The Marine Stewardship Council, the world's leading fishery-certification program, has successfully thrust sustainability issues into the supermarket by affixing blue labels to products associated with fisheries "that are helping to protect oceans." But it's unclear whether the 14-year old program has led to healthier underwater ecosystems.
"There are a couple of ideas about how fisheries might respond to a certification system," MSC standards and licensing director David Agnew told a group assembled in Seattle last week for the 141st annual meeting of the American Fisheries Society. "You could move the whole population to improve. Or, another idea is only a small section of fisheries who see value in improving will improve."
MSC now certifies 1,300 fisheries. Agnew says the council has found evidence of "some residual drag," but stopped short of attributing significant measurable ecosystem improvements directly to the certification program.
The MSC certification program is voluntary. Fisheries doing the most environmental harm are unlikely to participate, since there's little chance of their ever receiving the seal awarded to fisheries which can demonstrate effective management. In a pre-assessment process, the worst offenders are told "don't go, guys, you're way off the mark," Agnew says.
"What's surprising is some of these fisheries are going on," Agnew adds.
But the vast majority of red-lighted fisheries--a category which includes many small-scale fisheries, which are especially tough for evaluators to assess--abandon the process before making any movement toward sustainability.
Fisheries provisionally advised to continue with the certification process "are making more changes, but they're taking longer to do it," Agnew reports.
A 2005 study of the first 10 certified fisheries suggested certification was responsible for about 65 percent of 89 recorded environmental gains. Yet there's little incentive for a fishery to make additional environmental strides after receiving its certification, which is continually monitored.
As an abstract for Agnew's talk put it, "Results to date indicate that some improvements continue to be made in fisheries after they have been certified, whereas others simply maintained the sustainable level they had already achieved."