The Marine Stewardship Council is committed to educating consumers about overfishing and inspiring them to make the switch to certified sustainable seafood. As people learn more about the sustainable seafood movement, we’re asked more and more questions.
Here, we’ve shared some commonly asked questions about the Marine Stewardship Council and the larger world of sustainable seafood:
Skip to a section:
- About the MSC
- Ecolabels & the MSC Blue Fish
- The MSC Standards and Certification
- Sustainable Seafood and Species
- Seafood Fraud & Mislabeling
- Fishing & Fisheries
- Ask the MSC a question
About the MSC
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is a global nonprofit organization that works to end overfishing around the world.
Working with scientists, fisheries, industry experts, and other nonprofits, the MSC’s goal is to improve the way our ocean is fished through the MSC Fisheries Standard and Chain of Custody Standard. The MSC program incentivizes sustainable fishing practices globally.
Through the use of the MSC blue fish label, the MSC makes it easy for everyone to identify and choose certified sustainable, wild-caught seafood.
The Marine Stewardship Council was created in response to the growing threat of overfishing globally to help incentivize fisheries to become more sustainable.
More than one-third of fish stocks are estimated to be fished at unsustainable levels, and with the global human population set to reach 10 billion by 2050, the need to harness our natural resources more responsibly is more urgent than ever. Billions of people worldwide depend on seafood for their livelihoods and, for many, seafood is their primary protein source.
Sustainable fishing plays a vital role in protecting our ocean and keeping our world fed. The MSC exists to ensure sustainable resource management for fisheries across the world.
The MSC is dedicated to full transparency about where its funding comes from. The MSC is an independent nonprofit organization and not a commercial enterprise. Our income is derived from two sources: 1) charitable donations from foundations and 2) licensing of the MSC blue fish ecolabel.
We do not receive any income from fisheries or third-party certification auditors who assess fisheries sustainability.
Brand products, restaurants, and other companies that wish to show their fish is from an MSC certified source must pay a royalty fee each time an item with the label is purchased. The use of the MSC ecolabel is completely voluntary and only a fraction of certified seafood bears the ecolabel. The MSC ecolabel is only available for use by those licensed to do so.
As a nonprofit, any income generated from these fees is reinvested back into our efforts to further sustainable fishing initiatives, including research, management improvement, and more.
This means that each time you purchase an item with the MSC blue fish label, you're contributing to the wider ocean conservation cause. Some of the biggest international conservation organizations are supported through consumers purchasing seafood with the MSC blue fish label.
We are especially grateful for the significant support we receive from a range of charitable funders, including trusts, foundations, and statutory bodies, from across the globe.
A full list of these donors can be found in our latest annual report.
Read the full MSC response to the Seaspiracy film here, and read an independent review of the science behind the film from Sustainable Fisheries UW.
Ecolabels & the MSC Blue Fish
The MSC blue fish label is an ecolabel that can be found on seafood products and alongside seafood items on menus. It helps consumers identify seafood that is certified sustainable, wild-caught, and traceable to a sustainable source.
The MSC blue fish label can only be applied to wild-caught fish or seafood from a fishery that has been independently assessed on its impacts on wild fish populations and the ecosystems they're part of.
The MSC Fisheries Standard only applies to wild-caught fisheries, not farmed fish. Fish products from farms and aquaculture can be certified to the standard of the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC).
We work closely with the ASC to help consumers buy sustainable fish products, regardless of the method of harvesting. Some products may contain both farmed fish and wild fish, in which case both seals can be found.
While there are many sustainability claims out there, the MSC blue fish label is the most trusted seafood ecolabel globally. The blue fish label found on seafood packaging provides an easy way for North American consumers to identify seafood that is always wild-caught and traceable back to a sustainable source.
The MSC runs the only wild-capture fisheries certification and ecolabeling program that meets best practice requirements set by both the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO) and ISEAL, the global membership association for sustainability standards.
The MSC is also the only global seafood certification program to be recognized by the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (GSSI).
A growing number of conscious consumers in North America want to trust that the product they’re buying is sustainable, meaning that it: 1) comes from a healthy fish population; 2) doesn’t cause lasting harm to the marine environment; and 3) has proper management in place. In addition, a large percentage of consumers want third-party verification of a product’s environmental sustainability claims.
Products with trusted seafood labels—like the MSC blue fish and ASC label—can be traced back through the supply chain to a sustainable source, helping to ease any concerns about mislabeling or fraud. Seafood labels provide assurance that the fish listed on the packaging is the fish your family is enjoying!
“A credible sustainability system’s claims and communications can be trusted. A credible sustainability system substantiates its claims. Any claims the system or its users make are clear, relevant, and can be checked. They enable customers and other stakeholders to make informed choices. The scope and design of the system is accurately reflected in any claims, ensuring these are not misleading. Claims about sustainability impacts are backed up with data and evidence that is publicly available.”
The MSC Standards & Certification
The MSC program is a certification, and certification provides the highest level of assurance that the seafood product is verified to be sustainable/responsible, is harvested legally, and is traceable back to a sustainable source. The MSC goes to great lengths to ensure we meet the highest international benchmarks for credible certification and ecolabeling and that the MSC standards reflect best practice in fisheries management.
If a product isn’t certified, ratings can indicate whether your choice is ocean-friendly. Ratings provide information about species or stock on a global scale.
See how MSC certification differs from rating programs in this handy chart.
The MSC Fishery Standard is used to assess if a fishery is well-managed and sustainable. To become MSC certified, fisheries must be assessed by an independent, third-party auditor (not the MSC) and must prove they meet all three principles of the MSC Fishery Standard:
(1) healthy and sustainable fish stocks
(2) minimal environmental impact
(3) effective fisheries management in place to react and adapt to any new information or changing conditions.
This is a rigorous and lengthy process.
Learn more about it on the MSC Fisheries Standard page.
The MSC Chain of Custody (CoC) Standard ensures that products from MSC certified sustainable fisheries can be traced back through the supply chain and are kept separate from non-certified products.
Supply chains can be very complicated, and seafood may pass through many stages between the ocean and your plate.
When you see a product carrying the MSC blue fish label, it means that every company within that supply chain has a valid Chain of Custody (CoC) certificate. To achieve CoC certification, businesses must be audited by independent certification bodies.
Chain of Custody certificates are valid for a three-year period, and businesses are subject to surveillance audits to ensure proper protocols are followed.
Learn more about it on the MSC Chain of Custody (CoC) Standard page.
MSC certification is not an easy process, and some fisheries spend many years improving their practices before reaching the MSC Fisheries Standard for sustainability. Our analysis shows that the vast majority of fisheries that conduct pre-assessments against the certification criteria do not initially pass and end up being required to make significant improvements before seeking actual MSC certification. Because of this, many fisheries do not enter the full certification assessment process until they are confident their fishery will meet all standards and qualify for certification.
Once started, assessments usually take between 12 to 18 months. This process is extremely rigorous and has several safeguards in place to maintain the certification’s credibility.
To meet UN FAO guidelines on non-discrimination all wild-capture fisheries—regardless of size, scale, ecology, geography, or technology—are eligible to pursue MSC certification and can request to have their sustainability evaluated by an independent auditor.
There are a few exceptions, however. The MSC does not allow fisheries to seek certification who:
- Target amphibians, reptiles, birds, and/or mammals
- Use destructive fishing practices (such as poison or explosives)
- Have been convicted for forced labor violations within the last two years.
- Have been convicted of shark finning violations within the last two years.
- Refuse to join or respect agreements set by an international management body and relating to the sustainable management of the fishery.
- Are purely aquaculture (farmed). Although some forms of ‘enhanced fisheries’ - wild-capture fisheries that involve some degree of farming (e.g. mussels) can be assessed. For environmentally and socially responsible aquaculture fisheries, look for the ASC certification label.
In short, the amount varies.
The MSC does not charge money to fisheries that wish to be certified, nor do they receive any payment from fisheries that undergo assessment or achieve certification.
Instead, fisheries are audited by an accredited and independent third-party organization. Any certification fees are paid by the fisheries directly to the auditors. Anecdotal information provided by certified fisheries suggests the cost can vary from USD $15,000 - $120,000.
In general, the cost of certification assessment will depend on:
- The complexity of the fishery
- The availability of information and research on the fishery's impact
- The level of stakeholder involvement
To ensure that fisheries of all sizes can maintain certification, fisheries may apply for additional funding through the MSC Ocean Stewardship Fund.
More information on the cost of certification can be found here.
Sustainable Seafood & Species
Within the MSC program, 'sustainable fishing' means leaving enough fish in the ocean to replenish the population; fishing in a way that respects other species and marine habitats; and managing the fishery in a way that can adapt to changing environmental
circumstances and ensure people who depend on fishing can maintain their livelihoods.
While companies and organizations around the world have different definitions of sustainable fishing, the MSC definition is widely accepted across borders, amongst fishery experts, scientists, researchers, governmental bodies, and environmental NGOs. Certified sustainable seafood that carries the MSC blue fish label meets all the criteria of the MSC definition of sustainable fishing.
Learn more about what sustainable fishing is, and how to make the switch to sustainable seafood.
MSC certified sustainable seafood is available at every price point and can be found at your local grocery store, and some restaurant menus. Broadly, you should be looking for MSC certified items in the following categories:
- Frozen Food
- Refrigerated Goods
- Seafood Counter
- Canned Goods
- Dietary Supplements
- Pet Food/Health
If you don’t find seafood products that have the MSC blue fish label when you shop, take a moment to leave a comment or ask the store manager to include certified sustainable options on their shelves.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not actually the best method to determine sustainability at the species level. There are so many factors that go into what makes a particular fishery sustainable, and it is more accurate to discuss the “sustainability”,
or overall health of a specific fish stock. In addition, you can factor in catch method and fisheries management
The MSC sets the top, internationally recognized standard for sustainable fishing using regularly updated scientific criteria, and fisheries voluntarily choose to enter the program. Once in the program, they are scored by a third-party assessor who determined if they meet certification requirements.
Learn more about different species with MSC-certified sustainable stocks around the world.
The MSC believes that increased fisheries regulation and management – rather than a blanket cancellation of seafood – is the best solution to prevent overfishing while also keeping our global population fed.
If you choose not to eat seafood you remove your impact on seafood supply chains. However, your alternative food choices could unintentionally increase your impact on other land-based options, which have negative environmental outcomes like a higher carbon footprint or larger greenhouse gas emissions. Seafood is a nutritious protein that is packed with many health benefits.
Instead of removing seafood from your diet altogether, make the switch to sustainable options. Sustainably sourced wild-caught seafood is an environmentally friendly option and by choosing to support certified sustainable fisheries, you have a positive impact and influence over the long-term future of commercial fisheries, which are a critical part of our national food supply and our economy.
While you may be able to trace a product back to a local source, it still does not guarantee that item is sustainably sourced. Although many US and Canadian fisheries are well-managed due to effective government regulation and sustainability commitments, overfishing, as well as illegal, unregulated, and destructive fishing, still occurs within our waters.
The best way to support local seafood while also rewarding sustainable fishing practices is to determine what seafoods fit your definition of ‘locally sourced’ and then check if the item carries the MSC certification label. There are many fisheries in North America that are MSC certified; you can look up more info on each by using the Track a Fishery program and by reading more on local seafood.
Seafood Fraud & Mislabeling
Put simply, seafood fraud is the misrepresentation or mislabeling of a seafood product as something it’s not.
The severity of mislabeling varies dramatically—examples include farmed fish sold as wild-caught, incorrect species substitution, and even false sourcing claims on the packaging. Sometimes this mislabeling occurs by mistake due to mismanagement along the supply chain.
Sadly, it is likely that many seafood fraud incidents around the world are intentional and motivated by an increase in the sale value of cheaper fish species (i.e., to make a profit). This can pose a high risk to human health and ocean health. It may also widen the consumer trust gap or, even worse, leave consumers feeling actively deceived.
Studies have shown that, while the global average is 30% of seafood products being mislabeled, products carrying the MSC blue fish label have a less than 1% error rate. The MSC’s Chain of Custody Standard plays a large role in combating seafood fraud, as the MSC certified product must be kept separate and traceable throughout the supply chain.
Knowing where your food comes from is important. Traceability goes hand in hand with sustainability as the best way to ensure that claims on packaging—including, but not limited to species, origin, and sustainability status—are accurate, credible, and not fraudulent. MSC certified seafood is verified and traceable throughout the supply chain.
Fishing & Fisheries
Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing takes place when vessels or fishermen operate outside the laws of a fishery or nation. It is often conducted without concern for marine life or the environment. IUU fishing threatens the sustainability
of fish populations, ecosystems, and the livelihoods of those who fish legally. The MSC program helps to drive out IUU fishing by disqualifying fisheries if they systematically engage in IUU fishing or where IUU fishing by others is having a negative
impact on the sustainability of the overall fishery.
Learn more about illegal fishing here.
One of the amazing things about our ocean is that fish populations can recover and replenish if they are managed carefully for the long-term.
Examples of where this has happened and stocks have come back from the brink include the Patagonian toothfish in the Southern Oceans or the recovery of Namibian hake, after years of overfishing by foreign fleets, or the increase in some of our major tuna stocks globally. And what is even more amazing, is that if we take care of our fish stocks – they take care of us.
Research shows that fish stocks that are well-managed and sustainable, are also more productive in the long-term, meaning there is more seafood for our growing global population, which is set to reach 10 billion by 2050.
The MSC label is only awarded to fisheries that are able to demonstrate that the fish stock is healthy, that they have methods in place to maintain the health of the fish stock, and that there are methods in place that can be used to recover fish stocks if the fish levels are ever not within sustainable fishing levels.
At-sea monitoring plays a huge role in ensuring that fisheries within the program are fishing sustainably. The MSC Fisheries Standard for sustainability requires fisheries within the MSC program to collect a range of information, at a sufficient level of quality, in order to become certified and maintain that certification. This information must be independently reviewed by a Conformation Assessment Body (CAB) for accuracy; the information is not reviewed by the MSC to ensure impartiality.
The data collected must prove they are fishing:
- Within sustainable limits,
- Within specified geographic boundaries, and
- The fishing practices are not causing long-lasting harm to the environment
In order to collect this required data, fisheries use a variety of cutting-edge surveillance technologies including satellite GPS tracking of vessels—which help to detect suspicious and illegal fishing activity—and electronic monitoring on board with cameras and sensors that are triggered when fishing gear hauls up a fresh catch.
In addition to this newer technology, fisheries also rely on traditional monitoring methods including fishers' logbooks, at-sea inspections, surveillance flight patrols, dockside monitoring, and fishery observers on vessels.
Commercial fishing uses a wide range of gear types, and any fishery that is catching fish in the wild can choose to be assessed to the MSC Fisheries Standard. There are two exceptions: the MSC does not allow any fisheries using explosives or poisons.
The method of fishing, or gear type, a fishery uses is based on several factors including but not limited to: the type of fish or shellfish being caught, the surrounding marine environment including the geographic location and the additional species that live in that area of the ocean, the cost of the gear, etc.
While all fishing affects the marine environment, there is no hard and fast rule for “sustainable fishing gear types”. What makes a fishery sustainable—regardless of gear type—is effective and responsible management that ensures that gear type is being used in a sustainable manner that does not cause lasting damage to the environment.
More information on gear types can be found here:
Bycatch (referred to as “unwanted catch” in the MSC program) is fish or other marine species caught unintentionally during the fishing process. Bycatch is a serious issue especially when endangered, threatened, and protected (ETP) species such as turtles and dolphins are accidentally caught, injured, or killed.
Fishing activity with bycatch can be deemed sustainable as long as the amount of bycatch is well-managed and affected fish populations remain healthy.
To be MSC certified, fishing activity must not have a long-term detrimental impact on the population of any marine species. Fisheries that need to improve in this area, will set goals that they have to meet to keep their certificates or risk being suspended.
Conditions set on MSC certified fisheries have resulted in significant reductions to the level of bycatch worldwide. Fisheries within the MSC program are required to regularly review alternative bycatch mitigation measures, and to implement them when appropriate.
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Sustainable fishing means leaving enough fish in the ocean, respecting habitats and ensuring people who depend on fishing can maintain their livelihoods.
You can trust that seafood with the blue MSC label was caught by a responsible fishery in a sustainable way.