Our Principal Scientist, Dr Catherine Longo, explains why it’s important to have a deeper understanding of the social and economic impacts that MSC certification has on the communities and businesses involved in the MSC program.
The MSC has a Theory of Change, which is built on the idea that use of its label provides market-based advantages, such as price premiums (higher prices). As more MSC labelled products become available, consumer awareness and/or retailer demand increases, which drives further interest in sustainability and thereby creates a virtuous loop.
But do fishery and supply chain stakeholders get the benefits they expect? Are there any unintended consequences, for example changes in employment or social dynamics between actors?
Our new research published in Frontiers in Marine Science explores the different social and economic impacts and pathways through which the MSC Certification Program can lead to sustainable outcomes for our oceans.
Understanding the drivers of change in seafood sustainability incentives
Fishing can affect livelihoods, economies and social relationships. So it’s important for the MSC to monitor the social and economic drivers that underpin its Theory of Change and understand how stakeholders are affected.
We developed a data collection method involving interviews with key representatives from harvester associations, processors, NGOs and marine resource managers about their experience of the MSC certification program. The newly published study is the result of piloting this approach in the U.S, France and Portugal.
Stakeholder expectations of the value of MSC certification
In the study we document different reasons that lead fisheries to certification, such as access to new markets, preserving market share and even improved sustainability image. Interviewees also described unexpected benefits such as improved dialogue between industry and managers or price-bargaining power. However, their experiences also reveal the importance of fishery and supply chain actors’ own entrepreneurial initiatives.
For example, U.S albacore tuna sale prices rose by nearly 300% during the early years of certification. This was possibly due to the sale of new, higher-value products and not driven by certification itself. On the other hand, Brittany harvesters’ sardine* sale price rose by 50-100%, likely due to the fishers agreeing a concerted price-setting strategy. These fishers coalesced in a single producer association to strengthen management initiatives and progress towards MSC certification, but ended up also benefitting economically.
Deciding to become certified when no other similar fisheries are in the MSC program requires initiative, and according to this study, there are rewards to be gained. In fact, price premiums associated with MSC labelled products can occur when there is high demand for a specific sustainably sourced species and there is only one certified fishery in the market.
Such effects were identified in Asturias octopus in Spain and Cornish hake and sardine fisheries in the UK. But this advantage can decline as competitors also gain certification. The desire for market access can also be a powerful driver on its own. Some harvesters reported that by the time they were due to be reassessed – after five years – they no longer felt there was a competitive advantage in pricing but still renewed their commitment so as not to be left behind in the market.
While there were no changes in employment structure in any of the case study fisheries, the study does document the power of demand for sustainable catch to transform product flow in the supply chain. Following certification, US albacore harvesters sold greater amounts to MSC certified buyers than non-certified ones. While this is only indicative evidence, it suggests the possibility of selling with the ecolabel caused a shift in product flow in favour of businesses that could guarantee a certified chain of custody.
MSC certification drives cooperation between stakeholders
Eco-certification can be a long journey where initial costs and benefits and sustainability commitments can evolve and be replaced by others along the way. However, in some cases, such as the Portuguese sardine fishery, benefits can continue even after the loss of its certificate.
In fact, the journey is not only about economic benefits. Despite Portuguese sardine purse seiners losing their certificate in 2014, collaborations with researchers – initially set up to support improvements towards certification – continued as lasting benefits. Their efforts to improve the management practices of one of the most important fisheries in Portugal, after many years, are finally showing some results. There are now signs of stock recovery under a new precautionary management plan, resulting in a higher allowed catch for 2021.
Though not mentioned as an expected impact, all fisheries recalled some improvement in dialogue with other stakeholders. For example, in the South Brittany sardine fishery, certification motivated harvesters to join forces with marine protected area (MPA) managers – to help sustainably manage the stock together.
The same method (van Putten et al 2020), applied to eight fisheries in Western Australia found the main benefits were increased support by government scientists and social license to fish (Robinson et al 2021). Harvesters wanted to be thought of as world leaders in sustainable fishing and their operations socially accepted, instead of criticised.
Monitoring the intended and unintended impacts of the MSC program
Our research provides a closer look at the MSC Theory of Change at work. It confirms that the benefits seen by the seafood sector as a result of engaging with the MSC depends on the interaction between the individual fishery’s initiative, wider market dynamics and the sustainability of its practices. Impacts often change and evolve over time – involving wider social, market and institutional dynamics – but in an increasingly environmentally-aware market, MSC certification is still required to maintain market share.
Importantly, it provides a tool to monitor systematically whether there are any unintended consequences of certification - and use this knowledge to improve how the program operates with stakeholders. For example, it can help us understand where certification may be creating unintended impacts as a result of particular social norms or economic imbalances between stakeholders.
Market-based incentives have real power to fuel social, economic and ocean change. With this power come risks of unintended impacts. This is why it is important to understand the specific mechanisms driving action in each fishery’s social, ecological and market context.
This research – designed by the MSC – was a collaboration between the following researchers:
- Christopher M. Anderson, University of Washington, US
- Amber Himes-Cornell, United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, Rome
- Cristina Pita, International Institute of Environmental Development (IIED), UK
- Stephen Stohs, National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA), US
- Marine Stewardship Council: Ashleigh Arton, and Catherine Longo (MSC, UK)
We would like to thank the Walton Family Foundation for their generous support that made this study possible. We would also like to thank Dan Averill (MSC USA), Margaux Favret (MSC France), Rodrigo Sengo (MSC Portugal), Alberto Martin (MSC Spain) and everyone who contributed -- donating their time and expertise for our interviews. The research specifically included harvesters, canners, managers and NGOs that were stakeholders in three fisheries: the certified U.S West Coast albacore tuna fisheries North Pacific and South Pacific, South Brittany sardine fisheries (now suspended) and Portugal sardine fisheries (now withdrawn).
Anderson, C. M. Himes-Cornell, A., Pita, Cristina, Arton, A., Favret, M. Averill, D., Stohs, S. Longo, C. (2021) Social and economic outcomes of fisheries certification: Characterizing pathways of change in canned fish markets. Frontiers in Marine Science.
*The South Brittany sardine fishery was suspended in 2019 due to new scientific information becoming available, evidencing it no longer conformed to the MSC Fisheries Standard (Principle 1).