Sustainability - the MSC model

Sustainability is a term which has rapidly become an integral part of our everyday vocabulary. Once something of a fringe concept, it is now a fundamental consideration in almost everything we do. Ultimately, this stems from an ever-increasing understanding that the natural resources we consume are far from inexhaustible. Essentially, if we don’t modify our consumption to allow these resources to replenish themselves, then they will simply disappear.

 This is the seed from which the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has grown. An independent charity, the MSC came into being over a decade ago as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Unilever (amongst others) sought a realistic path to rebuild and conserve the planet’s wild fish species.

As fish stocks grow and shrink and move around with no regard for political boundaries, a standard that takes all circumstances and stakeholders into account is necessarily complex.


Balancing precision with adaptability

A great deal of effort has been devoted to how best to achieve this mission through the MSC Sustainable Fishing and Chain of Custody Standards. The world’s fisheries are not neat, easily definable and measurable things. Fish stocks grow and shrink and move around with no regard for political boundaries. This means involvement and communication across the lines that lie between nations, continents, fishing organisations, producer organisations, different consumer markets, different wholesalers and retailers and finally on to the consumers themselves. This makes the MSC Sustainable Fishing Standard necessarily complex. For it to be robust enough to provide a set of clear rules and guidelines that can cater for all of the different ecosystems, species, management systems and fishing practices in use around the world, the mechanisms that define it need to strike a delicate balance between precision and adaptability. By the nature of the industry, there are many interested parties who must all be involved in a way that is structured and objective enough to yield accurate, measurable outcomes.

This is where the independent Certification Bodies (CBs) come in. There are currently nine certification bodies accredited to assess fisheries against the MSC Sustainable Fishing Standard and 21 accredited to assess against the MSC Chain of Custody (CoC) Standard. The process by which a CB becomes accredited is exhaustive and is overseen by the MSC’s appointed accreditation body Accreditation Services International (ASI), wherein an aspiring MSC Certification Body must prove that it has the expertise, credentials, systems and procedures in place to correctly implement and interpret the requirements of the Standard itself. The CB is an independent and impartial body which takes the standard which the MSC has created and holds it up against the existing practices of a fishery or chain of custody client to determine whether they meet these requirements. The requirements for the two Standards (Sustainable Fishing and Chain of Custody) are very different.


Chain of Custody Standard

A Chain of Custody assessment is required by any company that takes ‘ownership’ of MSC certified product and who intend to sell product that will carry the MSC logo. The applicant company is assessed by a rigorous on-site audit of their operating procedures, management practices and traceability systems to ensure that only fish products that come from an MSC Certified fishery carry the MSC logo and the systems they have in place will ensure there is separation from any non-MSC approved products being handled. This is carried out by a qualified auditor, with support from the CB’s administration and certification staff.


Sustainable Fishing Standard

By contrast, a full MSC fishery assessment can take anything from 12 months to (in exceptional circumstances) several years. The process usually, though not always, begins with a Pre-assessment, which is essentially a desktop summary assessment to determine whether an applicant already complies with the different criteria within the MSC Standard. This provides the opportunity to bring to the applicant fishery’s attention any areas where compliance is potentially lacking before entering full assessment. Certification is determined by a detailed and far-reaching Full Assessment. The full assessment process and the accredited CBs which carry out these assessments must all adhere to the MSC’s Fishery Certification and Assessment Methodologies which lead to realisation of the Standard’s principles and criteria. This means that there are certain key processes and deliverables that are common through every CB, though their internal systems and processes often differ.

Certification to the MSC Sustainable Fishing Standard is a highly transparent procedure to ensure the most accurate assessment.

The CBs stand at the centre of the fishery certification process. They are a filter by which to translate the methodologies and technical procedures of the MSC Standard into real terms, both for the understanding of the clients themselves and also so that the working practices of the client operation can be expressed in clearly defined, measurable terms. Some CBs split these tasks into distinct areas of responsibility. Food Certification International Ltd (FCI) is a good example of this. The administrative and project management side of the assessment process is carried out in-house by a dedicated and experienced team who focus entirely on ensuring the applicant fishery progresses within agreed timelines along the assessment process while meeting the required milestones. They act as the lynch pin between the client and the experts who form the assessment team and provide oversight on the correct implementation and interpretation of the MSC methodology. The technical assessment of the applicant fishery is undertaken by carefully selected experts who are contracted by FCI to act as the assessment team and it is they, under the close supervision of FCI, who travel to the fishery itself, meet with key stakeholders, review all the information that is available to them and carry out the process of scoring the fishery against the MSC criteria before preparing an exhaustive report detailing and justifying their findings.


Stakeholder input contributes to accuracy

Beyond these core competencies at the heart of the assessment, there are other parties who make valuable contributions to the process. The MSC strive for transparency at all times, and actively encourage the involvement of any and all relevant stakeholders for each assessment. A stakeholder can be anyone with an interest in the fishery: the client themselves, governmental departments, NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) such as WWF, research bodies, producer organisations or indeed other fishing operations – both partners and competitors. Through key stages in the assessment process, their input is actively sought to provide insight or additional information which may help to formulate as clear and objective a picture as possible of both the fishing operation itself and the context in which it operates.

The number of MSC-labelled products available in stores worldwide has now reached 9,000.

In this, the MSC Sustainable Fishing Standard incorporates a level of independent oversight which goes beyond the majority of certification standards available in this sector. The expert assessment team compile a report detailing their findings and the conclusions derived from these findings – gathered through consultation, desk study and direct observation. This report goes through many stages of checking and re-checking before being finalised. It is reviewed by the client operation to ensure that what is written is fair and accurate, followed by external review by two or more peers of the assessment team, carefully chosen for their expert knowledge of the specific fishery being assessed. After being reviewed again by the assessment team, this is then released for public comment for a period of thirty days and all stakeholder input submitted during this period is required to be included within the body of the report itself. This then becomes a Final Report and Determination, which is again published for public scrutiny, with a 15 working day period set aside for anyone who may disagree with the determination to potentially lodge an objection.


Transparency vital for credible results

So transparency is upheld throughout the process with clearly defined roles for all the various parties involved:

• the MSC provide the Standard itself and the methodologies required to assess against the Standard, revising and adjusting this to ensure that it is as accurate and well-formed as possible;
• expert assessors and peer reviewers provide their considerable expertise and technical knowledge to apply these methodologies to the fishery seeking certification;
• stakeholders provide an essential body of additional knowledge and input throughout;
• bringing all of this together and co-ordinating the process is the accredited Certification Body who has the responsibility of recommending and then ratifying the certification of the fishery if it successfully reaches the end of the assessment process;
• the CBs in turn are held accountable by the appointed accreditation body, ASI, which carries out annual or multi-annual audits on CBs to ensure that the standard is correctly and competently implemented at every stage.

Once certification is granted, the CB will carry out a surveillance audit yearly for the duration of the certificate (five years), whereupon a full re-assessment of the fishery must be carried out, beginning the entire process again. The MSC Standards, taken as a whole, provide a means to trace fish and fish products all the way back from the supermarket shelf or the fishmonger’s slab to the body of water where they were first caught.

The MSC Standards, taken as a whole, provide a means to trace fish and seafood products all the way back from the supermarket shelf or the fishmonger’s slab to the body of water where they were first caught.

Increase in standard complexity adds to certification costs

The process of achieving certification is not an easy one, and as the MSC Sustainable Fishing Standard becomes ever more complex and more demanding, so the price of bearing the ecolabel rises. Certification standards such as these live and die not just by their provenance but also by their relevance to the consumer and return on investment for the producer, so a balance must be struck between provenance, practicality and the cost to the fishermen of achieving certification. The MSC Standards have handled their first few hurdles well, bringing together an extremely diverse set of contributors who together have laid a strong foundation to help safeguard the sustainability of our oceans and commercial fisheries. It will be their ability and willingness to adapt and listen to the markets that demand MSC product, while still maintaining the integrity of the Standard, which will determine whether they can continue to realise their vision.