What’s behind the label?

Click to download “What’s behind the label?”

Seafood eco-certifications are now common-place in the Canadian market. Two of the most prominent eco-labels are the global Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC). Given the growing volume of Canadian seafood that is certified by third party organizations, it is critical that the certification Standards and processes are credible and lead to genuine sustainability improvements ‘on the water’.

SeaChoice has completed the first review of all Canadian MSC and ASC certifications with the goal of examining the application of the Standards and the subsequent impact of certifications on environmental improvements in Canadian fishery and aquaculture practices.

While both eco-certifications may have been on the cutting edge of best practice at the outset, our analysis suggests this is no longer the case. Following a decade of certifications starting in 2008, we found the role of MSC to help push improvement forward in Canadian fisheries is increasingly limited, with most Canadian fisheries now certified. With the first certifications in 2015,  ASC is in danger of lowering its sustainability bar by deferring to government regulations that fall below their Standard.

What is Behind the Label? is supported by technical reports on MSC and ASC  certifications:

Click to download MSC technical report

MSC Key Findings

For most Canadian certifications, MSC has acted as a catalyst for increased data transparency, improved research and analysis and more timely policy implementation from the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). Fishery clients and DFO do respond to MSC certification requirements and have invested resources to meet the certification milestones as demonstrated through completion of certification requirements related to the target stock and management policies.

However, our analysis of how MSC certification is being implemented in Canada reveals several problematic findings. Even with requirements of certification meant to bring fisheries up to MSC’s ‘global best practice level’ – our analysis found little change to fishery practices ‘on the water’ to directly improve their impacts on habitat, non-target species and ecosystem function. We found significant timeline extensions and flexible interpretations of the application of Standard requirements across several certifications. With the 80% by volume and 60% by value of Canadian fisheries MSC certified, there may be little leverage left for further improvements in sustainability  until the MSC Standard requirements themselves are raised and more strictly implemented.

Click to download ASC technical report

ASC Key Findings

As the first salmon farm was certified in Canada in 2015, it is difficult to determine whether or not ASC certification is leading to environmental improvements ‘on the water’. Our review of all certifications and audits to date found emerging patterns with the implementation of the Salmon Standard in Canada that suggest the ASC is lowering its sustainability bar to accommodate current industry practices.

We found the Standard’s claim of ‘100% compliance in order to be certified’ to be misleading. In fact,  salmon farms in British Columbia regularly have non-conformities raised and rely on variances to the Standard criteria in order to be certified. These variances typically defer to government regulations that are below the ASC Standard. We also found up to a year of the production cycle is never assessed by auditors for compliance. Furthermore, we are concerned about the adequacy of ASC’s suspension and revocation rules for certified farms that violate the Standard’s requirements. For example, a certified farm that experienced 7 sea lion deaths (5 above the Standard threshold), a breach that would have disqualified the farm from initial certification, has twice successfully harvested and entered the market with the ASC certification. If left to continue, these identified concerns will undermine efforts to raise the sustainability bar and could threaten the credibility of the ASC label.

MSC: Since 2008, 36 MSC certifications have been granted in Canada covering 80% of fisheries landings by value and 66% of landings by volume.

ASC: Since 2015, 17 farms representing just over a quarter of active B.C. salmon farms are ASC certified. The B.C. industry have committed to 100 per cent ASC certification by 2020.

Should consumers and retailers continue to buy MSC and ASC certified seafood?

Consumers and retailers are making efforts to choose eco-certified seafood. Our job is to ensure those  labels are credible. SeaChoice is committed to  keeping MSC and ASC’s Standards at a level that ultimately lead to real ‘changes on the water’ and reductions in the environmental impact of fishing and aquaculture.

While both eco-certifications are the most highly regarded in comparison to peers, they are not without their fault. There are a  handful of fisheries that we do not recommend to consumers even with the MSC label (for example Canadian surface longline swordfish). For farmed fish, we regard ASC shrimp and shellfish certifications as sustainable options. However, we disagree with the recent Seafood Watch analysis of the ASC Salmon Standard which deemed it to be a “good alternative”, as the study did not reflect the true application of the standard. We recommend consumers to support more sustainably farmed options, such as closed containment farmed salmon, Arctic char and rainbow trout.

Further information:

SeaChoice cover letter to MSC

MSC response to “What’s behind the label”

SeaChoice responds to MSC’s response to “What’s Behind the Label”

SeaChoice cover letter to ASC

ASC response to SeaChoice technical report