Know the basics
Joining the MSC certification program is a significant step for any fishery and one that is likely to deliver considerable benefits. It is important from the start that you have a good understanding of what is involved, so that you can answer questions and present an accurate picture of the assessment process. Below are some of the first questions we hear from fisheries at the start of the process:
What is certification?
Under the MSC programme, fisheries are certified as sustainable and well managed if they meet the MSC environmental standard for sustainable fishing. To maintain impartiality, the MSC operates a ‘third-party’ certification programme. This is the highest level of assurance and means that the outcome is unbiased:
- First party: an organisation, product or service meets standards it has set for itself
- Second-party: it meets standards established by peers, for example by an industry association
- Third-party (‘certification’): an independent assessment shows that the organisation, product or service meets standards that have been set by impartial experts. A certificate is issued to prove that the standard has been met.
In the case of fishing, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation recommends that fishery ecolabelling programmes should use third-party certification, to maintain the confidence of seafood buyers.
Certification is a multi-step process carried out by an independent certifier who is appointed by a fishery. The certifier must be accredited by Accreditation Services International to certify fisheries against the MSC environmental standard for sustainable fishing. All accredited certifiers are listed on our Find a Certifier web page. Once the certifier has been appointed, the assessment process can start:
Pre-assessment: A confidential report by the certifier tells the fishery if it is ready for full assessment and may also give guidance about how to get ready for full assessment.
Preparation: Fisheries may prepare for full assessment by communicating with colleagues, agencies and buyers, applying for grants, appointing a project manager or steering group, and making contact with stakeholders to encourage participation in the assessment process.
Full assessment: A 7-step process to determine whether the fishery meets the MSC standard. The process is led by the appointed certifier and its expert assessment team. It involves consulting with stakeholders, developing performance indicators, scoring the fishery, identifying ways that the fishery can strengthen its performance (if needed), peer review and making a final determination about whether the fishery meets the MSC standard. This is an intensive process that calls for a high level of information to be provided by the fishery and others.
After assessment: Fisheries must arrange for an annual audit of the fishery and should plan how they wish to make the most of certification with the MSC Chain of Custody standard for seafood traceability.
The MSC environmental standard for sustainable fishing was developed following an international consultation with stakeholders around the world. The standard is called the Principles and Criteria of Sustainable Fishing and is based on the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and other international conservation instruments.
The 3 principles of the standard are:
1. Maintenance of the target fish stock
2. Maintenance of the ecosystem
3. Effectiveness of the fishery management system
Supporting the 3 principles are 23 criteria, which are used by certification bodies when assessing fisheries. To guide certifiers in the process of assessment the MSC has developed a fishery certification requirements. This sets out what certifiers must do when assessing fisheries, particularly what information must be provided and when stakeholders should be consulted.
A ‘fishery client’ is an individual, organisation or group of organisations that make a formal application for a fishery to be assessed. Fishery clients have included government agencies, fishing industry associations and local management authorities, amongst others.
The fishery client is ultimately responsible for implementing any conditions placed on the fishery as a requirement of certification. If conditions are not implemented it can lead to suspension or withdrawal of the certificate, so the fishery client should have some influence over the management of the fishery, strong project management skills and be confident that any required conditions can be managed and implemented.
Fisheries applying for assessment are usually described using 4 reference points - the geographic area of fishing, the target fish stock, the fishing gear used and the management group(s) or organisation(s) taking responsibility for the certificate. Other aspects of the fishery may also be used to make it clear what is included and what is not. Together, these are known as the 'unit of certification' and are decided by the client at the beginning of the certification process, with advice from the certifier. It could include an entire fishery or just certain vessels within a fishery, one species or several, and includes reference to the gears or fishing methods utilised within the fishery.
Only fish from the named unit of certification will be able to carry the MSC ecolabel in the marketplace. So the key question for a client fishery at the start of the process is: What do you want to be assessed? If the certification is successful, what and/or who will be certified? What products do you want to be able to carry the MSC label in the marketplace?
The unit of certification cannot be changed partway through the assessment without substantial delay. This means that a fishery cannot add species, such as retained bycatch, to a certificate at the end of a successful assessment process – it’s vital to get this right at the very beginning of the process.
The fishery client group decides which vessels are included within the unit of certification and only these vessels are entitled to use the certificate. Other vessels may be able to join the client group at a later date under ‘certificate sharing’ arrangements. However, additional vessels may only join the client group if they fit with all other aspects of the unit – such as gear type, target stock, geographic area and management etc.
Assessing the sustainability of a fishery is complex, and it is important that it is robust and credible. Aside from the financial costs of the assessment, fisheries should expect the assessment process to require time input from their own staff and for many others who will be asked to participate in the assessment process - such as regulators, agencies and stakeholders. Involving these groups from the start and gaining their support will encourage them to invest time in the assessment.
It is important that the assessment process is properly managed from the start. One of the key findings from fisheries that have been certified is that having a good understanding of what is required and getting prepared before the full assessment will reduce the timescales and cost of the assessment. Appointing a project manager is highly recommended by fisheries that have been through the assessment process.
There also needs to be a strong commitment by the fishery to implement actions to improve sustainability and performance if required. Fisheries may also need to pay for research about the fishery, or for management practices to be implemented.
The costs of fishery assessments and certification costs are negotiated between the client and the certifier. The MSC does not receive any payment for assessments or certifications and is not involved in setting the costs associated with assessment. Instead, income for the MSC is only generated through licensing when retailers, restaurants and seafood processors choose to use the MSC label on their products.
The main elements of the fishery assessment and certification process that carry a cost are:
- Full assessment
- Annual audits
Fees charged by certifiers are generally kept confidential between the client and the certifier, and are usually determined on a case-by-case approach based upon each stage of the fishery assessment process. Grants are available to help fisheries cover these costs.
The cost of fishery assessments varies and depends on the complexity of the fishery, the availability of information and the level of stakeholder involvement. Anecdotal information indicates that the current cost of certification can vary between $15,000 (USD) and $120,000 (USD), perhaps more for more complex assessments with multiple units of certification. Ensuring you are prepared for the assessment will reduce the cost and time taken to assess a fishery.
Preparation and good project management are the keys to reducing assessment time and costs. Ensuring that you have prepared all of the required information will help deliver a smooth and timely assessment.
The average time taken for previous assessment is 18 months but with great variation around this. The length of the process depends to some extent on your preparation, your timeframes, as well as the nature and complexity of the fishery. The degree of commitment and willingness to engage by those who hold important information or data on the fishery is a crucial factor that influences the length of the process.
Finally, the resources available to the certification body as well as the level of other work commitments of their assessment team members can significantly influence how long the certification process takes. Raise the issue of timeframes directly with prospective certifiers.
Previous clients recommend you ask lots of questions of prospective certifiers about their experiences with the duration of assessment project and use your contract to ensure a short process.
The MSC sets the standard that fisheries are assessed against, defines the fishery certification requirements and provides technical advice on interpreting the MSC standard and requirements.
Accreditation Services International independently accredits third-party certifiers to conduct assessments against the MSC standards, monitors compliance by certifiers and is the first point of contact for complaints about certifiers.
Certifiers are accredited by ASI to carry out assessments, are responsible for the assessment team, issue fishery certificates and conducts the audits during the lifetime of a fishery certificate.
The fishery assessment team is appointed by the certifier to assess fisheries against the MSC standard. The team uses information provided by the client fishery and stakeholders to score a fishery on set criteria, and is not obliged to seek original data or conduct research in order to reach a judgement about whether the fishery meets the MSC standard.
The fishery client:
- Must be a legally-constituted body able to enter into legal contracts.
- Ensures that the assessment team has unrestricted access to data and information about the fishery.
- Discloses all favourable and non-favourable information of relevance about the fishery to the assessment team.
- Ensures the certifier is aware of all relevant stakeholders.
- Draw the attention of the assessment team to any issues or concerns they have regarding the conduct or performance of the fishery relevant to the MSC standard.
- Provide well informed and substantive arguments for their positions, including reference to objective evidence to assist the assessment team.
- May act as representatives of their constituents, representing their interests and positions.
All fishery certifiers are required to have their own complaints procedure. You should be able to find this on their website – listed with their contact details. If you need to raise a complaint with your certifier, please use their complaints procedure as a first step.
If you are not satisfied with your certifier’s response, it is possible to raise a complaint with MSC’s independent accreditation body – Accreditation Services International (ASI). ASI's website includes full details of the .