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MSC responds to incomplete and misleading NPR series on sustainable seafood

Feb 26, 2013

The Rest of the Story:

MSC RESPONDS TO INCOMPLETE AND MISLEADING NPR SERIES ON SUSTAINABLE SEAFOOD

On February 11th and 12th, 2013, NPR broadcast a three-part series spanning over 30 minutes of airtime focusing on the Marine Stewardship Council, its fisheries assessment and certification program, and seafood sustainability. 

Given that nearly one billion people in the world rely on seafood as a main protein source and that global fisheries are under significant pressure and environmental sustainability is an imperative, there was perhaps no better time and no better media outlet to tackle the richness and complexity of this story. Or so it seemed until MSC and its many supporters and partners were stunned and dismayed at the narrow, misleading and incomplete coverage of the NPR series, especially considering the nearly 14 months of work by NPR's investigative unit and NPR's reputation for ensuring ‘all things considered’. 

MSC has spent the past 15 years building a credible, science-based, globally-accepted standard for environmental sustainability in fisheries and a global, transparent, third-party system with multiple checks and balances to allow fisheries anywhere in the world to be measured against that standard.  The quality of that effort has been reviewed and confirmed repeatedly, most recently in September 2012 when an independent review by Accenture found that MSC is the leading fisheries certification program in the world (see: MSC-Sustainability-Certification-Remains-Best-In-Class).

The MSC program has also contributed to development of a global seafood market that is actively supporting sustainable seafood over unsustainable choices and so further driving environmental performance of fisheries upwards. In so doing, the MSC program has created market incentive and a framework for all fisheries to assess and reduce their environmental impacts. The depth of the impact of this phenomenon is demonstrated by the fact that conservation organizations including World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP) and commercial suppliers are working around the globe with fisheries to benchmark their performance against the MSC standard and then work to improve practices to a point where they can meet the standard.

Against this backdrop of the MSC’s record from a transformative idea in 1997 and startup in 1999 to a relevant global player today, with a host of significant accomplishments along with real challenges, over 190 fisheries certified and over 100 currently in assessment representing a wide diversity of species, sizes, scales, fishing methods and spanning the world's oceans, NPR chose to focus the bulk of its coverage on disagreements about the outcomes of three certifications, and worse, to extrapolate from that limited dataset to paint the overall body of work of the MSC with a broad negative brush. NPR ignored most of the MSC story and barely scratched the surface of the subject matter.

Following the broadcast, MSC asked to meet with NPR editors to set the record straight, but that request was denied. One of the fisheries portrayed in the series submitted its own statement and additional information, but NPR would not publish it. 

Given the dominant focus of the series on negative stories and almost complete disregard of the positive contribution the MSC has made globally, and NPR’s unwillingness to present other views and to correct significant errors in the story, we are compelled to provide a detailed response. We start with broad concerns about the report and follow with more specific information in response to unsubstantiated allegations made in the report.  

Our broad problems with the way the story was told fall into these categories:

A.  Micro Focus to the Near Total Exclusion of the Larger Picture: MSC provided NPR with access to fisheries around the world that exemplify the wide diversity of geographies, fisheries and stories in the MSC sphere. NPR focused on four fisheries out of a total universe of over nearly 300 involved with MSC, and of the four, picked three that have had high levels of conflict, and in those cases, featured only the voices of critics without offering other points of view. All of this resulted in a much distorted picture of the program. 

The overwhelming majority of MSC certified fisheries have broad environmental and scientific support. There is no question that some certifications have had disputed outcomes but this is not so surprising in a field with many competing interests at play and a lack of perfect information.  For NPR to basically ignore the broader body of work of the MSC, and the fact that it is widely supported and has been transformational, is to not have done the job correctly, and to have left a very damaging innuendo that the entire MSC program and all its fishery certifications are bathed in controversy.

B. One-Sided Stories: Even within the three fisheries selected by NPR for explorations of the conflicts, the reporting fell dramatically short of an objective look at the facts around these fisheries. Commentators were drawn almost exclusively from opponents of the certifications without any real context of who these commentators were, where they and their organizations stand on fisheries issues and certification, or their histories with the specific fisheries and regions in question.  More importantly, for each of the three fisheries highlighted, there are other equally strongly held positions and views that were not heard; an extensive record of science to support the decisions; and in each case a thoroughly documented record of the certification process and responses to all issues that were raised. NPR chose to cover only one piece of these stories to the detriment of its listeners and the MSC.

C. Exclusion of Positive Voices: It is hard to understand why NPR would broadcast criticisms from three small, relatively unknown NGOs (and one larger one), while ignoring and not allowing listeners to hear the views from well-known international organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy, and the Environmental Defense Fund. For an investigative report to ignore prominent and highly-respected environmental groups that see the MSC as a critical mechanism to move forward fisheries sustainability is a major oversight in a report like this.

Likewise, no independent scientists were contacted or interviewed for the story, nor were any government fisheries managers, no international development agencies involved in fisheries improvement, or any staff from regional fisheries management organizations, all of whom have significant perspective on the role of the MSC in helping to drive international fisheries improvement.  And while MSC has a wide range of commercial partners who have aligned with the program to recognize and reward the best performing fisheries globally, only one of these was briefly interviewed. 

And of 190+ certified fisheries, with another 80 or so actively undertaking assessment, NPR did not make time in its 14 months of investigation to ask but one of them their motivations and aspirations for participating in the program.  None of these oversights reflect well on the thoroughness of the work of the investigative unit.

D. Complete Lack of Appropriate Context: The story failed to provide listeners with the most basic understanding of how a “standard setter” like the MSC works, how it is structured, and the role it plays in a decentralized global commercial sector like seafood. Most listeners did not come away understanding that MSC itself does not make any certification decisions, nor do any other third-party standard setters; that teams of independent scientists are used; their work is peer reviewed by other, independent scientists; the assessment process is highly prescribed and focused on objective data; there is a MSC requirement for broad stakeholder engagement, that hard facts have to be brought to substantiate decisions; and that MSC has an appeal process overseen by an independent adjudicator as the final filter on the process.

Further locating the MSC within the broader world of standard setters and certification programs (such as Organic, Fairtrade, Forest Stewardship Council, Energy Star etc.) would have provided valuable context to understand that all leading standard setters face similar challenges, such as where the standard is set; the use of third-party certifiers to assess against a standard; and creating the checks and balances to ensure integrity in such systems. Given the broader nature of these issues and challenges for all standards and certification programs, setting the context would have helped illustrate how the MSC program works and truly educated and enlightened the listener.

E. Damning with Innuendo: The NPR report provokes listeners with damning statements like "greenwashing" — a strategy that makes consumers think they are protecting the planet, when actually they are not”, or “Fuller, of the Ecology Action Centre, says she has watched the MSC system struggling with meeting the demands of the system that they helped create ... they have ended up having to lower the bar" but provides no additional review or corroboration of these assertions. This is simply not good journalism. 

We respond to more of these examples of poorly substantiated allegations and innuendo in what follows.

1.  Allegation: Walmart’s Commitment to MSC-Certified Seafood in 2006 led to MSC “lowering the bar” on its standardCritics interviewed in the story charged that the MSC system has compromised its standards to keep up with the booming demand from Wal-Mart and other chains that followed suit. One interviewee says she has watched the MSC system "struggling with meeting the demands of the system that they helped create... They have ended up having to lower the bar."

MSC Response: This is patently absurd. First, the connection between the world’s largest retailer making a publicly-stated commitment to source MSC-certified fish wherever available, and subsequent growth in the number of fisheries pursuing and achieving certification is completely logical – indeed the opposite would have been surprising. The MSC program is premised on the idea that market demand from major buyers and consumers who preference sustainable seafood will drive change in fisheries behavior across the globe. Here you had the world's largest retailer changing the market for seafood by its commitment and the MSC program growing as a result. As predicted!  And the program also was growing simply because it was still in its startup phase and had been on a consistent growth curve.  Insinuating that MSC somehow lowered standards once Walmart made its commitment to drive this growth, without any substantiation, is poor journalism.

Further, had NPR chosen to examine in even a perfunctory manner whether such an allegation is feasible, it would have found that making any changes to the MSC standard is prescribed by international norms which result in a lengthy and transparent process, with stakeholder involvement along the way and full documentation of all results.  The ultimate decisions are made by the MSC Board of Directors, made up of highly knowledgeable people from a variety of sectors and from across the globe, based on advice from a Technical Advisory Board composed of accomplished scientists and technical experts in the subject matter.  MSC also has a 35 member Stakeholder Council drawn from people around the globe from a broad array of backgrounds who also provide advice to the board on how the MSC should operate.  For details on the MSC governance system, see http://www.msc.org/about-us/governance/structure.

All changes that have occurred within the MSC standard and system are well-documented and there is a historical record: see www.improvements.msc.org  for that record and a view into the rigor with which MSC approaches any policy change. 

2. Allegation: Use of the term “certified sustainable” seafood is misleading because many fisheries are certified with conditions requiring further performance improvement.  "We're not getting what we think we're getting," says Susanna Fuller, co-director of marine programs at Canada's Ecology Action Centre. She says the consumer, when purchasing seafood with the blue MSC label, is "not buying something that's sustainable now."

MSC Response: Again NPR completely failed to investigate and bottom out this assertion. The MSC standard requires all certified fisheries to meet a threshold level of sustainability to be certified. 

Here is how it works: The MSC’s Standard for Sustainable Fishing comprises 3 core principles that require: 1) healthy fish stocks; 2) that the fishery does not jeopardize the supporting ecosystem; and, 3) that the management systems ensure the long-term future of all resources.  

Based on these principles, the MSC assessment process reviews 31 specific questions about the fishery’s performance and management to determine a fishery’s sustainability. These “performance indicators” (PIs) are grouped under each of the MSC’s three main principles described above.  Each of the 31 PIs is scored on a 100-point scale with 60, 80 and 100 levels defining key sustainability benchmarks.  A minimum score of 60 – which represents the MSC threshold for sustainability – is required on each and every one of the 31 PIs to qualify for MSC certification, with the further requirement that within five years, each indicator must reach an 80 score – consistent with a "global best practice" (for a detailed explanation of this scoring system see: http://www.msc.org/theory-of-change

Any indicator scoring below 60 indicates lack of required threshold of sustainability and results in an automatic fail for the assessment. And, any PI that scores over 60 but less than 80 must be improved to the 80 level over the course of the fisheries certification, within five years. The scores for the performance indicators of each separate main Principle must average 80, and so only a limited number of indicators can score between 60 and 80 and still have the fishery pass: generally no more than 30% of the 31 indicators our data shows.

The MSC program was designed very consciously to allow fisheries to qualify for MSC certification without meeting the 80 level on every indicator at the first certification. MSC believes the movement of fisheries performance on specific performance indicators from the 60 to 80 levels is a positive outcome for the world’s fisheries and directly in line with the MSC’s vision of contributing to healthy oceans. This allowance for conditions is one of key ways that the MSC program creates change. 

As evidence of how this MSC approach drives change, in 2011 the MSC published a study ‘Researching the Environmental Impacts of the MSC Certification Program’ see: http://www.msc.org/environmental-improvements.  The research shows that five years after MSC certification, over 90 per cent of the performance indicators reviewed were achieving higher scores, and these indicators were positively correlated with real ‘on the water’ changes. Key findings of the research showed that many MSC certified fisheries have improved their performance through:

  • Improved management of stocks
  • Reduced capture of bycatch species
  • Reduced capture of bird bycatch
  • Reduced trawl times
  • Expansion of environmentally protected areas
  • Increased knowledge and certainty about ecosystem impacts amongst fishers.

Had NPR looked more deeply into this question of conditions, it could have had a far more interesting exploration of the pros and cons of such an approach rather than simply innuendo that it is not defensible. 

3.  Allegation: Third-party certifiers are biased because of the fact that they are independent businesses being paid by the fisheries seeking certification. NPR cites a confidential report for Pew, which NPR obtained, that warned "there will always be suspicions about the independence of certifiers when they are paid by those they are assessing."

MSC Response:  Hiring an outside, independent audit firm is a standard, accepted practice for audits of all sorts in every business sector in the world, such as food safety, accounting, drug purity, aircraft safety, OSHA compliance, etc. Every business in America that is audited by an accounting firm pays the firm for its services.  NPR uses an outside, independent accounting firm to prepare certified audits of its books and it pays that firm for its services.  Condemning a system because it involves a contractual relationship between the audited party and the auditor is overly simplistic. 

In the MSC system, a fishery hires an independent firm with a lead scientific auditor to put together a team of additional scientists to conduct a rigorous, tightly prescribed assessment of the fishery’s sustainability. That process includes external peer review, as well as stakeholder involvement at key points in the process, significant amounts of transparency in terms of documentation and justification, an external complaints procedure and an independent objections process managed by an independent adjudicator. Certifiers must be accredited and are overseen by an independent accreditation body (ASI) which is completely independent of MSC. ASI reviews the performance of the certifiers on an annual basis. Every check and balance that can be built into the system is. 

There is no more rigorous, transparent and scientifically based certification program for fisheries than the Marine Stewardship Council and that is the conclusion of independent studies, such as a study down by Accenture first in 2010 and then updated in 2012.  Both were commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund.

  • The first Accenture Report concluded: “MSC ranked highest, with a score of nearly 96 percent compliance with the assessment’s criteria”. The study analyzed the programs against 103 criteria across six major areas that included governance, standard setting, assessment procedure, minimum ecological criteria, fishery management system attributes and traceability and the report concluded the MSC is the only program “compliant” with the criteria of the evaluation.
  • The 2012 updated Accenture Study concluded: “This report demonstrates that MSC, while still improving, is clearly the best programme to drive uptake of sustainable seafood in the market and protect fisheries and their surrounding ecosystems, because its score greatly exceeds the other schemes.”

MSC also has provided additional information to provide the rest of the story on three of the fisheries that were profiled in the NPR report.  For that detail, please go to the following link: msc-responds-to-npr-coverage-of-fisheries

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