Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made
— Immanuel Kant
On Tuesday February 12, 2013, National Public Radio broadcast a story with the innocuous title Conditions Allow For More Sustainable-Labeled Seafood. I was half-listening, but finally, I could no longer ignore what I was hearing (transcript, audio).
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
These days you can buy sustainable fashion and sustainable home landscaping. And, as we've been hearing this week, a growing number of products at your local supermarket; among them, certified sustainable seafood.
That promise comes from an international nonprofit called the Marine Stewardship Council, or the MSC.
WERTHEIMER: Studies show that most of the world's wild fisheries are overfished or near their limit.
The MSC says its sustainable label guarantees that fishermen caught that seafood in ways that do not deplete their supply or threaten other animals in the environment.
MONTAGNE: But as NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports in today's Business Bottom Line, many environmentalists say the label can be misleading.
Can be misleading?
DANIEL ZWERDLING: The MSC is the most influential system in the world that decides which seafood is environmentally correct. You can buy seafood with the MSC logo at Wal-Mart and Target. McDonald's Filet-O-Fish are certified sustainable. The chains point to their MSC labels to show they're socially responsible.
And Rupert Howes is proud.
RUPERT HOWES: I mean, what gets me out of bed to work at the MSC - and I've been chief exec for the last eight years — is a passionate belief that what we're doing is making a difference.
ZWERDLING: Howes is MSC's chief executive. He works at their headquarters in London. Howes says the MSC set up its system to be as objective and scientific as possible. The MSC puts out detailed guidelines that define what a fishery has to do to get the label Certified Sustainable. Then any fishery that wants the label has to hire a private auditing firm to decide if it complies. So far, the MSC system has granted its label to around 200 fisheries. They've turned down only around 10 that applied.
What does this bring to mind? Could it be triple-A rated mortgage-backed securities?
HOWES: What we're trying to do is provide an easy mechanism for seafood buyers and the general public to say, if I see that logo, I've got assurance that the seafood products or fish that I'm buying with that label has come from a well-managed sustainable fishery.'
ZWERDLING: And environmentalists around the world said it was a great idea back when the MSC got started in the 1990s. But today, a lot of them have second thoughts.
SUSANNA FULLER: We're not getting what we think we're getting. And I think people don't know that.
ZWERDLING: Susanna Fuller co-directs the Marine program at the Ecology Action Centre in Canada. And she says here's one of the main things you don't know: When you see the label at your seafood counter, Certified Sustainable...
FULLER: You're not — you're not buying something that's sustainable now.
What the fuck? Whaddaya mean it's not sustainable now?
ZWERDLING: Let's take a step back for a moment.
Yes, good idea, let's catch our breath here.
ZWERDLING: Suppose that you had to decide: Is the sockeye fishery in the Fraser River sustainable? You'd have to ask industry a long list of scientific questions. For instance, there are roughly 30 different kinds of sockeye or stocks caught in the Fraser River. And studies show that some of them are declining more dramatically than others.
So, how many of those threatened kinds of sockeye is industry catching? How can industry prove they're not making the problem worse? And now, suppose that industry told you, sorry, we don't have that information. How would you respond? Well, the MSC system basically told them, don't worry. We'll label your sockeye sustainable now as long as you promise that you'll get that information to us within five years. The MSC calls those promises conditions.
SUSANNA FULLER: It's kind of like saying, you know, to a child, like, well, you've been really bad, but I'll give you a lollipop, and then I want you to show me how much better you can be. It just doesn't work, right? You've already got the lollipop.
[My note: Susanna Fuller is co-director of marine programs at Canada's Ecology Action Center.]
ZWERDLING: In fact, most seafood that the MSC labels sustainable has a list of conditions in fine print — Fraser River sockeye has more than 30 conditions. And surveys have found that the fisheries don't live up to a lot of them.
Representatives of major environmental groups and foundations have repeatedly told the MSC: Remove the word sustainable from your label - or the MSC could lose credibility. Executives at MSC have refused. I asked the MSC's president, Rupert Howes.
Could lose credibility?
ZWERDLING [TO HOWE]: How can you say any fishery is sustainable, you know, bam, you are sustainable. How can you say that when there are still basic things that scientists don't know about the fish and how they reproduce and the impact it's having on the ocean floor and the impact it's having on other life in the sea?
HOWES: The sustainable word is fraught with difficulty, undoubtedly.
ZWERDLING: But Howes says I'm missing the point.
He says no human endeavor is perfect.
I couldn't agree more!
ZWERDLING: When the MSC system certified that a fishery is sustainable, and then gives it a list of conditions, he says they're giving the fishery an incentive to do better.
HOWES: The fundamental point is they have assessed the evidence of that unique fishery and deemed it sufficient to meet, as you quite rightly pointed out, MSC standard. The conditions are then there to improve that knowledge. And this is what I mean about the dangers of expectations of perfection obscuring the good that is undoubtedly happening.
Baffle us with bullshit! The good that is undoubtedly happening!
Well, I think that's enough for today. I think you get the idea.
Bonus Video — An overview of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The blue MSC eco-label [above] is found on seafood from fisheries that have been independently certified as sustainable.
Certified 100%-pure Grade A bullshit!