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Building a market for sustainable fisheries

Rupert HowesMarine Stewardship Council

Rupert Howes has been chief executive of the Marine Stewardship Council since October 2004. He came to the MSC from the Forum for the Future, where he was director of the Sustainable Economy Programme. Howes qualified as a Chartered Accountant and spent six years with KPMG. Mr. Howes holds a BA in economics from the University of Sussex and an MSc in environmental technology from Imperial College, University of London.

The world’s oceans are in trouble. According to the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), half of the world’s fisheries are now fully exploited. They are effectively being fished as hard as they can be. Another quarter are classified as overfished or depleted. At the same time, demand for seafood continues to grow, seemingly unabated. Higher demand puts yet more pressure on our finite fishery resources and, in some instances, has encouraged the growth of so called pirate fishing—illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing that further threatens the health and resilience of fisheries around the world.

Overfishing is not just an ecological issue. Two hundred million livelihoods around the world depend upon this last great global industry that harvests a wild resource for food. Seafood is also the main or only source of animal protein for one in five Africans and a billion people in Asia. Global food security is a very real issue, particularly given that we are struggling to meet the protein needs of the world’s current population of 6 billion people. By the middle of this century, meeting the needs of an estimated 9 billion people could place yet more strain on our finite global fishery resources. It is for these reasons that the social and environmental consequences of overfishing have been described as the biggest sustainability challenge we face after climate change.

The good news is the solutions are also known. Despite the headlines, it is not all doom and gloom in the global fishing industry. Yes, some fisheries have collapsed but at the same time there are many examples of excellent and sustainable fisheries management around the world and at all scales, from small community-based fisheries in the developing world to some of the largest and most productive fisheries in the Northern Hemisphere. Nature is also incredibly resilient. Global harvests could perhaps be increased one day if all fishery resources were managed on a truly sustainable basis.

What is also clear is there is no silver bullet to the social and environmental problems of overfishing. We need political leadership and vision and the determination to deliver radical policy reforms where needed. We also need international cooperation and investment to adequately address pirate fishing and the important advocacy and awareness raising activities of the marine-conservation community.

The market also has a part to play including each of us as individual consumers. We can either continue to contribute to the problem, buying any old fish or old favorites without questioning where our seafood has come from. Or, alternatively, we can contribute to a real and on-going market transformation that is driving lasting change in the way the oceans are fished by demanding sustainable seafood choices. The work of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), an international marine certification and eco-labeling organization for sustainable wild capture fisheries, has demonstrated how this market engagement can work and deliver.

Established in 1997 by Unilever, at the time one of the world’s largest purchasers of frozen seafood with brands such as Birds Eye and Iglo, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the world’s largest and most recognized international conservation organization, the MSC was created to use its certification and labeling program to identify and reward existing good practice and to help create the market pull to encourage less well-managed fisheries to improve their performance in order to meet the standard. The organization became fully independent from its founders in 1999.

The MSC concept is actually very simple. Fisheries can come forward, on a voluntary basis, to be assessed against a rigorous science-based standard for environmental sustainability. A fishery could be the entire fishery (all boats and all gear types) on a particular species, such as the Alaskan salmon or Alaskan pollock fishery, or a defined component of a bigger fishery, such as the Cornish handline mackerel fishery (a defined gear type and client group of vessels and geography). At the highest level, the standard has three principles concerned with investigating the health of the target stock, an assessment of the wider environmental impacts of the fishery on the supporting marine environment, and the overall quality of its management regime. If the fishery meets the standard, they win the right to make use of MSC’s eco-label in the market place as long as the entire supply chain has also been audited and found to have met MSC’s traceability or chain-of-custody standard. It should be noted that where a subcomponent of a fishery is assessed, the assessment team still looks at the total fishing effort on the entire target stock to ensure principle one was met—the fishery must be conducted in such a way so as not to lead to overfishing.

The organization is effectively trying to operationalize a model of sustainable production by encouraging fisheries to meet a science-based standard for environmentally responsible and sustainable fishing, and also, through the use of the eco-label (certified sustainable seafood), a model of sustainable consumption by empowering consumers, whether major seafood buyers or individual consumers, to make the best environmental choice.

The devil is very much in the detail, but over ten years, MSC has evolved to ensure its program is the only widely recognized certification and labeling program in the world to conform to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) guidelines for credible certification and labeling programs for wild-capture fisheries. The guidelines require independent science and evidence-based assessments; full transparency and publication of all reports; high degrees of stakeholder engagement; independent standard setting, accreditation, and certification functions; a separate peer review; and also an independent objections process when stakeholders disagree with the final recommendation of the certification body. After a very slow and often painful start, it is now clear that the MSC concept works—credible certification is driving change in the way the oceans are fished—and critically, by working in partnership with leaders in the industry and the marine conservation community, the model could go to scale. In some markets it could be argued it already has.

So where has the organization got to? On the supply side, over 200 fisheries are now engaged at some stage in the independent assessment process—these fisheries land over 7 million tons of seafood annually, about 12 percent of the wild global annual harvest for direct human consumption. On the demand side, labeled products—over 4000 individual product lines—are now available in over 60 countries around the world in a market that is worth in the region of $2 billion annually. Just five years ago, there were only 17 fisheries in the program and less than 200 labeled products in a handful of countries. The collective work of marine conservation organizations, leaders in the industry, and the MSC have helped to get seafood sustainability on the map. It is this market pull that is creating supply-chain pressure of the best possible kind all the way back to fisheries around the world. Things really are changing and developing incredibly quickly.

Perhaps one of the biggest developments in recent years came when Wal-Mart Stores, the world’s largest retailer, committed to source 100 percent of its wild-capture seafood from MSC certified fisheries by 2011. Other retailers around the world have made similar commitments and many more are placing sustainable seafood at the heart of their procurement strategies. MSC is now operating in North America, throughout Europe, and increasingly in Asia Pacific. Another powerful example showing that this program really could go to scale is the partnership that has developed in the Netherlands over recent years. This cross-sector commitment aims to see all wild caught fish sold in Dutch retailers certified to MSC’s standard. First the Dutch retailer association, representing over 90 percent of all Dutch retailers made a similar commitment to Wal-Mart’s, with the goal that all wild-caught fish would come fromMSC certified fisheries within five years. Next the Dutch fishing industry joined the effort, followed by the North Sea Foundation and WWF. Finally the Dutch Government agreed to contribute €1 million (now €1.5 million) to enable Dutch fisheries to meet anFAO-compliant third-party certification scheme. Many Dutch fisheries are now engaged, thanks in part to market demand. These cross-sector partnerships need to be replicated in other countries and regions as MSC goes to scale.

Most important, ten years on, there is a growing evidence base that demonstrates fisheries are making improvements—reducing by-catch of birds and nontarget species, making changes to their gear to reduce other environmental impacts, implementing voluntary closures, and other management initiatives to achieve certification. This has to be good for the environment, for those who make their livelihoods fishing and the resilience and sustainability of their communities that depend upon the global fishing industry, and for consumers who want to continue to buy sustainable seafood. Equally important, there is also a clear business case. Fisheries have used their certifications to supply existing buyer preferences, win access to new markets, and in some instances, gain price premiums by supplying certified and labeled seafood.

It is not all smooth sailing. Some assessments are controversial. Some end up in objections and there will always be polarized views from some within the conservation community who believe the bar should be higher, maintaining that some unsustainable fisheries are being certified. On the other side, many within the industry believe the bar is already too high, that certification costs too much, takes too long, and adds no value to their business. Fisheries science and certification is a complex and evolving business.MSC operates within this creative tension, trying to continually improve the program while maintaining the rigor and robustness of the independent assessment process. However, our first ten years have proven the concept. MSC’s mission is achievable and through effective partnerships the program can, and I believe will, go to scale and continue to deliver a meaningful contribution to reversing the decline in our global fishery resources. Just remember to look for that label and demand genuinely sustainable seafood choices.

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