MSC certification: a question for Maine lobster

First published in the MLA newsletter, May, 2010.

The Maine lobster trap fishery’s bid for Marine Stewardship Council certification is still in review, despite previous estimates that results would be delivered June 2009. Many lobstermen still have questions about how the review process works, what certification means, and how it has impacted fishermen in other fisheries.

MSC is an internationally-recognized certification program for wild-capture fisheries. It was formed in 1997 by the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever, the world’s largest purchaser of frozen fish at the time. Their goal was to influence fishery practices through market forces. Products from approved fisheries can display the MSC’s iconic blue fish eco-label.

The England-based independent certifier, Moody Marine Ltd., is conducting the assessment, which evaluates the health of the lobster stock, the impact that lobstering has on the marine environment, and the effectiveness of fishery management systems.

The Maine lobster trap fishery already underwent and passed a confidential pre-assessment process. In February 2008, Governor John Baldacci appointed an informal working group to further pursue MSC certification. That group includes George Lapointe, Commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, John Hathaway, president and owner of Shucks Maine Lobster of Richmond, and Linda L. Bean, owner of Port Clyde Lobster in Port Clyde.

Some feel that the Maine lobster industry is already sustainable, without MSC certification. MLA photo.

In November 2008, the full-assessment of the Maine lobster trap fishery began. During full assessment, the certifier (Moody Marine, in this case) appoints a panel, which includes a fishery stock assessment expert, an ecosystem expert and a fishery management expert. This panel collects data, develops performance indicators, ranks the fishery, and distributes a preliminary report for peer review and public comment.

The Maine lobster trap fishery’s application is in the peer review stage, with results expected by the end of April. During the review process, the panel must arrange meetings with stakeholders. At the end of the process, the certifier announces if the fishery is certified.

A big question lobstermen have is who will pay for certification. According to the Maine Lobster Promotion Council, the price tag for the full assessment was about $150,000. Pre-assessment costs were between $8,000 to $9,000. The full costs of certification have to account for the full five year certification period and could reach as high as $500,000 or more. This cost estimate does not include re-certification costs, “chain of custody” costs, or other requirements.

So far, individuals and private companies have paid for the assessment process, but how the industry would proceed is unknown. Lobstermen object to chipping in for certification without certainty that lobstermen will receive a portion of the higher prices paid for MSC-certified products.

Another question is how effective the MSC label is at generating consumer demand. MSC can boast their growing percentage of seafood products displaying the eco-label. Large retailers also are beginning to demand MSC-certification for all of the seafood products they sell.

Other fisheries around the world are grappling with the costs and benefits of MSC certification. MLA photo.

At the Maine Fishermen’s Forum in March, Hathaway reiterated his support for MSC certification. “I have three letters: MSC. I have one word: Wal-Mart,” he said, referring to Wal-Mart’s decision to sell only MSC-certified seafood by 2011. Other big lobster retailers, such as Tesco, Whole Foods and Mars pet food, have made similar announcements.

“You need traceability. They want to know where their food comes from you have to tell that story. They want sustainability,” said Hathaway. Worldwide, there are 69 MSC-certified fisheries and 121 more in assessment. MSC-certified fisheries catch about 4 million metric tons of seafood annually, which is over seven percent of the world’s fish consumption. Over 3,800 seafood products display the MSC eco-label.

But some conservationists criticize the MSC label. When British Columbia’s sockeye fishery entered full assessment, the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, David Suzuki Foundation, SkeenaWild Conservation Trust and the Gitksan Watershed Authorities all objected and continue to protest. Lobstermen are also skeptical of a third party’s assessment of their fishery, worrying that sustainability standards will change and create a “moving target.”

MSC certification is valid for five years, after which the fishery must undergo a new assessment in order to renew certification. Throughout the five years, the fishery is subject to annual audits of fishing practices.

The first fishery to gain MSC-certification was the Western Australia rock lobster fishery in 2000. Certification helped reduce tariffs imposed on the fishery’s products by the European Union. Fishermen reported that MSC certification helped them argue against the necessity of marine protected areas. Alaska salmon also was one of the first MSC-certified fisheries. They gained recertification in 2007.

Gulf of St. Lawrence northern shrimp trawl fishery gained MSC-certification in 2008. More than half of their harvest already went to the UK, where retailers are demanding certification. The Mexican Baja California red rock lobster fishery gained MSC-certification in 2004. According to the MSC website, certification helped Baja lobstermen dispute claims that lobstering was damaging the environment there.