Skidmore College is the first liberal arts college in the state of New York to become Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) Chain of Custody certified. As many marine species stocks are becoming depleted due to overfishing, people are becoming more aware of issues such as illegal fishing and seafood fraud. Does that mean all seafood that the dining hall (Dhall) serves is sustainable? No, but it is a step in the right direction.
MSC Chain of Custody certification is a traceability standard for supply chains from the MSC certified fishery, to the distributor, to the consumer’s plate. Each company or institution that handles or sells an MSC certified product must obtain a valid MSC Chain of Custody certificate. MSC eco labeled seafood comes from an independently assessed fishery, which is then certified as environmentally sustainable with full traceability.
Achieving MSC Chain of Custody certification promotes traceability within the food supply chain. However, it does not fully ensure that an institution, restaurant, or supermarket is 100 percent eco-friendly or sustainable. In general, sustainability can be defined as meeting today's needs without compromising the needs of future generations. According to NOAA, sustainable seafood entails farming or catching seafood responsibly "with consideration for the long-term health of the environment and the livelihoods of the people that depend upon the environment" (NOAA).
The only MSC certified seafood products that Dhall serves or sells is pollock, cod, and haddock. Dhall has even made the effort to label menus online and at the entrance of the dining hall with the MSC certified seafood label. However, Dhall still serves uncertified seafood such as: shrimp, salmon, catfish, unknown fish in the fish tacos, and mahi mahi served for special occasions like themed dinners (Pirates and Mermaids).
Although MSC is known as a sustainability label, some argue that it is simply a "blue washing" technique, and does not promote real sustainability in seafood. A paper released in 2013 by the Biological Conservation highlights some of the objections against MSC labels (Fairbrother, 2013). An overarching issue they bring up is that MSC uses third party inspectors who have discretion when it comes to determining whether a fishery meets MSC standards. For this reason, a fishery may not really meet the MSC requirements but could be granted certification (Ainley, Bailey et al. 2013).
Additionally, the MSC standards for fisheries are vague. The three principles include sustainable fish stocks, minimizing environmental impact, and effective management (MSC). They are more qualitative than quantitative, which leaves room for varied interpretation. This is especially possible because of the third party inspectors. The standards also do not address fishing methods.
About two years ago, NPR released an article discussing the controversy of MSC’s eco label. Even though the program is based on science and evidence, many environmentalists and scientists lost their faith in the company when the Canadian swordfish fishery was certified. On average, the Canadian swordfish fishery was catching about five blue sharks for every swordfish due to its unsustainable fishing method of longlining. A fishery using the longlining method usually lets out 30 to 40 miles of fishing line, suspending more than 1,000 hooks that result in tens of thousand of shark bycatches every year. Many of these sharks that are accidentally caught are “threatened,” “endangered,” or “of special concern” under the Canadian government. (Zwerdling, Williams. 2013)
This specific case reflects that the Canadian swordfish fishery did not abide by the one of the three fundamental MSC standards—an important standard for guaranteeing sustainability. Principle two of the MSC Fisheries Standard states, “Fishing operation must be managed to maintain the structure, productivity, function and diversity of the ecosystem.” Even though the swordfish population is plentiful, the fishery is ruining the integrity of the ecosystem by not being aware other the other marine species being negatively impacted.
The bottom line is that MSC has good intentions for protecting fish stocks and marine life, but needs to improve their standards as well as enforcement of standards. The organization is a strong advocate for raising awareness at a consumer level about the importance of traceability and sustainability in the seafood we eat. MSC’s official website provides information about the global impacts of unsustainable fishing, and even includes smart shopping tips for the consumer and businesses interested in purchasing sustainable seafood. MSC also highlights the significance of educating younger generations about traceability in the food chain supply.
So, with all this controversy over the effectiveness of the MSC certification and label, should Skidmore be commended for its MSC certification? One could argue that an MSC certification is better than no certification, and we have to say we agree. While the MSC standards definitely have flaws, Skidmore is making an attempt at supporting sustainable seafood, and as seafood tracing and monitoring increase, hopefully so will certification standards.
Ainley, D. Bailey, M. et al. 2013. A Review of Formal Objections to Marine Stewardship Council Fisheries Certifications. Biological Conservation.
"It's Official: You Can't Trust a 'Certified Sustainable' Seafood Label." TakePart. Web. 22 Apr. 2015.