Dr. Chet Chaffee is Manager of the Marine Conservation Program at Scientific Certification Systems in Mountain View, California.


Can you explain why the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification is third party certification?

The importance of the MSC process is it’s the independent certification. It’s not run by industry; it’s not run by environmental groups; it’s completely independent. And it uses an independent standard, as opposed to industry programs, which are self-policing, but nobody from the outside ever gets to take a look at the fishery or the process in the fishery.

How extensive is the MSC certification on any fishery?

The same standard is used for every fishery. Every fishery we go into, we have to look at the resource base, the sustainability of it, the ecosystem, the management structure, and the fishing operations.

So, no matter where we go in the world we are looking at the same sets of criteria. And any fishery that gets done means that there’s a lot of work to be done by a lot of people to get to an endpoint.

To what degree can consumers be sure that seafood products with a Marine Stewardship label were caught in a sustainable manner?

I think consumers can have a lot of faith in this program and it has a lot of credibility because it’s independently run, independent audits, and we look at everything in the fishery from the management all the way down to the fishing operation. And it’s done by a team of experts and the results are even peer-reviewed by a separate team of scientists.

So there’s extended credibility throughout the program.

Is the certification process a relatively exhaustive process?

It is a relatively exhaustive process in the sense that there is nothing in the fishery operation that we don’t ask questions about and look at. We look at the data collected, the research program that is in place, the managers, how they do their work, and even how the fishermen do their daily operations. There is NOTHING that we don’t look at in a fishery to evaluate whether if meets the sustainability criteria.

What are the criteria that you use?

In general, if you look at the standards that the Marine Stewardship has, you can break them down into four distinct categories.

There is the sustainability of the resource, which means that the fish are around year after year for as many years as you can count — always at the same levels. And the managers are working to keep those fish around at those levels.

The second thing that’s looked at is the ecosystem impacts from fishing. When you take fish from an ecosystem, you have an effect. The question is what is that effect, how extensive is it, and is it within the boundaries of acceptability to maintain that fishery? Because the fishery depends on the habitat, you have to look at the habitat, not just the resource of the fish.

We also look at the management resource, how they protect the fish and the resource, and then we look at the fishery operations to see how well they are utilizing that information to make a better effort at fishing; reporting that information back to the management so there’s a discussion between those who fish and those who manage.

That’s all part of looking at the sustainability of the fishery.

How many seafood products, or fisheries, do you expect that the MSC will be certifying? Do you think that there will be a great variety?

I think every type of seafood you can imagine will come up over the next five years. There have been discussions about shrimp fisheries, groundfish fisheries, salmon fisheries, lobster fisheries, other kinds of crab fisheries; so every type of species in every sector around the world.

There have been discussions about how these standards apply to these fisheries. And I believe over the next five years you will see wide a variety of products in supermarkets with the MSC label.

Is it the case at times that fisheries that apply to be certified sometimes fail certification?

Absolutely. As I said before, this process is objective. When a fishery signs up to be evaluated, they sign a contract that allows us as an independent evaluation team to go in and evaluate the fishery. And it says right in the contract, regardless of outcome. So there will be fisheries that fail this process and there will be fisheries that pass this process.

But failure will be an indication that there are things that can be corrected, and in that evaluation those things will be delineated so the fishery can immediately focus on how to improve, based on that sustainability standard; therefore improving the fishery, the fishery’s management, and therefore being able to reapply for certification.

This is a two-stage process. There’s a thing called a pre-assessment. And then there’s a full assessment. Every fishery has to go through a pre-assessment.

And that pre-assessment is a very brief snapshot overview of the fishery to say to them, here is what it will cost to go through a full assessment and here are the things we think are obstacles to you passing. Knowing that, you can sign up to go through a full assessment or you can say no, there are too many obstacles, let us fix those first. If the obstacles don’t seem to be too prohibitive, they can go for the full assessment. So you can reduce your chance of failing at the full assessment. But will fisheries still fail? Absolutely.

Fisheries will fail because people will not always be doing what they need to do. But sometimes we find that out in the pre-assessment phase so that people can know right away the things they have to fix before they even sign up to do certification.

So, as a two-part process, it’s economically feasible, it’s tractable, it’s doable, and it gives you an idea right up front what the issues are in your fishery before you ever move forward.

So it helps fisheries from the get go, at a low cost actually evaluate their position with regards to sustainability and to certification.

Do you want to compare this to the Forest Stewardship Council?

What’s similar to the Forest Stewardship Council is it’s based on the same sense of giving an economic advantage to people doing a good job at conserving resources and conserving their habitat.

The evaluation process is somewhat different because you’re looking at fisheries and not at forests. We are looking at things that are under the sea and moving. Trees don’t happen to do that. They don’t swim very well. And the way the MSC is structured is slightly different. But the basis for the program is exactly the same.

It’s to provide a distinct label in the market place for consumers to recognize people that are doing a good job at protecting natural resources and habitats. And that’s where this program starts and that’s where this program stops.