If you want to know what’s wrong with seafood certification, look no further than the dust-up over Alaska salmon, which are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, depending on who catches them.

As the “launch customer” for the MSC, Alaska salmon received pro bono certification. Given that the fishery conjures up images of jumping fish, wild bears and snow-capped mountains, most of the bono went to the MSC, in the form of green street cred for a fledgling NGO.

Eventually, a number of fishing interests in Alaska created their own sustainability label, obviating the no longer pro bono MSC label, and parted company with the MSC.

But markets, as I like to say, are a force of nature, and the MSC label has become something of a sine qua non in many quarters, particularly overseas but also in the United States, home to the world’s largest company, WalMart, which is committed to ecolabeled seafood.

Now that the players who walked away from MSC want to rejoin those who stayed, we have a situation in which one fish wears the MSC label while his equally sustainable brother does not.

Although this doesn’t serve the interests of fishermen or consumers, one can argue that the MSC has elevated the standards for sustainability. But it has also created an environment in which biologically singular fisheries have had to be certified for multiple harvesting interests. Practicing sustainability is one thing. Paying for apparent sustainability is something else.

I am not a fan of ecolabels and never have been. There is no data I am aware of that proves that fish with the MSC label are more likely to thrive as a species than those without. In this country, catch limits are set so conservatively that no one should have second thoughts about eating seafood.

But all the world’s a stage, so fisheries pay to play. The fact that seafood producers in Alaska feel they need the imprimatur of the MSC label does not bode well for those elsewhere who oppose ecolabels as a matter of principle.

If salmon interests feel compelled to throw in with the MSC, the likelihood of their being joined in a boycott by other fisheries seems pretty slight. However, it should be pointed out that the MSC holds the franchise not on sustainability, but on selling the idea of it.

A collection of stories from guest authors.

Join the Conversation