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On January 24th, 2013, the world’s largest fast-food company, McDonald’s, announced that it will display the blue “Fish Forever” eco-label from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) on every Filet-O-Fish sandwich sold at the over 14,000 McDonald’s restaurants across the United States. The “Fish Forever” MSC label on McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish packaging signals to consumers that the product comes from MSC-certified wild-caught Alaskan Pollock and that McDonald’s has met the MSC Chain of Custody standards for traceability.

The Marine Stewardship Council, founded in 1995, is arguably the best-known private organization using market-based eco-label certification processes to promote sustainable fishing practices around the world. Originally, MSC-certified buyers and suppliers catered to a relatively small niche market for sustainable seafood. However, starting in 2006, large companies such as Whole Foods, Walmart, and Target began using the MSC label on some or all of their seafood products to address growing consumer concerns over depleting marine fisheries resources. McDonald’s is only the latest company to capitalize on the growing market trend. At the same time, growing industry demand for MSC-certified fish products is raising questions about whether the MSC is lowering its own standards for sustainability, and certifying more fisheries as meeting the requirements, to meet the sky-rocketing demand for sustainable seafood products.

All this scrutiny raises the question: how does the MSC determine which fisheries are sustainable and which are not? While the MSC’s standard for sustainability consists of a lengthy checklist of criteria, the standards can be boiled down to three essential questions:

  • Is the population of a fishery’s target species healthy?
  • Do the fishing practices used cause serious harm to other marine life?
  • And does the fishery have a good long-term management plan?

If a fishery wants to become MSC-certified, it must hire an MSC-approved independent certifier to conduct a scientific assessment of the fishery based on these criteria. There are currently 190 MSC-certified fisheries, 54 of which received their certifications in 2012, demonstrating the flourishing demand for MSC-certified seafood suppliers.

Despite assertions from the MSC that their certification process remains sufficiently rigorous, accusations of inconsistent and/or weakening certification standards persist. Going forward, the MSC faces a problem that market-based eco-labels from all industries must grapple with: whether to cater to the rigorous standards of their original niche market or to expand their accessibility in order to increase their impact. Whether the sustainable seafood industry, and the eco-labeling industry as a whole, can successfully find this balance remains to be seen.

Erin Schnettler is a first year student at the Yale School of Forestry. Prior to Yale, Erin worked as a Junior Scientist at the University of Minnesota. She is especially interested in science-based solutions to help food (particularly seafood) companies perform both ecologically and financially.

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