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Book Review

Fisheries and Sustainability Certification: Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

Reference: van Putten I, Longo C, Arton A, Watson, M, Anderson CM, Himes-Cornell A, et al. (2020). Shifting focus: The impacts of sustainable seafood certification. PLoS ONE 15(5): e0233237.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0233237

What is a Sustainability Certification?

Have you ever noticed labels on your seafood indicating a sustainable fishery? Perhaps you specifically chose your seafood based on these labels. These sustainability certifications are meant to enforce standards that prevent overuse of valuable fisheries. Many certifications require devices that reduce or exclude bycatch, or organisms other than the target fish that are caught with the same devices. Some examples are Bird Exclusion Devices (BEDS) or Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDS). Certifications also limit the number of organisms that can be caught within each fishery. While there are a number of sustainability certifications, the largest and farthest reaching is the Marine Sterwardship Council (MSC), which has already certified over 360 fisheries and is processing certifications for over 100 more. MSC has several requirements to meet certification. Fisheries must pay for an initial assessment by an independent third party to ensure all requirements are meet. Sometimes this process requires updates to fishing gear, including adding exclusion devices, which are also very costly. After certification is granted, it lasts five years with yearly audits also at a cost. When the five years of certification expires, the fishery must go through the process again. The MSC certification requires a lot of effort to obtain and is very costly. But if a fishery can obtain this certification, they might also qualify for an MSC sustainable eco-label. Although a fishery can be MSC certified without an eco-label, these labels give brand recognition to fisheries that may offer a monetary gain to fisheries.

Image of one of the fisheries included in this study, the Peel-Harvey Estuary blue swimmer crab collected on a fishing vessel certified with MSC. Image Credit: Marine Stewardship Council.

In 2012, the government of Western Australia aimed to increase the number of sustainable fisheries by reducing the financial cost of MSC certification. The Government provided $14.56 million dollars for use in sustainability certification and technology improvements on vessels required to meet standards. The third-party assessments were conducted by two bodies in charge of commercial and recreational fishing in Australia. The government’s goals were to lower the cost of certification, protect the most vulnerable fisheries, and provide data on each fishery in an easily accessible online database. A team of researchers led by van Putten sought to determine the effectiveness of this initiative and of MSC certification in Western Australia.

Survey of Fisheries Stakeholders

This study aimed to determine what the costs and benefits were to obtain and maintain MSC certification by interviewing members of several Australian fisheries. Fisheries included were the Peel-Harvey Estuary blue swimmer crab, Peel-Harvey Estuary sea mullet, Pearl oyster, and the West & South coast abalone. Two commonwealth fisheries, the Heard Island and McDonald Islands Patagonian toothfish and mackerel icefish fishery, were included in the study but were not eligible for government funding. Authors conducted semi-structured interviews with 33 fisheries informants including fisherman, fisheries scientists, fisheries managers, processors, and non-government organizations. Interviews compared the social impact of being labeled sustainable, and other monetary benefits and costs associated with the certification.

The majority of those surveyed indicated the most important driver to gaining certification was to improve their sustainability reputation for the general public. Several other common reasons included economic incentives and financial advantages because of the eco-label. The eco-label provides brand recognition in marketplaces around the world and highlights the efforts these fisheries have made towards sustainability. However, only a few fisheries in the study acquired an eco-label indicating their sustainability practice.  This is likely due to the difficulty getting certification through the supply chain, and as a result there was much less monetary benefit with the MSC certification than expected. The authors noted several mentions of the financial burden of the MSC certification lifted by the government’s initiative as a major reason to seek certification, highlighting the importance of government programs in sustainability efforts.

Western Australia Rock Lobster included in this study and one of the first fisheries certified with MSC. Image Credit: Marine Stewardship Council.

Out of 33 participants, 19 responded that the benefits of getting certified outweighed the cost of certification. The respondents indicated social impacts were generally positive and related to increasing communication between stakeholders, the government and fisheries. Environmental impacts were perceived as mostly positive, and few respondents indicated the MSC certification regulations were not strict enough. Finally, institutional impacts were indicated as increasing transparency and gains in influence and funding availability. By the end of the study 50 fisheries were successfully MSC pre-certified and 10 were fully certified.

Although the majority of respondents gave positive feedback for the MSC certification, many also indicated this required more work and changing regulations and rules made it harder to keep certification. One example was a changing bait requirement that led to conflict between the fishers, the MSC, and the Department of Fisheries.

What does this mean moving forward?

Approximately half of respondents surveyed said the benefits obtained from eco-label certification outweighed the costs of becoming certified. Overall, most of those surveyed indicated government funding lowered the financial barrier of MSC certification. This means without government assistance the costs will likely outweigh the benefits and fewer fisheries will seek certification. Unfortunately, this also has an impact in the market, as fisheries that lose the sustainable eco-label might be perceived as using less sustainable practices even though this is not the case. Another concern is that as more fisheries become certified and sustainability becomes the norm, some of the monetary benefits associated with a sustainable label will be lost.

This survey was a first step in determining the benefits of new funding from the Western Australian government to increase fisheries sustainability. The impacts of funding efforts like this cannot be understated in helping fisheries become more sustainable. Other sustainability dimensions, such as animal welfare, slavery, and safe and ethical employment, have begun to be discussed and should be included in sustainability certifications moving forward. Some sustainability efforts have focused on improving other ecosystem problems at the same time, including starting fisheries for invasive species. These certifications provide an opportunity to connect members of fisheries and bring the conversation of sustainability to fisheries that are directly impacted by regulations.

Video of one of the fisheries included in the MSC certification study in Western Australia. Credit: Bart van Olphen, Bart’s Fish Tales (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKcBZwuD10k).



I’m a PhD student in the Rynearson Lab at the University of Rhode Island (URI) Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO). My research interests are focused on human impacts on the oceanic ecosystem, particularly effects on the primary producers (phytoplankton) at the base of the food web. Currently, I work with cultures from regions of the ocean that are nutrient limited and will conduct experiments to help investigate how these phytoplankton survive.


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