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The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) must step up and take its responsibilities seriously.

Overfishing and illegal fishing are destroying our Ocean and the MSC’s ‘Blue Tick’ is promoted as our best protection. The MSC claims it “works with fisheries, scientists and industry to make sure our oceans are fished sustainably and it’s easy to find and buy certified sustainable seafood”. But how trustworthy is this ‘Blue Tick’ when the MSC makes no distinction between industrial or traditional, low-impact fishing and doesn’t require a reduction in bycatch?

And what is the point of certifying seafood as ‘sustainable’ when MSC labelling doesn’t count the carbon cost of fishing?

And why, despite the MSC’s disingenuous “zero tolerance” policy on shark finning, does the MSC still certify fisheries targeting sharks? Some New Zealand fisheries continue their practice of cutting fins on board without being required to stick to the ‘Fins Naturally Attached without exceptions policy’(which is the global gold standard of best practice for shark protection), and still gain an MSC ‘Blue Tick’ certification.

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Research has shown that 83% of MSC certified catches between 2009 and 2017 were by industrial, high-impact fisheries such as bottom trawling or dredging. Both methods cause terrible damage to the marine ecosystem, it is like dragging a jumbo jet across the sea bed, this damage takes hundreds of years to regrow. The bycatch (a soft sounding fishing term used for anything that is incidentally caught, like sharks, dolphins and sea birds) from these methods is considerable, scientists have estimated that bottom trawlers in the North Sea kill about 16kg of marine animals for every kilo of sole caught. And fishing tackle cut free from industrial vessels is responsible for entangling endangered whales on migratory routes. In fact Greenpeace estimates that there’s 640,000 tonnes of commercial nets, lines and pots drifting in the Ocean – that’s a lot of ‘bycatch’ and none of this is counted by the MSC.

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The world is in a climate crisis and understanding an industry’s carbon footprint is a fundamental part of consumer choice. Industrial fishing vessels release 159 million tonnes of CO2 each year. This is equivalent to the annual amount of CO2 emitted by 40 coal-fired power plants. Fish caught by bottom trawling rank among the most emissions-intensive foods due to the fuel use requirements of dragging a heavy net across the seabed, and this is before you factor in the release of ‘blue carbon’. Blue carbon is carbon stored in seabed sediments, marine habitats and the fish caught there. When blue carbon sediments are damaged, they can switch from sinks to sources of CO2 and of methane (CH4), a much more potent greenhouse gas. Blue Carbon is also stored in marine animals, so fish taken out of the sea also add to Blue Carbon release.

If the fish go,
the carbon goes.
If the carbon goes

All this contributes to ocean acidification which is threatening to eradicate any marine life with skeletons or shells in the relatively near-term. As the MSC tells us on its website “Oceans are essential to life on Earth. They cover more than 70% of the planet’s surface, regulate its climate, and supply much of its oxygen”. The Ocean currently absorbs carbon from our air but as Ocean carbon levels increase, things change for the worse. “The ocean absorbs a quarter to more than a third of our CO2 emissions every year. So if we increase the CO2 in the water, that will diminish the ability of that part of the ocean to absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere,” explains Dr Sala, Explorer-in-Residence, National Geographic. The MSC does not count the carbon cost of fishing, nor blue carbon, when it certifies a fishery, it ignores a fishers carbon cost entirely. There are methods of fishing with a very low carbon impact but an MSC ‘blue tick’ won’t help a consumer find it.

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The MSC’s proposals to prevent shark finning remain filled with considerable weaknesses and loopholes. According to scientists, overfishing puts more than one third of all sharks and rays at risk of extinction. As apex predators, sharks play a crucial role in maintaining marine biodiversity. Yet fins from up to 73 million sharks are used in shark fin soup each year. Consumption of this luxury dish has led to overfishing of many vulnerable shark species, as well as to the inhumane practice of finning. Shark finning is the process of slicing off a sharks’ fins and discarding the rest of the still-living animal into the ocean where it sinks to the bottom and dies a slow painful death. And yet despite the MSC’s disingenuous and so-called “zero tolerance” policy on shark finning, the MSC still gives a free pass to some New Zealand fisheries engaged with shark finning by not requiring them to stick to a ‘Fins Naturally Attached’ without exceptions policy, the global gold standard of best practice for shark protection, in order for them to gain their ‘Blue Tick’ certification. Consequently, some consumers may be unknowingly eating MSC-certified seafood that has been caught in fisheries where sharks are caught unsustainably and inhumanely finned to supply Chinese markets with shark fin soup.

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There is ample evidence that fisheries who engage in destructive and unsustainable fishing practices attain MSC certification and recertification. The global public places enormous trust in the MSC’s ‘Blue Tick’. This trust has been breached. There are fundamental flaws in the MSC model – like conflicts of interest, an insufficiently holistic approach to assessment and a lack of willingness to genuinely engage with stakeholders. Ocean Rebellion joins NGOs in calling for the MSC to recognise it must act now and enact substantial reforms to regain credibility. The MSC must provide genuine stewardship of the marine environment, and stop operating in service to industrial fishing as a seafood cash cow.

Ocean Rebellion demands:

The MSC goes beyond its current position as a ‘resource manager’ for industrial fishing and becomes an honest trust mark for low impact fishing, fishing that will allow the Ocean, and fish stocks, to stabilise and begin to rejuvenate after decades of overfishing and neglect.

The MSC must measure the carbon cost of a fishery within its certification scheme, without this measure of ‘sustainability’ there is no way of comparing fishing with other food sources.

In its new ‘Fisheries Standard’ which is to be launched imminently, the MSC must stop conning consumers and implement a meaningful shark ‘Fins Naturally Attached’ policy without exemptions for all certified fisheries in line with global best practice.

The MSC should conduct a full root and branch reform of itself and its opaque business activities. This must include firing CEO Rupert Howes and removing the existing governing board (including Chairman Dr Werner Kiene) and hiring new staff to ensure that its profit-driven, pro-fishing, industry bias is changed to favour solutions that are transparent, nature-led and ecosystem based. These changes must be informed by consulting with (currently) excluded NGOs and the public.

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Rob Higgs says:
“The MSC must tell the truth about the depletion of the oceans. Many fish populations are close to extinction, even the government terminology of calling them fish stocks and describing them as ‘not yet fully fished’ implies an industrial perspective on something that we should be looking to protect as if our lives depended on it – because they do.”

Clive Russell adds:
“Once a species goes extinct it is lost forever, we should not be encouraging fishing methods that allow this to happen. But if we continue to fish on an industrial scale, with mega trawlers dragging nets the size of a jumbo jet, we will simply end up with a sea empty of fish. The MSC must also act now to save sharks by implementing a ‘Fins Naturally Attached’ policy across all fisheries that it certifies, without exceptions.”

Roc Sandford says:
“We have eaten almost all of the wild protein on the land, we are now on track to do the same to the oceans. This means we will leave them empty and depleted of the fish that once swam freely. We must end bottom trawling and industrial fishing now to give fish populations a chance to recover. Because of the carbon stored by marine organisms, marine biodiversity breakdown and the climate emergency are more or less the same thing. We can’t solve one without the other, and killing off the oceans will end any realistic chance of saving the climate and our societies.”


Take part in our supermarket ‘unsustainable fishing’ certification scheme:

Join the EU Stop Shark Finning campaign:


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