fortunes’, URL:  http://patagonian-toothfish-story.msc.org/?_ga=2.207283091.1881835424.1639323723-1010918991.1638984466 [Accessed 09 Dec 2021].

[11] MSC, (2020), ‘A sustainable and bright future for Namibian hake’, URL: https://www.msc.org/media-centre/news-opinion/news/2020/11/17/a-sustainable-and-bright-future-for-namibian-hake [Accessed 09 Dec 2021].

[12] Wijen, F., & Chiroleu-Assouline, M., (2019), ‘Controversy over Voluntary Environmental Standards: A Socioeconomic Analysis of the Marine Stewardship Council’, Organisation and Environment, URL:  https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1086026619831449 [Accessed 08 Dec 2021].

[13] Stokstad, E., (2011), ‘Seafood Eco-Label Grapples With Challenge of Proving Its Impact’, Science, URL: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.334.6057.746 [Accessed 10 Dec 2021].

[14] Boonstra, W.J., Österblom, H., (2014), ‘A chain of fools: or, why it is so hard to stop overfishing’, Maritime Studies, 13:15, URL: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/81267024.pdf [Accessed 08 Dec 2021]. 
Categories Biodiversity

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