Minimising fishing impacts on ecosystems and habitats

The MSC Fisheries Standard rewards fisheries that protect ecosystems and habitats in the places where they fish.

Fishing, like all human activities, has an impact on the environment.

Ecosystems and habitats can be changed or damaged by fishing. For example, bottom trawled fishing gear can have an impact on vulnerable seafloor habitats – places where endangered or slow-growing species such as sea pens and sponges grow.

It’s important that fisheries understand, manage and mitigate their potential impacts. Actions fisheries take may include closing areas off from fishing, using better fishing gear and monitoring ecosystems more closely.


MSC requirements for ecosystems and habitats

The Fisheries Standard’s Principle 2 (minimising environmental impact) covers the effect a fishery has on the environment. There are five components to this Principle:

The habitat impacts of a fishery are always considered in an MSC assessment. A fishery cannot be certified if it causes serious damage or irreversible impact on the structure and function of a seafloor habitat. The Standard defines irreversible impact as damage from which a habitat will take 20 years or longer to recover. 

Assessors also look at the wider ecosystem impacts of the fishery, including the removal of important species that are food for the ecosystem, such as sardines. They also look at the biodiversity and health of the ecosystem and its resilience to change. Simulations of the ecosystem are sometimes used to estimate its status.

Latest global efforts

Fisheries like the MSC certified shrimp fishery in West Greenland are taking action to understand and reduce their impacts. They now use a new net with a lighter trawl door to minimise its impacts on the sea floor. 

Global scientific research, such as ecosystem modelling, provides a source of information about ecosystems that is incorporated into fisheries management. The MSC's key low trophic level requirements are based on the current scientific understanding of the impacts of these species on ecosystems. 

The certified Antarctic krill fishery was assessed using the low trophic level requirements in the Fisheries Standard. This means the impact of this fishery on the ecosystem were considered, including impacts on penguins and marine mammals that consume large amounts of krill. The best available science from the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) suggests that krill fishing is at such a low level that there are no impacts on the ecosystem.

Improving our Standards

It is important that the Fisheries Standard reflects global best practice. The current Standard introduced strong requirements for habitat protection. We are now looking at how these requirements have been adopted by fisheries and enforced by certification bodies.

We want different assessors working for different certification bodies to deliver the same outcome when they assess a fishery against the Standard. As part of our Fisheries Standard Review we have asked assessors to assess an imaginary fishery. We will analyse their reports to see if our requirements on ecosystems and habitats are applied consistently across assessments.

The results will help us understand which sections of the Standard need to made clearer and less open to interpretation. It may also be helpful for us to improve guidance by saying what evidence the assessor needs to collect in order be confident that the fishery meets the Standard. 

We are also reviewing how our Risk-Based Framework is used to assess ecosystem requirements for fisheries that have limited data


What could change?

We want certification to protect habitats and ecosystems around the globe. This will involve giving assessors the tools and guidance needed to apply the Fisheries Standard consistently across fisheries. 


When would changes to the Standard happen?

If any part of the Standard is revised, a new version will be released in March 2022. The MSC Board of Trustees will make the final decision on implementation of any change, following the development process set out in the Fisheries Standard Review.


Get involved

To be notified when consultation opens, please register your interest in the Fisheries Standard Review. Information about future events, such as targeted consultations and workshops, will also be posted here.

For other questions on habitat and ecosystem requirements please email us at


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