Full script in english: MSC and certified overfishing
Here you can read the entire program "MSC and certified overfishing". Click the link if you prefer to listen in swedish.
"People are buying prawns, there's...what else, salmon, cod fillets and some herring..."
These are some of the fish and shellfish that as consumers we buy most here in Sweden, according to the available statistics.
Here at Gothenburg's only MSC labelled fish counter, in a food shop in the Majorna area, the majority of wild-caught fish have a blue label stating "MSC certified sustainable seafood".
MSC stands for the Marine Stewardship Council, which is intended to be a guarantee certifying to the consumer that the fish they purchase comes from sustainable stocks and is fished with methods that respect the marine environment and sea life. And some of the people who buy fish here do so because they care about the sea and the fish in it.
– I don't buy much fish, but when I do I think it's important that it's been caught in the right way and the right place", says Anna Cronqvist.
– I care about the environment as a whole and animal life, and fish are part of that. I think it's important that we don't overfish and that there are still fish stocks left, says Håkan Engström.
You've bought an MSC labelled saithe fillet. Certified sustainable seafood. What does that mean to you?
– That the quotas for where fishing takes place and how much have been audited so that an appropriate amount of fish is caught in the same place.
For years we have been receiving alarming reports about the condition of the sea and reduced fish stocks – while at the same time we are eating increasing amounts of fish. This blue sustainability label from MSC is intended to help us choose equitable fish.
Cecilia Solér is a senior lecturer associate professor in marketing at the School of Business, Economics and Law at Gothenburg University. She has carried out considerable research into sustainable consumption and knows what eco-labelling means.
"In marketing, we tend to think that it's a tool for commerce and that it means that the product is OK."
What would you say that this MSC certification, the label, means?
"It means that the fish you buy and eat is OK, that it's sustainable. That there will still be fish left. That's what I think."
How clear is it?
"It says that it's certified sustainable seafood. And sustainable quite simply means that it won't be completely fished out."
Today, Kaliber is investigating some of our most popular fish and shellfish that is also labelled by MSC. According to the latest UN statistics, 90% of the world's fish stocks are overfished or fished to the limit of what the stocks can support. At the same time, ever more fish is marked with the MSC sustainability label.
We look at how sustainable this sustainable fish actually is.
"For thousands of years, people have lived in harmony with the sea, which has given us food and an income. But in the mid-1900s, our fishing methods changed.”
"In the last 40 years, almost half of marine fauna have died out. Overfishing and ghost nets are two of the most common reasons"
This is a section from the World Wildlife Foundation's comprehensive campaign film about the crisis in our seas. The film shows large boats with gigantic nets trawling for fish and dead fish being thrown back into the sea.
– We can say that the sea is not doing well and that fish stocks are in an even worse condition", says Inger Näslund, who is an expert in marine and fish related issues for the World Wildlife Foundation in Sweden.
– It's estimated that around 90% of all fish stocks are overfished or fished to the limit of sustainability. So it is actually only 10% that is ok.
The figures that Inger Näslund mentions come from the FAO, the UN's food and agriculture organisation. The proportion of overfished stocks has increased significantly in the last 40 years. 20 years ago, the World Wildlife Foundation and Unilever, one of the world's largest manufacturers of food products, came together to do something about the problem, founding the MSC. Today the organisation is independent, but the objective is the same.
MSC's Scandinavian office is located on Skeppsbron in Stockholm. Minna Epps is regional manager for the MSC in Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea region.
– The long-term overall objective is to overcome overfishing, and to be able to achieve sustainable stocks all across the world, says Epps.
Today, the MSC is the biggest environmental labelling system in the world for wild-caught fish. More than 300 fisheries are certified, 23,000 products are labelled and chains such as McDonald's, IKEA and Hemköp publicise the fact that their fish products is labelled with the blue logo.
– If you look in the freezer section of a supermarket, it's hard to find fish that isn't MSC labelled.
World Wildlife Foundation and the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation recommend consumers to buy MSC labelled fish in order to choose equitable fish, so that the oceans aren't completely depleted.
A number of researchers celebrated when the MSC was started. These included German fish researcher and biologist Rainer Froese at the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel. He saw a vacuum being filled.
"When the Marine Stewardship Council label, the MSC label, came on the market in Germany I was delighted and I was one of its earliest supporters. I am on TV and YouTube and elsewhere holding up the package with the label and saying this is a really good consumer product. You can enjoy this."
(quote from MSC commercial)
"It is fair to say that few of us are sure about the source of our seafood. But there is no need to worry, since we have a solution. Because you can choose responsibly caught fish that is handled with care and can be traced right back to a sustainable source by choosing fish with the little blue label. So, however you prefer your fish today you now know there will be fish tomorrow. By choosing fish with the MSC label"
To be able to display the blue label on fish, it must be reviewed by a certification body. This takes time and costs money.
The certification costs around SEK 1.5 million and the fishery must fulfil the requirements set by the MSC – summarised in a document almost 300 pages long. In brief, this covers three important areas.
– You can be sure that this has been fished from sustainable stocks, that it has minimal negative impact on the environment and that there is a long-term management plan so that this renewable resource is administered in a responsible manner, says Minna Epps.
In other words the promise to us as consumers is that the fishing is carried out on sustainable stocks with equipment that has as little effect as possible on the marine environment and that there should be some kind of management plan in place to control how fishing should be done on the basis of the stocks. But we will discover that this is far from guaranteed.
"Mackerel... now it's mackerel"
Today we are investigating how sustainable some of our most popular wild-caught fish and shellfish really are, despite their MSC certification. We will be looking at prawns, cod and mackerel.
Shiny fish lie arranged on ice in large plastic trays. This is the fish auction in the Port of Gothenburg. A large proportion of the fish landed in Swedish ports comes here – and so do fish buyers and wholesalers, early in the morning, to bid for catches that will end up on fish counters, in schools and restaurants.
"19, 19, 19, 19 Swedish crowns"
The MSC certified mackerel comes from the north-east Atlantic, between Norway and Greenland. This is an overfished stock, according to the FAO. And even according to current figures that we have obtained from the ICES (the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea) and which we have had reviewed by researchers, the stock is being overfished (fishing pressure above Fmsy). This means that in the long term the stock will reduce if we continue to fish as much as we currently do. But the stock is currently still larger than what the ICES considers to be the limit for dangerous overfishing. However, biologist and researcher Rainer Froese considers that overfishing can never be sustainable.
– Overfishing means that you take out more than the stock produces, he says.
– It means that the stock will shrink and it means that future catches will be less than what you are taking now. So there is no excuse for overfishing that I am aware of anywhere in the world.
Mackerel in the north-east Atlantic has been fished in excess of ICES recommendations since 2008.
And because Iceland and the Faroe Islands also fished in excess of EU quotas, the MSC certification was withdrawn.
Now these countries have come to an agreement about how fishing should be carried out, and this is the most important reason why mackerel fishing was given back its MSC certification again this year, according to Minna Epps at the MSC.
– It couldn't have been certified if this didn't exist. But there's nothing to say that it's not in a risk area. Anything can happen; agreements can be broken. So this is a process that we are monitoring very closely, she says.
And the EU quotas for how much mackerel can be fished are still in excess of the researchers' recommendations. So more fishing can still take place than researchers consider is sustainable. One of around 400 researchers working at the ICES to develop advice relied on by organisations including the MSC is Massimiliano Max Cardinale, who works at the Institute of Marine Research in Lysekil:
"Our advice is what we think is best to achieve sustainable fishing."
"Hello, can I have a fish burger, please?"
"Would you like a menu with that?"
"No, just the burger, thanks."
"40 crowns, please."
We are eating more fish – both wild caught and farmed – and in 10 years both fishing and consumption are expected to be twice as extensive according to the UN and OECD. All fish at McDonald's is eco-labelled according to the MSC.
This fish burger contains MSC certified cod. How equitably fished is it?
That depends on where it comes from. According to McDonald's, the fish in their fish burgers always comes from the Barents Sea. In other words, the cod comes from a stock that is not overfished. According to the FAO, it is within the limits of what the stocks can stand just now. But there is sustainability labelled cod from another area where the stocks are considerable worse. Cod from the North Sea and Skagerrak is overfished according to figures from the ICES.
Despite this, cod fishing here has recently been MSC certified. According to Minna Epps at the MSC, this is because stocks have recovered after having been at record low levels for decades.
– We have seen an improvement here – stocks have increased nine years in a row and we are seeing mortality falling. There may be borderline cases sometimes, but they fulfil the requirements. We have to carry out a score assessment, says Epps.
But the final report shows that the status of the stock receives the lowest possible score in the MSC's grading system, and that according to their standard it falls right on the limit of being refused certification. That's why fisheries in this area has been made subject to conditions that must be fulfilled in order to retain the certification. Within five years, fishing must reduce in order to retain the blue label, according to Minna Epps.
– The conditions that have been placed on this fishery are to reduce fish mortality so that they can come in line with the objective and to ensure that there is an effective recovery strategy. They have fulfilled the requirements for stocks with sufficient carrying capacity, Epps says.
In addition to the fish coming from sustainable stocks, the MSC also promises that it should be caught using methods that are as environmentally friendly as possible. But cod is often fished using a controversial method: bottom trawling.
This is fishing with a cone-shaped fishing net that catches fish swimming above the bottom or which live right on the sea bottom.
The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation is one of the bodies against bottom trawling.
(Quote from Swedish Society for Nature Conservation commercial)
If we continue to fish like this, the seas may be empty of fish in 40 years. There won't even be a fish finger left swimming round. A strange thought, isn't it? And it's all down to major overfishing and the reckless fishing methods often used. Like bottom trawling, for example. This means that you catch all of the fish – even the ones we don't eat. And that's the issue. Because those fish should be eaten by other fish.
– Bottom trawling entails a large number of problems, other than how much they fish and the bycatch they get; these boats constantly destroy the sea bottom environment. It's a continuous disruption of the sea bottom, says Ellen Bruno, who is responsible for fishing issues at the
Swedish Society for Nature Conservation. And they want the MSC to stop certifying fishing with bottom trawling methods.
– It's like constantly cutting down an entire virgin forest just to get to the few best trees that you want, says Bruno.
But the MSC doesn't feel that bottom trawling should automatically disqualify a fishery from being certified. The important thing is for bottom trawling to be carried out in such a way that it causes the least possible damage, according to Minna Epps.
Epps: We are promoting a situation in which each fishery should be reviewed individually. You shouldn't generalise.
When Kaliber examines the final reports for MSC certified cod fishing, we see that fishing with bottom trawling methods receives worse scores than methods such as hook and line when it comes to impact on marine environments. Despite the fact that it is possible to fish for cod in ways that are less harmful to the environment, and despite the fact that one of the MSC's own basic principles is that fishing should be as low impact as possible, cod fishing carried out with bottom trawling methods still receives the sustainability label.
Why not simply certify the best method from a sustainability perspective?
– If you take an overall perspective, we certify the methods that fulfil best practice.
So why don't you stop certifying bottom trawling?
– We don't prohibit anything; we simply say that if you can prove the following you will be MSC certified.
Fishing for prawns is also carried out using bottom trawling. The northern prawn has a history punctuated by alarming stories of high fishing pressure and overfishing. There have also been problems with discards – small prawns being thrown back into the sea, which has affected stocks negatively.
It's drizzling and pitch black apart from a few small spots of light getting closer. One by one the trawlers come back into the small port of Grebbestad. This boat has been out since 5 o'clock this morning – now it's nearly 9 at night.
How's the prawn fishing going at the moment?
– It's bad at the moment, but it goes up and down.
At this time of the year he often trawls for prawns. But because there aren't many prawns along the West Coast just now he's been going for crayfish instead just recently. The fisherman doesn't want to tell us his name because he thinks that the MSC won't like what he's saying.
Swedish fishing for the West Coast prawn – or northern prawn as it is called - received MSC certification last year. And Danish and Norwegian fishing for the same species was certified in the summer.
In the port of Grebbestad, the day's catch is weighed and placed on ice in plastic trays marked with the MSC label. Because this trawler, like all of the other Swedish prawn trawlers, is now MSC certified.
– It was actually the industry that said 'if we don't MSC certify you we can't buy your stuff. If you don't get certified you won't sell a single prawn, a single crayfish – nothing.' That was what they said. So we didn't really have any choice but to do it, says the fisherman.
What does this certification mean?
– The certification means nothing to us. We fish just like we've always done.
The prawn fisherman says that there is a shortage of prawns just now. The assessment of the ICES – the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea – is that there is high fishing pressure. According to researchers Kaliber spoke to, this is barely over the limit for overfishing and is not sustainable fishing. And this has been the case for several years.
The northern prawn is red listed in the Species Database and classified as near threatened, as stocks have reduced significantly by more than 30% in the latest 10-year period.
Prawn stocks have fallen and the quotas for prawn fishing are higher than researchers advice. This year there are no figures for the stock, according to Massimiliano Max Cardinale, who works at the Institute of Marine Research in Lysekil. He has led the work to estimate the stock for the northern prawn on behalf of the ICES and thinks that the MSC should have waited a few years before certifying prawn fishing.
– It's rather dubious. There is some doubt about why they have certified this as a sustainable fishery, says Cardinale.
We are in his office, looking at figures he has produced for us. He also works for the MSC and thinks it is a good organisation but also feels that there are problems with certain stocks, such as the prawn stock.
– No, this isn't sustainable fishing. The stock aren't as large as we wanted. The prawn is an organism... a short-lived species with relatively large fluctuations in spawning biomass, so we aren't surprised that the stocks go up and down quite significantly. What we are most interested in is the proportion of prawns that we take out of the stock which is near to the limit value. Because it was last year. Today we don't know", says Cardinale.
Besides problems with the stock and that bottom trawling is carried out for prawns, there have been other problems. These have included the stock being negatively affected by fishermen throwing back small prawns that they don't want.
They have to have taken measures to stop these discards, says Minna Epps at the MSC; and this is one of the conditions for retaining the certification.
"This was one of the conditions that had to be fulfilled in the first year. So now they'll be having the annual audit to check that Swedish prawn fishermen actually have fulfilled this condition."
Back in Grebbestad with the prawn fisherman:
What can we say about this boat?
– We've had it for nearly 10 years; bought it in England.
Several years ago the nets on this boat were replaced with nets with a larger mesh size. This is to prevent small prawns from being caught.
– This is what we'll be catching next year. So it's better that it goes free.
But the fact that prawn fishing has been sustainability labelled before the conditions for things like discards have been fulfilled is one of the reasons why the prawn fisherman in Grebbestad doesn’t like the label.
– Clearly it doesn't matter how you fish. You can catch tiny prawns and things – it just doesn't matter. Apparently you can still get MSC certification anyway.
The MSC's promise to us as consumers is that the fish
has been fished from sustainable stocks, that it has as little negative impact on the environment as possible and that there is a long-term management plan so that the fish are managed over the long-term in a sustainable way for stocks. These are the three most important principles for the MSC.
So there's a question mark about the sustainability of stock in the case of the northern prawn. And the controversial fishing method of bottom trawling, which can damage marine environments, is used. And Kaliber can also reveal that there is no management plan. This is an agreement between politicians, researchers and fishermen regarding how many fish can be caught on the basis of the current stocks.
Massimilliano Max Cardinale thinks this is the biggest problem with Swedish, Norwegian and Danish prawn fishing:
– I don't think it's a particularly good idea that there is no management plan regarding this kind of MSC certification. A management plan is often a guarantee that we will act sufficiently quickly to have sustainable fishing. Without a management plan it becomes much more difficult to make such major decisions; for example to significantly reduce the quotas between years."
Good management is important for the MSC, and this is what Minna Epps says about the importance of the management plan:
– It's very very important. I think that it's one of the most effective ways of managing a fishery in the right way.
Despite the fact that there is no management plan for the prawn fisheries, they have received a pass mark on this point on the MSC's score system.
– It's still a pass, but there are clear requirements and conditions that this must be fixed otherwise the certification will be withdrawn. And here you can't blame the professional fishermen, or failures in fishery management can't be equated to failure by the MSC. And a lot has actually been done here."
But is this a serious flaw in the fishery?
– From the management side. In general you can say that definitely this is a flaw if there aren't sufficiently good management plans. Here they are sufficient. But they have had to work actively to improve, Epps says.
Work is currently underway to develop a management plan. According to the MSC and Minna Epps, management is not merely a management plan but the fact that a number of different criteria, rules, guidelines and checks for the fishery are fulfilled.
Prawn fishing has, despite these flaws, been sustainability labelled by the MSC.
Minna Epps, regional manager for the MSC, says that the fisheries are sustainable on the basis of their requirements and that the certification body that audits the fisheries determined that they had at least achieved a pass score on all criteria.
– So in other words when a fishery is audited and is certified, it fulfils our requirements. Then circumstances can change over time and this is why we have annual checks and certificates are withdrawn.
She emphasises the fact that for every fishery that is certified, an overall assessment is made on the basis of 28 different criteria. This is intended to give an overall picture of how sustainable a fishery is. She says that it's also not possible to just look at the condition of the stocks.
Each fishery also has strengths. For prawns this includes the fact that few protected species such as seals and sea birds get killed in the fishing process, and that Sweden and the EU have good fishery protection.
Was there any doubt when the Northern prawn fishery was certified?
– No, it has been in line with them following our standard. They have fulfilled our requirements. And of course then you might wish that it was better in certain areas, but we have these conditions that are set on the fishery to improve it. In principle if it's a borderline case, we're positive to including it in the programme because then you have clear insight and more control over the fishery. So I'm very positive to them being included as long as they fulfil the requirement for sustainability and there's room for improvement, Epps says.
Kaliber's investigation shows that some of our most popular fish and shellfish that are MSC labelled come from what the established research community considers to be unsustainable or overfished stocks.
Mackerel – subject to overfishing.
The northern prawn – subject to overfishing and according to researchers unsustainably fished.
Cod from the North Sea and Skagerrak – overfished.
Cod from the Barents Sea and north-east Atlantic – on the border of overfishing.
And both prawns and a large share of the cod that is MSC labelled are caught using bottom trawling, which is a controversial fishing method that risks damaging the sea bottom and marine environments.
We are back among the fish counters in Majorna in Gothenburg with Cecilia Sorél from Gothenburg University, who has carried out considerable research into sustainable consumption and knows what the ecolabels mean.
You said at the start that this indicates that fish origins from a sustainable stock. What do you feel about the fact that MSC-labelled fish may origin from stocks being overfished?
– Obviously that must be very bad, clearly. Then the labelling system loses all consumer confidence. And that's the whole point of it. We see that with other eco labelling systems. There's nothing wrong with the label. It's a proven label that receives great confidence, so what must happen is that the criteria must be adjusted so that they are a bit tougher, says Sorél.
Does it deliver what it promises?
– It's quite clear that it doesn't. But it can do if changes are made. And I think that demands should be made in terms of that.
If as a consumer you want the most sustainable fishing, you need to know where the fish comes from, what condition the stocks are in and what fishing method was used. It's not easy. Some of the fish that many people consider come from a sustainable stock and where the fishing is carried out correctly with a low-impact method are herring from Skagerrak and Kattegat. If all the fish is labelled the same way - how can the normal consumer know the difference?
(quote from Swedish Society for Nature Conservation commercial)
"Where does the fish come from? How was it caught? How many are there left? Or is it farmed? How does it affect our environment? In other words... How can I know all this? If I want to be completely certain of buying sustainable fish, I should look for these symbols"
And some organisations that help us through the jungle of choosing equitable fish are the World Wildlife Foundation and the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation. They have their own consumer guides. In this film from the World Wildlife Foundation, all MSC labelled fish is recommended. Inger Näslund is a fish expert at the World Wildlife Foundation in Sweden.
– Because Aunty Agda and Uncle Sune can't keep track of the things we've been talking about. If we want to see fishing in Europe and in the rest of the world carry on, we have the MSC to rely on if we want to buy more sustainable fish, says Näslund.
And the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation also recommends all MSC certified fish in its fish guide.
Despite the fact that the organisation is against bottom trawling.
– I can't defend individual fisheries for the MSC. I know that there are a number which have problems, says Ellen Bruno from Swedish Society for Nature Conservation.
But what do you think of the fact that your guide recommends MSC certified fish which you simultaneously see problems with?
– You should remember that the labels don't represent perfect fisheries, but that they're better than those that aren't certified. If you're buying MSC labelled prawns, you should know that in any case they're better than non-MSC labelled prawns. And you're also supporting the movement in the fisheries, so that they want to become more and more sustainable. Of course not all certified products are perfect. They're just seen as being the best in their class.
Someone who has gone from applauding the MSC to losing faith in them as the saviours of the seas and of fish is biologist and researcher Rainer Froese.
But, he says, they could play an important role if they would change their rules on overfishing.
– I must say that a label is better than no label. Consumers need guidance. Labels are one way of doing that. And MSC is the largest label. If they did their job properly they could play a very beneficial role in reforming fisheries and rebuilding the seas; do what they claim they want to do. But the first step is to stop certifying stocks that are subject to overfishing, says Froese.