Eyes on the MSC Review – Big Blue Future or Big Blue Failure?

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has completed a review of its seafood certification Standard. Make Stewardship Count has watched both the process and results closely since the review began in 2018. Was the process open, inclusive and clear to everyone? Did the Fisheries Standard Review (FSR) make the critical changes needed to ensure all certified fisheries are applying global best practices? This fourth and final scorecard looks at the final contents of the new MSC Fisheries Standard and a look back on the review process. 

Transparency of Engagement and Decision Making

2023-04-24T11:30:13+00:00April 24th, 2023|

Transparency of Stakeholder Engagement & Decision Making in the Marine Stewardship Council

We are rating MSC against our best practice recommendations that draw from the leading literature on consultation as well as our members’ many years of experience engaging with the MSC programme. These best practices aim to ensure that stakeholders understand who is invited to engage and why, how best to engage, how input is used, and how and why decisions are made at each step of the way. 

April 2023

This rating covers the entire review process, taking into account our 3 previous rounds of scorecards, and including the 2022 public consultation phase of the FSR. The multi-year review included several meetings with stakeholders, workshops, webinars and surveys. The most recent phase of the FSR in 2022 included a 60-day public consultation survey on the draft Fisheries Standard content, and several webinars intended to introduce the Standard.

Meets Expectations Improving Below Expectations NOTE: Click on each “finger icon” for more information.
  • Throughout this review, the Stakeholder engagement process saw significant improvements when compared to the previous FSR. There were several entry points by which to engage including workshops, webinars, surveys, written submissions and meetings with MSC staff, most of which were open to all stakeholders. Throughout the process, the MSC provided the information necessary to engage in an informed way and provided some progress updates throughout. Risk assessments and summary reports were provided to all stakeholders to inform their feedback, a notable improvement in access to information.
    Despite these improvements we have identified several areas for further improvement:

    • The stakeholder selection process has been unclear with little rationale provided for invite-only workshops and meetings.
    • It was unclear how the information collected from stakeholders would be used to inform the decision making process.
    • While some of the proposed changes made following the final opportunity for consultation were posted on the website, the information available on the MSC website was not easily accessible and in some cases did not provide sufficient detail to determine how this would affect the Standard in practice.
    • There were several delays, little notice for key pieces of consultation, and consultation periods were insufficient in many cases.
  • A notable shortcoming of the process came at the final stage of stakeholder consultation in 2022 when the draft Standard was released and a short, limited survey was the only and final means of providing feedback. It is unclear why no further consultation was held given the large number of changes made after the proposed draft was released. Further, numerous stakeholders voiced concerns with the limited length of the final consultation, being 60 days, and requested an extended consultation period; this was not granted.

    When the MSC announced that the board had approved the contents of the Standard as proposed, we were hopeful that many of the improvements, as highlighted in our May 2022 letter, would make it into the final Standard. Unfortunately, many changes were made after the final consultation survey, using only feedback from the board, Stakeholder Advisory Council and Technical Advisory Board. The reversal of the scope change on marine mammals, revising the ETP species decision tree and changes to the Evidence Requirements Framework (ERF) were all key changes made between the final consultation survey and releasing the final Standard, without explanation or consultation with stakeholders.

    As highly engaged stakeholders, it was disappointing to have seen so much improvement in the process and effort from the MSC, only to have the opaque decision making process thwart several key improvements at the final stage and with little rationale.

Check out our previous scorecards on the transparency of engagement and decision making during the MSC Fishery Standard Review.

Critical changes needed to improve the MSC Standard

2023-04-24T12:22:53+00:00April 24th, 2023|

Critical requirements necessary to improve marine stewardship council principle 2

The MSC Standard should reflect global best practices in fisheries management and drive positive change on the water. Since 2018, we have watched to see how the current Fisheries Standard Review (FSR) will address the critical flaws the Make Stewardship Count coalition of experts has identified in the current Standard. Now that the FSR is complete, does the revised Standard meet expectations to ensure that certified fisheries reduce their ecological impacts?

April 2023

This rating covers the entire review process, taking into account our 3 previous rounds of scorecards, and including the 2022 public consultation phase of the FSR. The multi-year review included several meetings with stakeholders, workshops, webinars and surveys. The most recent phase of the FSR in 2022 included a 60-day public consultation survey on the draft Fisheries Standard content, and several webinars intended to introduce the Standard.

Meets Expectations Improving Below Expectations NOTE: Click on each “finger icon” for more information.
  • Cumulative impact assessment required for all species caught by ALL fisheries (MSC and non MSC) in the same area
    • Cumulative impacts of total catch for all fisheries of Endangered, Threatened and Protected species (ETP) are assessed at the 100 level only. The weak definition of when the fishery under assessment (UoA) or multiple MSC fisheries are ‘hindering recovery’ combined with a threshold requiring any MSC fisheries to be responsible for at least 30% of the catch (same as previous Standard) means that cumulative impact scoring is likely never going to be triggered and this requirement is unlikely to result in changes on the water.
  • Application of precautionary principle and best science is used to designating a species as ‘Endangered, Threatened, Protected’
    • MSC focused on designing a more systematic and stringent decision tree for the designation of species as ‘ETP’, an important step in an assessment to ensure a fishery is not worsening the condition of ETP species and that they cannot be a certified product.
    • The ETP designation process has been significantly improved for clarity and consistency in the new Standard. Species listed on the IUCN Red List as Endangered and Critically Endangered are more clearly included along with Appendix 2 species of both CITES and CMS and those protected under national legislations.
    • Unfortunately, species that have yet to be listed under national legislations but have been assessed as Endangered or Threatened by national level science bodies are still not included, nor if they are assessed as Vulnerable by IUCN (see below).
  • Application of precautionary principle and best science is used to assess fishery impact on ETP species using Precautionary Principle
    • The new Standard allows species designated as ETP to be considered for certification as an MSC product by introducing ‘modification factors’. These factors are not precautious enough and will likely allow economically valuable ETP species that are not well managed or recovering to enter certification. Make Stewardship Count and other experts repeatedly questioned MSC’s proposal to move ETP species into certification at all through modification factors and, ultimately, indicated several points of concern with the factors: Maximum sustainable yield (MSY) is not an appropriate target for ETP species management; acceptable management plans need to have both thresholds and targets, not just ‘be a plan’; clear evidence of recovery should be present; and all three ‘modification factors’ need to be passed, not just two of three. Given that all of the concerns we raised remain in the final Standard text released, Make Stewardship Count believes that this is not best practice for an ETP species recovery plan, and these modification factors may result in allowing commercially valuable species that remain at a depleted level to be certified.
  • ETP species should be inclusive of, but not limited to, all IUCN Red List ‘threatened’ categories
    • The new designation tree fails to consider all IUCN ‘threatened’ categories, leaving out ‘vulnerable’ species.
  • Prerequisite for certification: bycatch must not exceed a risk based maximum percentage of catch
    • Not included in the FSR terms of reference or in related workshops and consultations.
  • Progressive reduction of bycatch during certification
    • Conditions that define risk based annual bycatch reduction rates
    • Verification of achieved bycatch reduction during surveillance audits

    • The new Standard requires fisheries to have management measures in place that are expected to “ensure that incidental catches of the ETP/OOS unit are ‘minimised’ and where possible eliminated” and to “ensure that the UoA does not hinder recovery to Favourable Conservation Status”. This is a substantial improvement in language in the scoring from the previous Standard, and indicates that there was an intent by MSC to ensure the continuous reduction of bycatch of ETP species, a critical requirement advocated by Make Stewardship Count.
    • Unfortunately, the definitions in the Standard dictating whether a fishery is ‘minimising mortality’ or ‘hindering recovery’ and when a species has reached ‘Favourable Conservation Status’ are so weak that the intention of the scoring will be undermined. Many of the definitions are similar to those in the previous Standard which, more often than not, resulted in no changes in practices being required of certified fisheries, even when they continued to impact critically endangered species.
    • Overall, while we applaud the new Standard for stating the intention of the MSC to reduce bycatch of ETP and unwanted catch by certified fisheries, their own guidance for assessment extensively undermines this intent. There are so many ‘opt out’ options built in that Make Stewardship Count predicts the new Standard will likely result in few, if any, mitigation measures to be implemented through certification conditions.
  • Prerequisite for certification: no fishing methods that include the intentional encirclement of marine mammals or ETP species
    • The draft Standard included a scope change that would have excluded fisheries that intentionally set on marine mammals, but this was removed in the final version. Although there is now a requirement at S80 to verify with a “high degree of certainty” that encircled mammals have a “favourable conservation status”, the definition of this favourable status and potential reference points to use may be difficult to determine, non-existent or inadequate to protect the species. Even if these reference points were adequate, the fact that the MSC endorses using marine mammals or other ETP species this way (essentially as live bait in some cases) falls far short of what the average person would consider sustainable or ethical fishing.
  • Prerequisite for certification: All fisheries interacting with sharks (elasmobranchs) must have a ‘fins naturally attached’ (FNA) policy implemented and enforced
    • A fins naturally attached (FNA) policy, without exception, was included in the new Fisheries Standard. This is considered global best practice to ensure that finning is not occurring, and we are pleased to see that MSC has adopted this policy for all fisheries seeking certification. The intention of the MSC as stated in the Standard is a high degree of certainty that fisheries have implemented a fins naturally attached policy before seeking certification.
    • Unfortunately, the monitoring requirements to ensure that the FNA policy is adhered to are weak and may result in finning taking place on MSC-certified vessels. It is important that the MSC ensures compliance with this policy for it to be truly meaningful.
  • All fishing practices used by the fishery must be assessed during certification
    • Upon recertification all remaining fishing techniques have improved to the Standard

    • The revised Fisheries Certification Process (FCP) in 2019 ensured that certified fisheries will no longer be able to target a stock using both certified and non-certified fishing practices with the same gear (known as compartmentalisation).
    • However, given there are still critical improvements needed to the Fisheries Standard, ending compartmentalization has yet to result in significant differences on the water for certified fisheries
  • All ‘main’ species of the catch must meet the same criteria as target species (P1) even if discarded
    • Main species are scored under Principle 2 ‘in-scope’ species in the new Standard. They do not require the same robust harvest control rules as Principle 1 (certified species).
  • Overfishing (F>Fmsy) is prohibited for all ‘main’ species of the catch
    • There was no change to the Standard to address this point.
  • Prerequisite to Certification: No bottom fisheries in known or likely VME areas
    • The new Standard does not include a prohibition on bottom contact fishing in VME areas (referred to by MSC as ‘more sensitive’ habitats) for certified fisheries.
  • Benthic impacts must be reversible in less than 10 years
    • Prerequisite to certification: 50% of benthic habitat type in a region closed to all fishing

    • This was not changed during the FSR. The definition for ‘irreversible damage’ remains as ‘recover in 20 years or more’ and protection or closure thresholds were not considered.
  • Prerequisite for certification: risk based qualitative and quantitative data requirements exist for bycatch reporting
    • Consistent data requirement for comparable fisheries

    • Although a risk based approach for the quality and extent of data required for bycatch reporting was discussed at several workshops during the Standard Review and received broad support from stakeholders, such an approach has not been adopted. A “Toolbox” defining the adequacy of data with regard to the qualitative trueness and the quantitative precision of data required for scoring of the bycatch scoring issues has been introduced as a new element for fisheries’ assessments instead.
    • While different requirements apply at the SG60, SG80, and SG100 level for in-scope and ETP species bycatch, these requirements are not applied according to risk posed by different fishing gear, practices, or location, for example, but instead leave it to the expert judgement of the CAB to decide which level of ‘independent monitoring’ is considered as adequate. An initial draft proposing minimum threshold levels of ‘independent monitoring’ required for evaluation of precision based on species, interaction rates, and fisheries was, unfortunately, abandoned in the final Standard.
    • The new Standard includes only one quantitative threshold for ‘independent monitoring’: 30% coverage for fisheries operating in the High Seas and managed by RFMOs and interacting with ETP species. Unfortunately, MSC again has likely undermined even this ‘requirement’ with assessment guidance that potentially allows less observer coverage in cases where the regional fisheries management body so deems it adequate.
    • For fisheries that are not managed by RFMOs, the lack of risk based categories for fisheries and objectively verifiable criteria means assessors can define the adequate level of ‘independent observation’. This will likely result in different levels of monitoring for very similar fisheries and a corresponding lack of comparability.
  • Upon request stakeholders must have access to all data used for scoring of fishery by CABs (including, inter alia, AIS, VMS, EM, observer raw data)
    • The final Standard does not require CABs or fisheries to allow stakeholders to access all the information that CABs are using to assess a fishery.
  • Peer review should be included in any annual audit where conditions are closed
    • Possibility for stakeholder objection to surveillance audit outcomes

    • Conditions were addressed in the 2019 FCP (Fisheries Certification Process) Review.
    • Peer review is now required, but stakeholder objection is still not possible.
  • No recertification prior to verified fulfilment of all conditions
    • Condition extension was tightened in the 2019 FCP review, however extension of conditions is still allowed in some circumstances.

Make Stewardship Count, other stakeholders, and researchers continue to raise concerns about CAB impartiality and MSC accountability as the Standard holder. Neither of the following topics has been taken up in the Fisheries Standard Review and MSC has ignored these concerns.

  • Ensure impartiality of the assessment, certification and audit processes, CABs must be independently assigned
    • Not addressed during FCP or announced for FSR.
  • MSC must be proactive and intervene in case of urgent and obvious problems
    • No evidence of improvement apparent so far.

Check out our previous scorecards on the critical changes needed to improve the MSC Standard.