June 18, 2018
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Fishery certification facts

By kerry coughlin

The Maine lobster fishery entered the Marine Stewardship Council certification program to confirm through a scientific, independent, third-party assessment that the fishery is environmentally responsible and sustainable. As the fishery is an iconic symbol of Maine’s storied history and an economic engine that affects thousands of people in Maine, industry and government leaders rightly determined certification to the MSC standard is important to remaining competitive in a global marketplace increasingly demanding proof of sustainability.

Maine is to be congratulated for wanting to obtain MSC certification, which is acknowledged globally as the most robust, credible and independent certification standard. While I respect that there are varying opinions, the Jan. 5 Bangor Daily News editorial, “A Real Lobster Stew,” did a disservice to the Maine lobster fishery and Maine readers by failing to convey accurate and crucial information about the certification process.

First, the MSC is not “considering” whether to certify the Maine lobster industry as sustainable. MSC maintains the standard and the program, but assessment for certification is done by independent certifiers. Entering certification is voluntary; it is not an indication of a belief by MSC that the fishery is or isn’t currently sustainable, nor should it be described as “knuckling under.”

Assessments against the MSC standard are conducted by independent third-party certifiers who engage additional scientific experts on evaluation teams. Assessment reports are peer reviewed by other independent scientists. This peer review is one of many checks and balances within the MSC program to ensure opinion and special interests cannot affect the scientific outcome. Throughout an assessment, the MSC remains neutral; its role is to ensure proper application of the established methodology.

The editorial makes an inaccurate reference to money. MSC is a nonprofit with a mission to harness market forces to motivate, or enable fisheries to demonstrate, sustainable harvesting of seafood. MSC receives no money from certification assessment of a fishery or company.

In addition to philanthropic support, MSC receives operating support via a small logo licensing fee from commercial partners when the MSC ecolabel is displayed on seafood. The editorial refers to the MSC annual budget and then asserts that the MSC “relies largely on its for-profit assessor.” Any implication that MSC relies financially on assessors is false.

An independent certifier is paid for their time and expenses by a fishery client, much as a business engages an outside, professional firm to conduct an independent financial audit; it is standard business practice. And, while costs vary by fishery, the cost of certification and annual audits in Maine are a fraction of a penny per pound of lobster landed, a much different context from the one provided readers of the editorial. In addition, certification can provide market benefit because MSC certification is either required or highly desirable in markets around the world, especially where new processed lobster products are sought.

The editorial used the opinion of a few scientists published in Nature magazine to suggest conflict of interest or lack of environmental benefit; however, it neglected to inform readers that other scientists immediately rejected the opinion, calling the MSC “A Force for Good” and “Fair and Impartial” in letters to the magazine. In study after study MSC is found to be a highly credible program.

MSC is a collaboratively developed and governed global organization with its headquarters for the Americas region in Seattle. It is the only fishery sustainability certification program fully consistent with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization guidelines as well as the global organization for standard setters known as ISEAL. As a result, MSC is the leading program in the marketplace and certification to the standard is sought by fisheries worldwide because it has proven to be advantageous in the market and a good economic investment.

The initial independent assessment of the Maine lobster fishery is nearing completion, and the fishery will soon learn the certifier’s recommendation on whether the fishery meets the standard or if there are remaining areas to be addressed in order to gain MSC certification. Regardless of the outcome, Maine’s lobster industry stands to benefit from the process.

The citizens of Maine deserve an accurate portrayal of the MSC process and organization and the economic and environmental benefits that can result from the Maine lobster fishery’s participation.

Kerry Coughlin is regional director, Americas, for the Marine Stewardship Council.

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