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New SeaChoice Report: What’s Behind the Label?

Eco-certifications fail to hold Canadian fisheries and aquaculture accountable for their full environmental impacts

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Image of SeaChoice reportSeafood eco-certifications by two prominent organizations are falling short, according to a new report by SeaChoice, a coalition of Canada's leading sustainable seafood advocacy organizations. What's behind the label? Assessing the impact of MSC and ASC seafood certifications in Canada is the first review of whether the Marine Stewardship Council and Aquaculture Stewardship Council have improved sustainability in Canadian seafood production.

With two-thirds of Canadian fisheries MSC-certified, and an industry goal to achieve ASC certification for all British Columbia farmed salmon by 2020, it is crucial these eco-labels are credibly applied and delivering genuine improvements 'on the water'.

SeaChoice found that, over the past decade in Canada, MSC catalyzed engagement of the fishing industry in sustainability issues and led to important progress in management transparency, timely research and information availability. However, it has fallen short in helping reduce critical fishing impacts, such as harm to ocean habitats and threatened species. Only 15 per cent of certification requirements to improve such collateral impacts have led to tangible change in fishing practices. SeaChoice also found that deadlines for fisheries to meet mandatory improvements were often not met. Some fisheries have up to nine years after certification to fully achieve MSC requirements, all the while continuing to use the eco-label on products.

"Reducing the full ecosystem impacts of fisheries is necessary for a thriving ocean and so we have healthy fisheries for generations to come," says Shannon Arnold, report author and Marine Policy Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre. "If the MSC fails to hold its fisheries accountable for promised improvements, the label will no longer act as an incentive for change. We worry it is just rewarding status quo. We need more than that to get to truly sustainable fisheries in this country."

For ASC, SeaChoice found frequent deviations from the '100 per cent compliance' it requires for the salmon standard. British Columbia farms regularly have "non-conformities" and rely on "variances" to the standard criteria to be certified. Variances to overcome minor technical difficulties (e.g., a missed sampling date because of bad weather) make sense, but variances in B.C. frequently change standards or defer to government. "It has never been more important to reduce the impacts of open-net aquaculture on wild salmon," says Kelly Roebuck, report author and SeaChoice representative from Living Oceans Society. "Yet, after only two years, ASC is undermining any potential improvements by overriding the multi-stakeholder agreements that established the standard in order to accommodate industry norms."

SeaChoice also found the full impact of farmed salmon is often not assessed because up to a year of the production cycle may never be audited against the ASC standard. ASC's suspension and revocation rules for certified farms that violate the standard's requirements also appear inadequate or underused. One certified farm that experienced several sea lion deaths, a breach that would have prevented initial certification, has twice successfully sent salmon to market with the ASC label.

"While MSC and ASC are the leading seafood-certification systems, our analysis revealed very real risks to the credibility and application of both labelling schemes," says Susanna Fuller, SeaChoice steering committee member. "This ultimately leads to a lack of trust in the standards and the certification processes. MSC and ASC must address key concerns we identified if they truly aim to contribute to a sustainable future for our oceans."

SeaChoice is committed to working with both certification schemes on recommended improvements as well as with government regulatory agencies to ensure that Canada's laws and policies for fisheries and aquaculture operations set a high bar for sustainability. SeaChoice representatives will be attending the World Seafood Congress which starts today in Reykjavik, Iceland where eco-certifications, seafood traceability and labelling are key topics of discussion.

More information:

What’s behind the label?

Press release

Download reports:

What’s behind the label? Assessing the impact of MSC and ASC seafood certifications in Canada

A decade of MSC certifications in Canada – technical report

Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) certifications in Canada – technical report

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