Skip to main content

New study on environmental impacts of MSC programme published

Fisheries engaged in the MSC certification programme show progressive improvement in environmental performance from pre-assessment through assessment, certification and post-certification, an independent analysis published today shows.

Fisheries showed both quantifiable environmental changes, such as improved stock status and reduced bycatch, as well as increases in knowledge and certainty about ecosystem impacts.  This trajectory of improvement was documented through changes in key indicators of environmental performance starting at pre-assessment and continuing through and beyond certification.


The study, Researching the Environmental Impacts of the MSC Certification Programme, is the first ever to examine fishery performance through the whole flow of the MSC assessment process. It focused on improvements in eight key outcome performance indicators  that the MSC assessment process measures and tracks over time:  stock status, population reference points, stock recovery, retained species, bycatch species, endangered, threatened and protected (ETP) species, habitats and ecosystems. 

“The MSC is very pleased with the results of this study,” said Rupert Howes, MSC Chief Executive. “Even though we recognize that the relative youth of our programme means the number of fisheries available for analysis was small, this study builds very effectively upon earlier explorations of the benefits of certification. The correlation between increases in scores and environmental benefits has paved the way to a more permanent monitoring and evaluation system for environmental impacts. We are committed to tracking these performance indicators for all certified fisheries and producing an annual report on the environmental performance of the MSC programme.”

MSC programme provides framework for real improvements 

At the point of certification all fisheries must have demonstrated they are operating sustainably. The study shows that five years post-certification, over 90 per cent of the performance indicators measured were achieving higher scores of at least 80 – consistent with global best practice in fisheries management.  This compares with between 50 and 70 per cent of performance indicators at that level for fisheries at pre-assessment.

The study compared these changes in MSC indicators with performance data independent of the MSC programme, such as published stock status and bycatch data. This analysis showed that changes in scores against MSC performance indicators were reflected in real changes in underlying indicators of target stock status and bycatch species. 

Chris Zimmermann, Chair of MSC’s Technical Advisory Board, commenting on this aspect of the analysis, said: “The presence of a statistically robust link between changes in scores and the underlying resource is a crucial result. It confirms that the standard is linked to key environmental performance metrics and capable of differentiating between fisheries. A transparent measuring system – where changes in scores mean changes in resources – sends a clear assurance to the supply chain that MSC certified fisheries are performing as promised.”

In addition to stock status and rebuilding, the study also identified on the water improvements in outcomes relating to ecosystem impacts, such as reduction of non-target fish and bird bycatch,  reduced trawl times, and an expansion of protected areas. Certified fisheries have also improved specific scores relating to wider ecosystem impacts by improving understanding and increasing certainties about the ecosystem impacts of fishery operations, through greater investment in research and more effective management systems.

New pre-assessment data show scale of fishery support for demonstrating sustainability 

The study also produced new data on fisheries undertaking pre-assessment. As of February 2011, 447 fisheries had gone through MSC pre-assessments. Of those, only 17 per cent were recommended to proceed to full assessment without needing any additional work, nearly half (48 per cent) were told they needed to address some issues before considering formal assessment, and  over one third (35 per cent)  were not recommended to move forward.  Of the 447, only 35 per cent  had in fact moved forward to full assessment at the time of the study.

Commenting on these results, Keith Sainsbury, Vice Chair of the MSC Board of Trustees, said: “These results show that the MSC programme is providing fisheries with a globally recognized standard of sustainability that is being used, not only by fisheries already close to achieving it but  also by fisheries that have further to go to reach this benchmark. Many of these latter fisheries then enter into defined “improvement projects”, a type of project that has have grown tremendously in number over the last few years. The high number of confidential pre-assessments is an indication of this previously unknown aspect and benefit of the program.”  

Stakeholders report that MSC certification is a positive influence for changing practice

The report also examined stakeholder views about the links between MSC certification and improvement in fisheries and their environmental impact. Overall, respondents attributed about half of the positive environmental changes directly to involvement with the MSC programme, and half of it to other factors such as management actions. Most of the change was attributed to new research or information, especially in relation to stock status, bycatch and management of ETP impacts. Most improvement was attributed to the post-certification period and the action fisheries take to improve scores against performance indicators.

“Broadly, stakeholders we interviewed felt that the MSC was an influential factor within a wider landscape of change,” said Tracy Cambridge, one of the report’s lead authors. “Many stakeholders, from different interest groups and different fisheries, said the MSC was an effective catalyst for increased interest in research, improved working relationships and broader participation in decision-making – all factors leading to better fisheries management.”

For more information contact [email protected]

Further information

The study was commissioned by the MSC and carried out by expert marine science consultancies, MRAG Ltd, Poseidon Ltd and Meridian Ltd Prime. The team of consultants who produced the report are currently working on a scientific paper based on the research. This has been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal to be considered for publication.

The MSC environmental standard for sustainable fisheries measures a fishery’s performance across 31 indicators. In order to explore the effect of the MSC programme on actual observed environmental change, rather than management-related changes expected to lead to environmental changes, the study looked specifically at ‘outcome’ indicators, linked closely to on-the-water impacts. The research reviewed pre-assessment, assessment and post-certification data to track fishery performance against these indicators over time.  The number of fisheries available for analysis at post-certification was small: only 25 met the study criteria of having been in the program long enough to have undergone at least two surveillance audits after certification at the time of the study. This reflects the short history of the MSC.

Previous research into the impacts of the MSC certification programme includes Environmental benefits resulting from certification against MSC Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Fishing (Agnew, Grieve, et al., 2006).  This study examined the ten fisheries that had, by 2005, undergone at least one post-certification audit, with a view to developing a framework for further quantitative monitoring and evaluation of environmental benefits. A further publication Net Benefits (Andrew Purvis for the MSC, 2009) developed narrative accounts of the social, economic and environmental benefits of certification in conversation with the 42 fisheries that had achieved certification at that point.