Sustainable Fish Label Misleading And Too Generous, Scientists Say

Are “sustainable fish” labels the real deal, or are they just another example of companies paying a little money to greenwash their activities? In the May 2013 journal Biological Conservation, a large team of scientists has called out the international non-profit Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certifications as “too lenient and discretionary…[they] allow for overly generous interpretation by third-party certifiers and adjudicators, which means that the MSC label may be misleading both consumers and conservation funders.”

Whoa. Tell us what you really think. The scientists noted that the MSC has existed for 15 years, during which time it has certified more than 170 fisheries as “sustainable” — at an annual cost of around $20 million.

Yet they come close to saying that the certifications are bought and paid for. They said that conservation and other concerned groups have brought more than 19 formal objections to MSC certifications — but only one of the wrongly labeled sustainable fisheries then had the certification revoked.

However, MSC scientists Nicolas Gutierrez and David Agnew told Nature that the authors of the paper don’t understand the purposes of the objection procedure. MSC is not necessarily looking to strip fisheries of their labels. Instead, on several occasions, the accused fisheries were required to make improvements to keep the sustainable fishery certification.

The two also claimed that several authors had a conflict of interest, since some of them had filed roughly one-third of the objections in question. There’s a strong implication there that they’re complaining because they’re bitter about not winning their own cases.

The issue of the accuracy of sustainable fishery labels has come under fire before. In 2012, a Marine Policy paper said that 25 percent of seafood sold as sustainable wasn’t.

With more and more sellers jumping on the sustainable seafood bandwagon, it’s important for the label to mean something. In 2012, Whole Foods said that they would no longer sell unsustainable fish. More recently, in January, McDonald’s said that they will now use only sustainable fish in their products.

Yet seafood fraud remains a public scandal. Leaving aside the question of “sustainable” versus “unsustainable” fishing, much seafood in grocery store fish cases isn’t even correctly identified.

In February, oceans conservation group Oceana revealed stunning evidence that up to 33 percent of all seafood wasn’t what the label said it was — and for some species, the numbers are even worse. For example, of 120 packages sold as “red snapper,” DNA tests showed that only seven of the fish were in fact “red snapper.”

If the industry isn’t even getting the name of the fish right, how can consumers feel confident that they’re correctly labeling sustainable fish?

[fish dinner photo by Muy Yum via Flickr]