Thursday, August 19, 2010

Wait until the full assessment is done before making a fuss?

Wise persons over at the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) have once again had to issue a reasoned, calm press release to remind those hysterical fish-huggers in the environmental community to remember all the good things that MSC certification of seafood has accomplished before they start complaining! I really feel for them. It must be so hard when you have set the world's most "rigorous" standards for fishery sustainability (which allow for the environmentally friendly practice of bottom trawling, and will consider depleted fish populations "sustainable" if there's a plan in place for their recovery, because fishery management plans always work as intended). But then those annoying environmentalists, who probably don't want anyone eating any fish ever get members of the public to send you a bunch of form e-mails. After all, there's plenty of time during the assessment process to find out if there are any serious problems. One whole fishery out of the approximately 80 to enter the certification process has failed assessment, a strong 1.25% - the process clearly works! Moreover, conditions imposed on certified fisheries in the past have had such fantastic benefits, such as reductions in seabird bycatch. It would have been totally unreasonable to ask those fisheries to implement those measures (which were obviously available) before getting certified! Why would they stop needlessly killing seabirds unless there was a good reason like keeping the certification that enables them to charge more for their products? MSC's motto: We'll let you call yourself sustainable, then give you five years to see if you actually are!

In all seriousness, I'm getting really tired of this MSC attitude of wait-and-see, follow our very generous rules for engagement, calm down, etc. Stakeholder NGOs have been pouring resources into participating in assessments but it seems to many in the NGO community that it's a pointless exercise - nothing substantive ever happens.* Detailed comments and carefully researched arguments (even from their own handpicked scientific peer reviewers) are dismissed with a few sentences, which is all that is needed to satisfy MSC stakeholder consultation requirements. And then, if an objection to the certification is filed (as MSC Americas Fisheries Regional Director Jim Humphreys suggests is a good option for the disgruntled), you get to pay for the privilege of drafting multiple detailed documents and pulling staff off of their usual projects. The objections procedure allows only very narrow grounds for overturning certifications, so NGOs put in huge amounts of work and can even get the adjudicator deciding the objection to agree with our arguments but since the basis for certification doesn't rise to the level of "unreasonable" the certification stands. So it's completely understandable that Pew doesn't want to wait and see as the assessment team dutifully publishes their comments in a 200 page long report that no one except those directly involved will ever read, but would rather take their concerns to the public.

If NGOs should sit tight and participate only in the way MSC wants us to while assessments proceed, then MSC needs to change its standards to require a similar approach on the part of the third-party consultants who assess the fishery to determine certification eligibility. As in, wait and see if bycatch is reduced before certification. Wait and see if the data support the idea that the harvest is sustainable. Wait and see if someone can pin down how often the target species spawns. Wait and see before you go ahead with the assessment and certification, and we'll wait and see before we raise a fuss.

*I suppose the MSC response would be that all of us must have been wrong on all the certifications we protested. Yes, because we NGOs have so much money and free time that we can spend making life difficult for fisheries that are objectively sustainable. There can always be disagreements but NGOs don't get involved in these certifications unless we feel that we have strong scientific arguments, some of which are echoed by peer reviewers (who are scientists) but often dismissed by the certifiers.

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