Skip to main content

North America

Responses from John Tanzer, Practice Leader, Oceans, WWF International to questions from the MSC for its 20th anniversary communications.

Can you tell us something about the involvement of the WWF as a ‘parent’ of MSC at the outset? What were the challenges that had to be overcome?

Approximately 25 years ago and shortly after the FSC standard (for forests) was launched , WWF recognised that, John Tanzer of WWF International in addition to consumer awareness-raising and benchmarking of businesses, one of the most effective ways to achieve positive impacts for sustainable fisheries is to leverage the influence of seafood markets and consumers. One pivotal tool in this area for WWF was the creation and development of a credible seafood ecolabel: the MSC. The founding partners of the MSC were WWF and Unilever, which at this time was a leading seafood processor, with its Iglo brand (part of Unilever until 2006) which was keen to invest in securing access to healthy fish stocks well into the future.

The MSC was officially founded in 1997, to curb the impact of overfishing which was highlighted starkly by the collapse of Canada’s Newfoundland Grand Banks cod fishery in 1992. The area, once renowned as the world’s most productive fishing grounds, was decimated by decades of overfishing and poor fisheries management, with devastating environmental, social and economic consequences, putting tens of thousands of people out of work.

In 1999, the MSC became independent of WWF and Unilever. One of the early challenges was building a profile for the MSC in important markets. WWF played a strong role in helping to cultivate uptake and growth by promoting the standard.

Another early challenge was recruiting key fisheries for certification. At that time, MSC certification was perceived as a risk by many fisheries leaders who feared alienation in a seafood market unfamiliar with the concept. Clearly, we managed to get past those initial challenges and the MSC has grown strongly since: an innovative idea that is now a household name in many developed countries.

Why was it important for the MSC to stand independent from its co-parents?

The idea was that it was important for the MSC to be seen as independent from conservation organisations as well as from fishers, processors and retailers to encourage fisheries to get independently certified.

How would you assess the contribution of the MSC to the sustainability/conservation movement over the last 20 years?

Market-based incentives such as MSC certification play a crucial role in moving fisheries towards sustainability and encouraging demand for sustainable seafood products.
WWF believes that the best choice for consumers is to buy from a certified fishery or a fishery that is making significant progress towards achieving sustainability, and based on independent evaluation, WWF considers the MSC certification as the best available certification scheme for wild-caught seafood.

WWF and MSC have successfully promoted sustainability as important for seafood supply chains into markets in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and North America, which is a significant milestone. There has also been strong progress in Japan.

MSC assessments and certifications have brought greater transparency and product traceability to the seafood markets globally.

WWF also expects that the MSC will maintain its sustainability promise to the supply chain and to the consumer as expectations and opportunities grow over time, and WWF has a key role to play in identifying any problems or room for improvement in certification standards and assessment processes, and to recommend solutions.

How does the work of the MSC complement the work of WWF today?

The MSC is a standard-setter, and separate certifying bodies assess fisheries in detail against this standard. The MSC has a system in place to enable stakeholder participation throughout the certification including the legal process to object to a certification, and for various interests such as WWF and other conservation interests, to engage in these processes.

The MSC, through its chain of custody certification enables basic traceability of seafood products from dock to shelf. The MSC has procedures in place to regularly check performance indicators of certified fisheries.

WWF engages in those assessments we think are most important. WWF also offers fishery improvement projects to help fisheries worldwide achieve measurable improvements and move towards sustainability including reaching the standard for MSC certification and beyond.

WWF develops and promotes high-tech electronic tracking, transparency and traceability tools. WWF advocates for best practice fisheries and sustainable resource use including the application social and environmental criteria.

WWF fosters market change by running awareness campaigns, by benchmarking fisheries, processors, traders and retailers, and by working with management organisations and governments to foster healthy competition for sustainable management and performance.

What do you see as the key challenges for the MSC in the next 20 years?

WWF sees the main challenges as adjusting the MSC standard fast enough to respond to increasing pressures, new knowledge and to growing market/consumer awareness and transparency as well as performance expectations. In short, maintaining, improving and building credibility is a priority, and the standard should also incorporate equitable and fair access to resources to support the livelihoods of small scale fisheries and coastal communities, and include social indicators to exclude forced labour on board vessels and throughout the supply chain.

The standard relies on the informed, intensive engagement of stakeholders, including the community and conservation interests, and as more fisheries are certified, the challenge of facilitating this essential engagement will need active consideration.

The standard will also need to accommodate important developments such as the move to full transparency of fishing activities, using new technologies that are available for tracking and analysing catch, bycatch or discards. There are also important advances in verification of assessments and conditions.

It is important for the MSC to also take a leading role in the further development of certification approaches, structures and governance, building on the experiences of the last two decades. Innovation in these approaches is essential to the MSC’s success, uptake and credibility.

Other areas of note will be scoping the relevance of the MSC in Asian and African domestic and local markets, and the ability for small scale fisheries – which make up a huge proportion of the planet’s fisheries – to participate at reasonable cost.

In conclusion, informed people, including seafood consumers and insightful leaders in the marketplace, know the ocean has never been under more pressure and they want to know that everything possible is being done to create a healthier ocean environment and planet. The MSC has shown over twenty years that its approach can make a significant contribution to ocean conservation. The MSC is now poised to reflect carefully on what’s worked best and what can be improved, so it can continue to lead the way in the seafood market arena.

Read the full MSC 20 year history by the Press Association >