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Source: Greenpeace New Zealand

New Zealanders care about the ocean, and everything that calls it home. This is why when it comes to buying fish, generally Kiwis want to know it has been caught sustainably. It allows them to make choices about what kind of activities they support with their wallet, and those they don’t.

One certification you may have seen is the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) tick – which supposedly certifies sustainable fisheries. It’s meant to give the consumer peace of mind that what they’re buying was done in a way that respects our big blue backyard. 

But a new report reveals this certification is actually a staggering amount of industry greenwashing. 

The report, from environmental NGO Bloom, and partnered universities, found that 83% of fisheries certified as “sustainable” by MSC use ecologically destructive fishing techniques. 

Consumers look out for signs their purchase is sustainable, but are sometimes conned

What makes fisheries sustainable

Fishing companies like to say fishery issues are extremely complex, and any critique of their sustainability doesn’t take into account the complexity. But honestly, it’s not that hard. 

People buying fish want to know if  the catching of this fish causes significant or long term damage to the ocean. To answer this we need to consider a few factors: will catching this fish threaten the overall survival of the species? Is the fish caught in a way that damages important habitats and ocean ecosystems? In the course of catching this fish what risks are there to other creatures that call the ocean home, such as non-target species of fish, sea birds, turtles, whales or dolphins? 

Many fishing companies, and MSC, like to focus almost exclusively on the first question. They deem fish to be sustainably caught if there is some management of the target species’ stocks. But this is only part of the equation. They ignore the wider impacts on the ocean from fishing which uses indiscriminate and destructive techniques like bottom trawling, dredging and purse seining. In fact, while MSC states it won’t certify any destructive forms of fishing, only fisheries which use poisons and explosives are excluded from getting certification. If you want to understand more about the impact of destructive fishing techniques you can read about bottom trawling here. 

To determine if they are truly sustainable, fisheries must be considered across the full range of their impacts. 

A trawl net is being hauled aboard a fishing vessel

Definition of greenwash 

The deeply concerning thing about the report on MSC is it also exposes the deliberate use of greenwashing techniques to deceive consumers. Greenwashing is when an industry provides false or misleading information about their products and practises to paint them as environmentally sound. Greenwashing is used by major industries, from oil and gas, to plastics producers, to industrial fishing companies, to gain social license which allows them to keep operating, in spite of bad environmental behaviour. 

The report on MSC found that even though only 7% of the certifications were given to truly sustainable, low-impact fisheries, these fisheries were used in nearly half of their promotional and marketing materials. They take the fraction of fisheries that are sustainable, and use them as a cover for those companies pillaging the ocean in 150 metre monster trawlers like the FV Margiris.

Despite this Seafood New Zealand (the industry lobby group), as well as New Zealand fishing companies like Talley’s and Sanfords proudly tout MSC certifications on the sustainability pages of their websites. It’s a problem because it means they get to push the message to consumers that all’s well under the waves – when we know very well they’re not. It means they can hide behind a nonsense label, and continue their bottom trawl operations under the guise of sustainability. 

Crewman on the New Zealand bottom trawler, Waipori, dump a large piece of Paragorgia coral dredged from the deep sea in their net.

High hopes never realised

In the early 2000s, when MSC was first being established, hopes were high in the NGO world that this could be something to finally shake up the fishing industry. But over time MSC has faced increasing criticism.

Major concerns have been raised about the impartiality of the process for certification. The organisation responsible for evaluating the fisheries for MSC certification, is chosen and paid by the fishery! This is Conflict of Interest 101 stuff. Furthermore, should there be concerns about a certification, people and NGOs have limited recourse to challenge them. The objection process is slow and convoluted, it also is set up so that the ‘judge’ supposed to arbitrate objections is chosen and remunerated by the MSC. 

In 2019, NGOs sounded the alarm about MSC’s lacklustre approach to human rights and forced labour considerations in the supply chains of its certified fisheries. 

This new report is the latest strike against MSC, and exposes that its very purpose – to keep fishing sustainable – has been perverted. 

What can be done?

At this point we have little hope that MSC will reform their ways. But there are things we can all do. 

First of all, spread the word that this certification should be viewed with much skepticism. The more people know about this the less likely they are to be sucked in. 

Second, we can all demand that industry spends less time on expensive ad campaigns and more time taking action if they want to be sustainable. Check out our campaign against destructive bottom trawling practises to find out more. 

Finally, use trusted sources to understand the impacts on the marine environment of the fish you purchase – we recommend Forest and Bird’s excellent Best Fish Guide that considers the whole picture of sustainability