Is your “certified” seafood really sustainable?

Photo by Plan It Green Printing (Rob Tossberg) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Photo by Plan It Green Printing (Rob Tossberg) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In case you missed it, I wanted to highlight the great special series that NPR ran last week from Daniel Zwerdling and Margot Williams (supported by researcher Barbara Van Woerkom). In three separate reports, they examine the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the group that runs the world’s most extensive program to certify seafood products as sustainable.

The opening of the text version of the first entry provides a good introduction to the key issues:

Rebecca Weel pushes a baby stroller with her 18-month-old up to the seafood case at Whole Foods, near ground zero in New York. As she peers at shiny fillets of salmon, halibut and Chilean sea bass labeled “certified sustainable,” Weel believes that if she purchases this seafood, she will help protect the world’s oceans from overfishing.

But some leading environmentalists have a different take: Consumers like Weel are being misled by a global program that amounts to “greenwashing” — a strategy that makes consumers think they are protecting the planet, when actually they are not.

At Whole Foods, the seafood counter displays blue labels from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), an international, nonprofit organization. The MSC is a prime example of an economic trend: Private groups, not the government, are telling consumers what is good or bad for the environment. The MSC says its label guarantees that the wild seafood was caught using methods that do not deplete the natural supply. It also guarantees that fishing companies do not cause serious harm to other life in the sea, from coral to dolphins.

Critics, though, say the story is more complicated, arguing that

the MSC system has been certifying some fisheries despite evidence that the target fish are in trouble, or that the fishing industry is harming the environment. And critics say the MSC system has certified other fisheries as sustainable even though there is not enough evidence to know how they are affecting the environment.

When a customer sees the MSC’s sustainable label at the supermarket, “the consumer looks at the fish and says, ‘Oh, it has the label on it, it must be sustainable,’ ” [Gerry] Leape [of the Pew Environment Group] says. “And in some fisheries that the MSC has certified, that’s not necessarily the case.”

The reporting is NPR at its best: thoughtful, probing, considered, and in depth. It covers the origin of the MSC, the Walmart effect, and more. You can find the full series, some related posts, and plenty of links here.

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