Layers of Green: Greens Accuse Green Certifiers Of Greenwashing Seafood
Feb 21, 2013 at 4:20 PM
Teresa Platt in Business, Charity, Endangered Species, Environment, FreeEnterpriseProject, Government, MSC, NPR, Taxes, certification, fish, marine stewardship, organic

National Public Radio (NPR) is featuring an excellent 3-part investigation into the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) fisheries certification program.  Journalists Daniel Zwerdling and Margot Williams attempted to answer the loaded question: “Is Sustainable-Labeled Seafood Really Sustainable?” while green groups loudly accused the ultra-green MSC of greenwashing:

Eco-labeling schemes like MSC’s add additional layers of bureaucracy on retailers, farmers and fishermen while passing on costs to consumers.  These programs also ignore the fact that fishermen already participate in taxpayer-funded government management regimes ensuring the long-term health of fisheries.

So seafood lovers buying MSC-certified fish pay twice - once to government in the form of income taxes and again at the checkout counter where, hidden in the price, are fees paid to “green” certifiers and logo licensing agencies like MSC.  This explains why “certified” swordfish can cost $18.99 a pound instead of $15.00.  Another fisherman in the very same fishery, working under the exact same management regime, can sell his fish for less two doors over.  His fish is every bit as good and, when you buy it, you’re not supporting Big Green.

Layers of Green

After years of “green” campaigners wailing about overfishing the oceans, it was inevitable that some “green” corporation would step forward and offer to certify product as sustainable.  For a fee, of course.  Eco-labeling or eco-extortion? Or just another tax-free way to shelter profits? 

NPR’s report revealed the size and scope of the MSC program:

But MSC own financial reports reveal it closed 2012 with 275 fisheries in its program, representing 10 million tons of seafood, fully 11% of the annual global catch:

Total group income in 2011/12 was £15 million [US$23M] compared to £12.8 million [US$20M] in the previous year, a 17.6% increase.  For the first time, incoming resources from charitable activities (that is, logo licensing revenue) exceed the contributions from foundations and trusts in the USA, Europe and UK.  The percentage of logo licensing income compared to total income increased to 56% (2010/11 49%).

Costco, Target, Whole Foods, even McDonald’s, have all bought in and are paying licensing fees to MSC – well, technically you are - while hoping to carve out a marketing advantage, praying that a simple logo on a can or filet of fish will make all the negative green attack campaigns just go away. 

Naïve, at best.  There is always someone further left, always a critic.

But pity the fisherman caught in the middle of this muddle.  NPR reveals he pays too, in both time and treasure:

MSC does not certify fisheries itself; instead, a fishery that wants the label hires any one of roughly a dozen commercial auditing companies, which can cost up to $150,000 or more, to decide whether the fishery’s practices comply with the MSC standards.

NPR detailed the experience of fishing boat owners pressured by Whole Foods, run by vegan CEO John Mackey, to comply or lose sales:

The way Day Boat’s owners tell their story, they decided to go through the complicated process of getting certified mostly because of their major client, Whole Foods.  Co-owners Howie Bubis and Scott Taylor began supplying the upscale chain soon after they founded their seafood company in 2006.

They say business was good.  But executives at Whole Foods announced that they were going to buy as much seafood as possible with the MSC label.  … [They] hoped that MSC approval would give them a competitive edge — and Whole Foods might pay them more than fishing companies that didn’t have it.

Day Boat’s owners say the process cost more than $200,000 — at least half for the audit company and the rest for related expenses.  “It’s occupied three years of our life,” says Bubis. …[who] assigned a staff member to work almost full time for two years, just to supply [the certifying company with] information. …But he and his partner say the MSC label has been good for business: They have been selling their swordfish for 10 percent more than competitors who don’t have it.

What’s Sustainable?

Quite frankly, “sustainable” has to be one of the most overused words out there. 

“Sustainable,” in the case of fisheries, generally means fishermen are working within a science-based management regime to ensure their harvests don’t jeopardize the biomass of a fish stock. 

For example, you wouldn’t want to take, in one year, 80% of a stock that is reproducing annually at a rate of only 20%.  And fishermen avoid harvesting young fish before they’ve had a chance to reproduce, staying out of the “nursery areas,” as areas full of juvenile fish are called.  These are great ways to kill a fishery fast - and go bankrupt in the process.   

Green labeling schemes ignore the fact that we already pay taxes to cover the salaries and pensions of hordes of government biologists and fisheries managers to ensure that the science is done and that harvests are regulated.  While such science-based management regimes are not perfect systems – changing ocean temperatures and conditions can remove fish from an area far faster than fishermen can – they are taxpayer-funded investments in education, in slowly and methodically learning about the food-producing oceans on which we all rely. 

In the U.S., the Magnuson Act, passed in 1976, established regional fisheries Councils to ensure sustainability.  Outside the U.S. 200-mile limit, regimes exist in cooperation with multiple government fishery agencies.  For example, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) provides the science for 25% of the world’s canned tuna supply, the harvests in the eastern Pacific yellowfin tuna fishery.  Established in 1950, the IATTC has accumulated some of the finest science on the planet, science used by government fishery agencies for decision making in over a dozen countries including the U.S.   

Fisheries management regimes are investments in long-term commitments to a difficult and laborious process.  It can easily take decade and multiple core samples to get the most basic information on the impact of natural shifts in ocean conditions on a fishery.  But it’s well worth the effort. 

Add in at-sea sampling, data crunched from log books, observer reports and unloading records, and there’s a lot going on here.  Management plans are created, harvest quotas set and reviewed regularly as new information is analyzed: cyclical changes in ocean conditions; changing predator/prey relationships; increases or decreases in harvest levels due to changes in demand or the number, size or efficiency of fishing vessels; shifts to harvests earlier or later in a season or the lifecycle of the fish.  Government fines, penalties and jail time show we are serious about the process.

All this is paid for by your tax dollars – and seldom mentioned by the greens or eco-certifiers.  And, since many of the green groups peddling such eco-schemes eschew animal products – they’re philosophically vegan, relying on soybeans for their protein - they’re not potential customers for any seafood, certified or not. 

Savvy Consumers Seek Out the Best

But never mind the vegan non-consumer, many savvy and jaded omnivores avoid eco-labels on principle: bypassing the “organic” produce, the FSC-certified lumber, the MSC-certified fish.  They search for products sold by those free spirits who absolutely refuse to bow to Global Green Overlords running these intrusive and overbearing eco-schemes - those living “beyond organic,” the “non-bar code people.”

While the quality of a product – and the producer’s life - is often reflected in its price, layers of middlemen don’t add a thing to that equation.  So, yes, the free consumer is free to reject all this and buy something else.  And they do. 

Just six months after StarKist labeled its tuna “dolphin safe,” Greenpeace accused it of greenwashing, citing the IATTC’s science on the ecological downside of “dolphin safe” fishing. 

Consumers questioned and resisted the eco-label, and freely chose other protein sources.  Tuna sales plummeted 20% in the five years after StarKist adopted its destructive policy.  Sadly, during that period we also lost half our yellowfin tuna fishing fleet.

StarKist’s CEO grumbled:

Lesson learned? Probably not.


Teresa Platt is the Director of the Environment and Enterprise Institute at the National Center for Public Policy Research.
Top photo:; Second photo: Teresa Platt
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