NPR's three-part series on the Marine Stewardship Council addresses primarily the environmentalists' complaints about MSC (that it has expanded too quickly and, therefore, can't possibly be certifying only truly sustainable — whatever that means — seafood).
What is shocking is the fact that this series never once mentions the U.S. fishery management system. But even worse, it doesn't dig into the conflicts of interest that persist in the MSC's foundation supporters and those who pay for the blue sustainability logo. Nor does it truly address the consequences of a sustainability logo that no small fleet could afford for the long haul.
They would have gotten straight to the heart of it by addressing the most recent MSC controversy. That McDonald's announced its fish menu items would be made with all MSC-certified pollock the same week Russia announced its (controversial) pollock fishery was going forward with MSC certification.
Whole Foods and WalMart did not agree to start selling only MSC-labeled fish out of the blue one day. They were lobbied to do so (which the series does reveal).
So here's the rub: Fleets that want to keep selling into particular markets go through the very expensive MSC certification program in order to keep selling to those retailers that MSC has lobbied. That means MSC is driving its clients on one end by marketing themselves not to the fleets or to the public, but to the retailers on the other end. It's quite clever.
What that tells me is not that their primary aim is to educate the public or protect fishermen, but that they seek to control a stake in the global fishing industry. I have a hard time believing those efforts are altruistic when I see that MSC has funding sources in common with some of the world's largest corporations.
And what this series confirms for me is my belief that it's nearly impossible to isolate one fishery, green (or blue, as the case may be) stamp it, call it sustainable and walk away (regardless of whether you promise to come back to it three or five years later).
It also makes me very fearful that perhaps this push in questioning the MSC has a deeper reason — to further the cause for open-ocean finfish aquaculture, which some people foolishly believe will result in "organic" seafood.
The oceans are complicated, people. In the United States, the National Marine Fisheries Service does a good job of addressing the ebbs and flows of fishing stocks. In some cases, it (or the states that manage some fisheries) excels. In some cases it falls flat on its face and then tries to correct a misstep. We have very high standards here for our wild seafood.
That is the best we can expect when the marine environment meets government oversight. The bottom line is you can't fool yourself into thinking any label is a panacea. And you shouldn't fool yourself into believing open-ocean fish farms are the answer to the "dearth" of wild seafood.
U.S. fisheries are overall very healthy. If we turn our focus to eating a variety of foods in general, we will be assured of supporting more local growers and small-boat harvesters as well as keeping a check on the exploitation of our natural resources.
But instead, we turn more and more to the mantra that being too big to fail is equivalent to being sustainable.