The MSC label will now be applied to swordfish from a longline fishery that catches endangered sea turtles in Florida. How's that sustainable, you say? Well, children, you can catch endangered species (at least 147 loggerhead and leatherback turtles from 2005 - 2009) and still be called sustainable as long as you are reasonably certain that that level of catch won't contribute to irreversible harm to the population. What a high standard! To be pretty sure that you're not contributing to further downfall!
Here's a little quote from the MSC fisheries assessment methodology, which tells third-party certifiers how to score fisheries: "There should be no more than a 30% probability that the true status of the Component is within the range where there is risk of serious or irreversible harm."
Let me provide a little more context. The quote above is for Principle 2 performance indicators, i.e. how the fishery is performing with respect to impacts on habitat and other species. So when a fishery is being assessed to see if it should receive MSC certification, and it catches endangered species, the third-party certifier that assesses the fishery against MSC's standards will try to determine the level of impact on that species. If a fishery is determined to meet the standard quoted above, it will pass without conditions. If there's a 40% probability, it can still pass but with conditions.
I am generally a math and science kind of person, but when you start calling yourself "sustainable" as MSC does you can't fall back on dry assessments of probability and risk. Sustainability, at least in the way it is used in popular discourse, implies a lot of things, and when consumers are looking for the superior environmental choice they're probably not thinking about what level of dead endangered turtles is okay. They're probably thinking that they don't want to be indirectly responsible for the deaths of any endangered species - at least on a regular basis. Unfortunately swordfish longline fisheries catch a lot of bycatch, including turtles. You can marshal all the statistics you want to prove that these catches from one segment of the fishing industry aren't by themselves responsible for continued population declines, but that's really beside the point.
Consumers seeking out sustainable seafood are looking for superior performance. You may say that the swordfish fishery has improved with respect to turtles, that as a condition of MSC certification the fishery's agreed to do all sorts of things it should already be doing like increasing observer coverage, blah blah, blah. None of this changes the fact that consumers are being duped into thinking they're supporting the good guys, when really the superior environmental choice is harpoon-caught swordfish, or another species entirely.
When certification of this fishery was proposed, the Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN) objected, but their objection was not accepted by the Independent Adjudicator/lawyer appointed by MSC to weigh the various arguments. This adjudicator, by the way stated "The CB [the third-party certifier performing the analysis of the fishery] has made the point that although there were a number of significant stakeholders involved in the assessment process including PEW and Oceana, the only remaining Objector is TIRN. This reflects well on the MSC process and the positive contributions of Dayboat in its interactions with the NGOs." Except it doesn't at all, since Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, the Ecology Action Centre, and the Animal Welfare Institute submitted letters in support of TIRN's objection.
I'm beginning to think no one involved with MSC has good reading comprehension skills. They call themselves the "best environmental choice." Apparently the "best" means up to a 30% chance that you're causing irreversible harm to an endangered species, and means you're not concerned with regular hookings and killings of struggling endangered species. And supporting an objection means you don't support it at all.