Don’t Trust That Label – New Study Casts Doubt On “Sustainable Seafood” Certification

Dirty industries have a long and cozy relationship with information asymmetry.  It only makes sense:  If you’re in the business of selling an unhealthy product or fashioning wares that come with a side of toxic pollution, you hardly want your customers in the know.  In theory at least, informed consumers may well vote with their wallets and stop buying your goods.

Industry is hardly alone in appreciating the power of transparency.  Activists and reformers — and, yes, even government regulators –have used the power of sunlight to advance social and environmental causes.  From Upton Sinclair’s exposé of the meat industry in The Jungle to the push for health warnings on packages of cigarettes, balancing access to information — so that the consumer can make an informed decision — has been one of the more potent arrows in the reformer’s quiver.

Yet this strategy is hardly foolproof, and neither is it immune to abuse.  The rise of the “ecolabel” on foodstuffs is illustrative.  Grocery stores are chock-full of foods claiming to be organic, GMO-free, free-range, consistent with fair-trade principles, friendly to the rainforest, and so on.  Many of these claims are true.  But some of them are exaggerated or misleading.  This produces a situation where the well-meaning but rushed shopper buys a product with a false sense of security.  The more rigorous shopper may do the necessary research to vet the validity of an ecolabel, but notice the irony:  Efforts ostensibly taken to inform consumers end up spawning a new informational problem.

Case in point:  A recent study in Marine Policy shows how the problem of shoddy ecolabels is thwarting fish conservation efforts.  According to the authors, a significant percentage of the fish certified as “sustainable” by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is anything but.

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The authors summarize their results as follows:

This study examines the status and exploitation level of 31 northern European stocks targeted by sheries certied by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) as being sustainable and well managed.  In the first year of certication, 11 stocks (52% of stocks with available data) were exploited above the maximum sustainable level and four stocks (16% of stocks with available data) were outside of safe biological limits. MSC states that it certies substandard stocks because they will improve once they are in their program. However, after a duration of certication of one to ten years (average four years), no signicant changes in shing pressure or stock size were detected. In the last certied year with available data, seven stocks (44% of stocks with available data) were subject to overshing and ve stocks (21% of stocks with available data) were outside of safe biological limits. Certication should guarantee that shing quotas are set correctly and are enforced. However, in 11 stocks quotas were set 2060% above the level that shers were taking, whereas in three stocks landings exceeded quotas by 3050%.

The take-away message is simple:  You can’t trust MSC certification.  If MSC, as the leading ecolabeling organization for seafood products cannot get its facts straight, then the concept of “sustainable fisheries” should not be peddled in the marketplace.

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