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Marine Stewardship Council pauses new standards for seafood sustainability

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), whose blue check mark is a global symbol of seafood sustainability, has been forced to pause and rework its latest fisheries standard less than a year after it was launched.

The London-based non-profit organization is responding to complaints by fishing industry groups around the world, including major players in Atlantic Canada, that the new standard is vague and unworkable.

“There have been challenges and that’s why we are taking the action we are today to make sure there’s clarity. So people can see the bar they need to meet and can do so efficiently,” said Jay Lugar, head of fisheries outreach at MSC in Canada.

“We missed the mark in some of the elements and some of the clarities I think that were needed in version three of the standard, which is why we’re undertaking this pause,'” Lugar said.

The move is being greeted with relief by one Canadian industry group representing multiple Atlantic fisheries and scorned by an environmental organization.

MSC said it will introduce an updated standard in July and then conduct an independent review of new requirements for evidence, the most contentious element in the new standard.

Previous standard OK for now

“Among the issues to be addressed is whether the framework can be applied in a more efficient manner, leading to less complexity and cost. Input from [non-governmental organizations] and industry stakeholders will be sought in the course of the review,” MSC said in a Jan. 31 announcement.

Jay Lugar is the head of fisheries outreach at the Marine Stewardship Council in Canada. (CBC)

Fisheries wishing to recertify will be allowed to use the previous standard for another two years until February 2026, as will new fisheries wishing to enter the MSC program.

The updated version will be mandatory by 2030.

“We have all had significant concerns,” said Steve Devitt, director of sustainability with the Atlantic Groundfish Council. It represents five MSC-certified fisheries in the region, including the southwestern Nova Scotia haddock fishery and halibut harvesters throughout much of Atlantic Canada.

As an example, he said a new requirement to prove that damage from ghost gear is “demonstrably absent” can’t be met.

Confusion over ghost gear

“How do you prove that? Well, it’s essentially impossible to prove that a loss, a piece of lost gear, has zero impact. We don’t know how to do that,” Devitt said.

“That phrase in particular is a concern to us and requires clarification. Are you talking about the gear itself? Are you saying that there should be no lost gear?”

man sits in front of web camera.
Steve Devitt is the director of sustainability with the Atlantic Groundfish Council. (CBC)

Lugar from MSC said confusion over ghost gear will be fixed.

“That is one particular element that we are definitely going to address in this amended version,” he said.

Lugar said refinements can be made “without adjusting the sustainability performance level.”

“We don’t want to see fisheries just leave because they get frustrated. We want them to continue to try and achieve sustainability outcomes,” he said.

Environmental group rejects industry claims

A Halifax environmental group said the Marine Stewardship Council has taken a step back.

Shannon Arnold, associate director of marine programs at the Ecology Action Centre, rejects industry claims.

A woman and a man, wearing waterproof jackets, stand in a boat out on the water.
Shannon Arnold, left, is an associate director of marine programs at the Ecology Action Centre. (Moira Donovan/CBC)

“The requirements that these industry groups are complaining about the most, like providing better information about what they’re pulling from the water, how they’re fishing, what are their impacts on the environment and endangered species and showing that they have clear evidence that they’re even complying with rules that are out there already,” Arnold said. 

“This has been coming down the pipeline for a decade. You know, it’s not a surprise that this is going to be required and a lot of it is achievable.”

Questions around testing the new standard

MSC took four years to develop the new standard after what it called “the most comprehensive review in 25 years.”

But Devitt said it was introduced without “hardcore” testing it on actual fisheries.

Opinions differ on what happened when a certified Canadian fisher was tested under the new standard.

Devitt said it came across a number of issues under the new rules “that caused the overall scoring to essentially fail the fishery.”

Lugar said the test was not an adequate assessment and the results were “misleading.”

“After further dialogue with the people involved in that testing, they realized that in actual fact it does pass.”

Neither would identify the fishery.

2-year extension

The two-year extension will allow the Maritime lobster fleet to recertify as a sustainable MSC fishery in 2025 under the older standard.

Geoff Irvine of the Lobster Council of Canada said in December the fishery would not meet the third-party monitoring required in the new standard.

“It’s a gold-standard program. But we also know that we may not be able to stick with MSC. So we’re looking at other options and there’s some active things happening there,” Irvine told CBC News.

Devitt said fisheries in Canada and around the world were left wondering whether they could meet the new 200-page standard as written.

“We’re pleased to see that the MSC have recognized they need to put the brakes on this and have some consideration about what the outcome of this could be in the worldview,” he said.

“If all of a sudden fisheries that perform very highly against the gold standard, because the MSC standard is the gold standard for eco-certification for wild capture fisheries, it would not look good to have those fisheries significantly change, their performance be significantly changed without any actual change in the practice of the fishery.”

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