March 27, 2019

MSC withdraw sustainable status of northeast Atlantic mackerel Fisheries.

On January 31st 2019 the Marine Stewardship Council announced a suspension of sustainable status for all the Mackerel fished in the North of Scotland because the stocks were very low and had been badly overfished. A recent inspection, only 6 months prior, in June 2018, part of the regular monitoring process of the MSC program, had not reached that conclusion and the fishery continued to be certified.

This vividly illustrates the downside of making guarantees around total fish stock. The truth is if Mackerel fish stock are in such a poor state now then all the recently fished mackerel certified sustainable under MSC rules was in fact fished when it was surely unsustainable? And the cut-off date between certified and non-certified was on or after March 2nd, so your supermarket bought Mackerel was fished sustainably if caught on the 1st of March but not if caught on the 2nd.

The MSC system works with a score card under several different headings. To simplify you have heading one: overfishing / fish stock questions, heading two: methods and equipment, and heading three: management questions, therefore indirectly also fish stock questions, since a mismanaged stock is one that will be in some ways overfished.  These headings are called Pillars: Pillar 1, 2 and 3 or P1 and so forth for short, with each Pillar then broken into sub-sections. According to the current analysis a 68% cut in current catches is required and according to the current analysis a P1 impressively high score of 90.8 has plummeted to a fail.


At Fish4Ever we have several problems with the MSC logic. First is the missing Pillar: P4 – the social question. A narrow biological definition of sustainability could be just interested in fish stocks – in the ability of a fish species to reproduce itself ad infinitum when fished at a prescribed level. For Fish4Ever, sustainability is first and foremost holistic: political, economic and social considerations interlink with the ecological. This is in fact exactly how the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals define sustainable. The MSC is considering adding slave labour rules at the request of its main beneficiaries – the large corporations and huge supermarket groups. So why not social rules? Why are we not looking at who owns the boats, who has the right to fish, where are they regulated, who is subsidised, the impact on local communities, on poverty alleviation, and who mediates the access to the resource? This to us and many other detractors of the MSC system is at least equal to a 50% weighting to the biological or ecological aspect of sustainability.


Now for the killer stat that rarely gets aired. In the MSC propaganda produced by fish brands and displayed on fish counters you will almost always find a picture of a small boat, a handful of fishermen, a wise old skipper-owner on board and not in a high rise office a thousand miles away, and a local port. This is what we as consumers imagine is sustainable fishing. Hence this is the picture used by everybody. Now for that killer stat: 90-95% of MSC certified fish comes from industrial boats.

Yet globally the small scale industry which produces half of all fish for human consumption, fishes with far less damaging impact-  far more precise methods, far less fuel, significantly less waste and a tiny portion of the subsidy pie. That’s why our own definition of sustainability is centred on who is fishing, how and where and why we reject the MSC’s right to define sustainability. This is why we are so strict on methods and equipment used, why we prioritise local boats and local fishing communities fishing (always) with boats closest to the fish stock and also packing and producing locally wherever possible.


If we go back to P1, P2 and P3. It is on P2 – methods and equipment – that small scale fishing would in the vast majority of cases do pretty well. P2 is also where individual choices can be made: I buy from this boat, using this equipment, fishing in this area and landing in this port.  That’s a choice we can make as fish brands or buyers. P1 remember is fish stocks and P3 management of said fish stock – both of which are really in the sphere of the commons. Now going back to the question of North Atlantic mackerel, which has failed on P1 criteria but amazingly not on P3 criteria. For us it is highly implausible that a stock which needs a 68% drop in catches and where quotas are set above scientific advice cannot also be at fault on P3.

The truth is this suspension, like all questions of total fish stocks, is controversial and highly debated. Different models and evidence could produce different conclusions. The fish stock could be anything between dangerously overfished to pretty close to okay, which is why at Fish4Ever we look at the fish stock evidence but we refuse to make guarantees around the state of fish stocks. First because it is an imprecise science. Second because we are not the competent authority. Third because that decision should never belong to a private body: it belongs in the commons. Given the vast majority of fish stock positions are at a borderline point between overfished and just about okay, we believe our reticence is justified.

The MSC is in a difficult position trying to reign in overfishing and discipline the industrial fleets.  It is far better placed and financed and positioned to make a stab at defining a sustainable fish stock than we are.  And in both these aims it is a force for good. Unfortunately it is equally a force for bad when the over- focus on fish stocks through the P1 and P3 criteria detracts from wider holistic criteria that are under-represented or simply ignored in the MSC system. Worse, by validating a definition of sustainability that works in favour of large scale industrial fishing and large scale retailers it drives the final few nails into the coffin of small scale fishing.

Charles Redfern, MD / Founder, Fish4Ever

Leave a Reply