MSC Fisheries 3 principles

This month we want to talk about MSC, concretely about the Fishery Standard and why is it important for the sustainability of our seas. This is the first steppingstone to getting Certified Sea food to the consumer through MSC Chain of Custody Certification.

The MSC Fisheries Standard is based in three core principles: the sustainability of the stock, the ecosystem impact, and the effective management of the fisheries. But what does it mean in reality?

Nowadays most of us are aware that our seas are in great danger and that intensive fishing damages the ecosystems and is depleting the oceans of most of the species. The most common questions are:

Are enough fish left? That is a key point in the MSC Fishery Standard stating that fishing must be at a level that ensures it can continue indefinitely and the fish population can remain healthy and productive. To achieve this MSC stablishes a series of requirements for maintaining fish stocks.

The Fisheries Standard requires that stocks maintain a sustainable size (the amount of fish that remain in the water) that produces the maximum sustainable yield. That means the largest catch that fishers can take from a fish stock each year without affecting future years of this.

When assessing a fishery, certification bodies look at both the stock size and the harvest strategies. A harvest strategy is the combination of monitoring, stock assessment, harvest control rules and management actions taken by a fishery. This harvest strategies must maintain stocks at a level that can support the maximum sustainable yield, or help it recover if the stock has dropped below the acceptable number.

We need to keep in mind that fish stocks are dynamic. Fluctuating environmental conditions and populations, combined with variation in fishing effort, mean that the size of fish populations will change over time. This is especially true for small pelagic fish (fish that do not feed at the ocean bottom or near the shore) like herring or sprat, or short-lived invertebrates such as squid and octopus. To take variability and uncertainty into account, the MSC Fisheries Standard requires that harvest strategies are robust and precautionary.

Not addressing long term objectives in an appropriate timeframe may end up having a negative impact on the sustainability of our seas and fishing practices. There is a need for those responsible to focus on long-term sustainability, to follow best practice and guarantee stocks are managed at an appropriate productivity level with robust management measures.

But what is the real impact of fishing? All the fishing activity must be managed carefully so that other species and habitats within the ecosystem remain healthy.

The Fisheries Standard’s Principle 2: minimising environmental impact, covers the effect a fishery has on the environment. There are five components to this Principle:

  • Primary species
  • Secondary species
  • Endangered, threatened and protected species
  • Habitats
  • The structure and function of the ecosystem on which the fishery depends

The habitat impacts of a fishery are always considered in an MSC assessment. A fishery cannot be certified if it causes serious damage or irreversible impact on the structure and function of a seafloor habitat. The Standard defines irreversible impact as damage from which a habitat will take 20 years or longer to recover.

Assessors also look at the wider ecosystem impacts of the fishery, including the removal of important species that are food for the ecosystem, such as sardines. They also look at the biodiversity and health of the ecosystem and its resilience to change. Simulations of the ecosystem are sometimes used to estimate its status.

Are operations and fisheries really well managed? MSC certified fisheries must comply with relevant laws and be able to adapt to changing environmental circumstances.

The way in which a fishery is governed, and the management system it has in place, is assessed under Principle 3 of the MSC Fisheries Standard: effective fisheries management. When fisheries are assessed, the certification body checks that:

  • An effective legal or customary framework is in place that recognises the rights of people dependent on fishing for food and livelihoods
  • Management objectives are consistent with the Fisheries Standard
  • There are effective consultation and decision-making processes in place
  • The is a system in place to effectively enforce management rules
  • The performance of the management system is evaluated

Once fisheries are compliant with these 3 principles, they can sell MSC certified Sea Food. This will then be handled through companies in the supply chain with valid MSC Chain of custody certification to finally be a MSC labelled end-product that you can find in the store.

We know there is still a lot of work ahead and the sustainability of our oceans is a fundamental piece if we want to make durable changes that are positive for the planet. Assuring that the fish that we consume comes from a certificated source is a step towards a better earth for our children.

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