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Certification programmes

In this step we explore how are fisheries and fish farms certified, and what the limits of these certification programmes are.

As we have seen in step 3.5, different certification programmes result in different labels, such as the blue MSC label and the green ASC label, displayed on the fish that we buy. But how are fisheries and fish farms certified in the first place? And which are the limits of these certification programmes?

How do fisheries obtain a MSC certification?

When fisheries apply to be assessed by the MSC Fisheries Standard, a council of scientists, conservation groups, and fishery industries reviews the fishery based on these standard requisites:[1,2]

  • Stocks are not overfished. If the fish population drops below the sustainable level that has been suggested to uphold, the fishery should reduce its main catch. So, the main catch needs to be monitored regularly.
  • Bycatch and ecosystem impacts are within sustainable limits. Bycatch needs to be noted and a strategy must be in place to reduce unwanted death of those species. On top of that, the fishery must have a strategy to minimise its habitat impact.
  • The fishery practices sustainable fisheries management. It must sustain livelihood for the people who depend on present and future fishing.

Overall a fishery cannot apply if:

1) they are targeting amphibians, reptiles, birds or mammals,

2) use destructive fishing practices such as explosives or poison,

3) if they have been prosecuted for forced and child labour violations within the last two years, or

4) if a fishery has been conducted under a controversial (unilateral) exemption to some international agreement.[2]

How do farms obtain an ASC certification?

While there are more than 150 performance indicators that will decide whether a farm can achieve the ASC certified label, it can all be boiled down to these two main requirements:[3]

  • Environmental sustainability: The farm must protect the environment, ensure good water quality and fish health, meet standards on ingredient sources for feed, as well as minimise impact on wild populations (preventing escapes, since escaping fish can pose a threat toward wild populations). It also implies that the farm should not use unnecessary antibiotics or chemicals deemed. The ASC Standard for shrimp for example, allows no antibiotic treatment but accepts some level of antibiotics due to residue in water systems.[4]
  • Social responsibility: Employees of ASC marked farms must be treated responsibly and with care (e.g. the safety of workers and no child labour allowed). Furthermore, fish farms should be working together with the local community, rather than negatively impacting them and their resources.

A committee takes these two main requirements and applies them to 11 marine animal groups:

Alt textClick to expand 11 marine animal groups

Although this list covers the majority of farmed species, other species still remain ineligible to gain ASC certification, as ASC has no current standards for them. This website has an illustration with the certification process. It would be fair/necessary to add that the farm needs to pay for this certification process.

ASC tries to encourage feedback from scientists, NGOs, the industrial sector, and even the public. Constant reviewing, revision, and reassessments occur regularly for both fish farms and the ASC standards.

What are the lists of sustainable certifications?

Sustainable certification processes face similar critiques:

  • Certifications facilitate large-scale producers over small producers who often struggle to enter into the market.[5]
  • Gaining these certificates is costly and the certifiers (like MSC and ASC) take a percentage of certificate holders’ sales as a source of income.
  • Perfectly sustainable fisheries (often smaller fisheries) that cannot afford the certification are excluded. It can cause confusion among us consumers since the lack of certification does not always mean that a fishery is not sustainable. Trying to combat this imbalance, the ASC has established a new opportunity to receive group certificates specifically for small-scale farmers.[6]
  • Problems like language and accessibility of information can hinder fishers’ opportunity to apply for a label.
  • MSC has been criticised for being too lenient and discretionary in its certification of fisheries.
  • Both ASC-certified farms and MSC-certified fisheries continue to be audited annually after successful certification. However, once certified, they might have little incentive to improve towards higher levels of sustainability.[7] More fisheries become certified, the less distinction there will be between those that are more sustainable than others.
  • Consumers might be confused by the presence of several different eco-labels or misled by the terminology used on seafood packages: ‘responsibly caught’ is different from ‘sustainably caught’, and ‘responsibly sourced’ is not the same as ‘responsibly caught’.

Certifications are not perfect, but they do push farmers and fishers to take a more sustainable course of action.

Author: Jessica Tengvall

Let’s discuss:

  1. Do you keep an eye out for food labels when you shop? Are they helpful or confusing?
  2. Is it easy or difficult to buy sustainably caught fish in your area?
  3. The MSC programme certifies only the fisheries that respect its standards, while other eco-labels like the Seafood Watch ranks wild-caught products with a traffic-light system: green “Best Choice”, yellow “Good Alternative”, or a red “Avoid”. Which one do you think works best?

Let us know what you think in the comments below!

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Sustainable Seafood: Barriers and Opportunities in the Fishing Industry

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