Trustworthy ecolabels the key to helping consumers make sustainable tuna purchases

by Peter Griffin | 16 May 2024 | Features, News

In part 2 of this two-part series in conjunction with the Marine Stewardship Council, we look at the eco-labelling practices helping to maintain sustainable tuna stocks.

Wherever you shop in the world, you can usually pick up a 140 gram (5 ounce) can of tuna for as little as US$1. 

At that price, it’s one of the most affordable sources of protein, polyunsaturated fats and other nutrients you can find, and significantly cheaper than other types of meat and fish. The problem is that much of the tuna in those cans hasn’t been sustainably caught.

Exacerbating the issue is a bewildering barrage of self-made sustainability claims from tuna brands that often don’t stand up to independent scrutiny. 

“There’s responsibly sourced tuna, sustainably caught tuna, pole and line caught tuna. What does FAD-free tuna even mean?” says Alex Webb, the Marine Stewardship Council’s Senior Communications and Marketing Manager, Oceania, and an 11-year veteran of the international non-profit organisation that has developed the world’s most trusted sustainable fishing standard and certification label.

“As consumers, we want to do the right thing and we try to do the right thing. It’s easy to compare prices, flavours and brands, but it’s much harder to compare environmental claims,” adds Webb, who is based in Sydney.

Read the MSC’s Sustainable Tuna Yearbook 2024 for an up to date snapshot on the state of sustainable tuna fisheries worldwide.

From forestry to fisheries

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) was founded in 1997 by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and consumer goods giant Unilever in response to the collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery off Newfoundland, Canada. The MSC was modelled on the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), which a few years earlier was formed to tackle the growing problems of illegal logging and deforestation.

What the FSC did for timber products, with a certification and eco-labelling scheme designed to promote those companies sourcing wood and paper from sustainably grown forests, the MSC set out to do for the ocean to tackle overfishing, with similar schemes and ecolabels for seafood products.

Around 27 years later, 20,000 seafood products are MSC-badged and sold in stores around the world, with 33 MSC-certified tuna fisheries now operating in the Western Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO) region.

“The MSC has the blue fish tick label. When you pick up that John West tin of tuna with the blue fish tick, it gives you assurance that it comes from an MSC-certified sustainable fishery,” says Webb.

“An independent team of scientists has looked at that fishery in detail using the most up to date stock surveys and science and then assessed it against our standard,” adds Webb.

Consumers will pay a sustainability premium

The programme, he says, supports the MSC’s “theory of change” which holds that giving consumers assurances about a product’s sustainability, will make them more likely to opt for the sustainable product and encourage more fisheries to get certified and improve their practices.

The MSC’s regular surveying of consumers in 23 countries has revealed that 75% of seafood product buyers believe that retailers should remove unsustainable products from their shelves, while a similar number of those surveyed feel that claims by brands and retailers should be backed by an independent verification third party.

“Indeed greenwashing and the need for credible claims is a hot topic in many jurisdictions including the EU, UK, US and Australia, where the ACCC have released guidelines to brands.”  

The research also shows that consumers are willing to pay a slight premium for products that carry the blue fish tick label, encouraging news for retailers, brands and the fishing industry, who ultimately shoulder the cost of certification. 

“People say they’re willing to spend up to 10% more for a product that’s independently certified or sustainable,” says Webb.

“So for a $1 can of tuna, they are willing to pay $1.10.”

That should be more than enough to cover the cost of being involved in MSC’s certification programme and as the MSC’s Senior Tuna Fisheries Outreach Manager Bill Holden told TunaPacific in part 1 of this series, fishing companies can charge a slight premium for MSC-certified tuna. The MSC receives up to 0.5% of the wholesale value of a seafood product with the MSC label as a royalty fee, which it uses to cover the cost of administering the certification and ecolabeling programme, and to run awareness campaigns around the world.

The scheme has maintained its reputation and credibility, despite misinformation swirling around seafood sustainability, including in the 2021 Netflix film Seaspiracy, which was widely condemned by the scientific community, misrepresented the views of interview subjects, and questioned the credibility of the MSC’s certification programme.

Source: MSC

Answering critics

“It basically suggested that the MSC is just in it for the money, which just isn’t the case” says Webb.

“We are transparent about where we get our revenue from, close to 90% of which comes from the licensing of our ecolabel to certified brands and retailers, which is reinvested back into our mission to end overfishing,” he says.

Webb adds that the core criticism lodged by Ali Tabrizi, the filmmaker behind Seaspiracy, appeared to stem from a misunderstanding of MSC’s starting point as an organisation.

“We are not saying that sustainable seafood has zero impact. It’s about saying that the impacts can be minimised within a sustainable limit,” says Webb.

“If we did what Seaspiracy is suggesting, to stop all fishing, we would shift all of that protein demand onto land which would mean way more deforestation, carbon emissions, water usage, chemical usage, not to mention the communities that would be displaced, the impacts on livelihoods, and food security,” Webb adds.

One of the MSC’s aims  is to grow the range of seafood products featuring its blue fish tick label. In Australia and New Zealand, recent commitments mean that over half of canned tuna sold is MSC certified. Major canned tuna brand John West currently carries the blue fish tick label in Australia, with Safcol manufacturing many MSC labelled products for sale worldwide, and Coles supermarkets recently announced all their canned tuna range will adopt the label from September 2024. In New Zealand, Foodstuffs in-house brand Pam’s carries the MSC’s ecolabel, as well as John West.

Mis-labelling a big problem

A big problem still to counter, says Webb, is the mislabeling of non MSC-certified fish products.

“That’s important as well because of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing,” he says.

A recent forensic DNA study showed about 11% of all seafood sold in Australia is mislabeled or misdescribed. As well as concealing illegal fishing, it can have health implications. You might have two pieces of white fish that look identical, but one you’re allergic to and one you’re not.”

Part of the strict MSC programme requires that every company that handles seafood in the chain of custody needs to be certified and must keep MSC-certified seafood separate from non MSC certified seafood.

While the four major species of tuna fished in the WCPO region have been judged by independent scientists to currently be in good health, growing demands on fish stocks, pollution and climate change could threaten the sustainability of stocks, potentially seeing MSC-certification put in jeopardy.

The impacts of climate change

We are already seeing marine heat waves,” Webb points out. “We know it’s coming, scientists have been warning us for decades. But fisheries that are MSC certified are well placed to deal with and adapt to climate change because they’re being monitored and assessed on a regular basis.”

Innovative solutions will be required in some fisheries to keep them productive in a warmer climate. Webb points to the Western Australia abalone fishery which was decimated by a marine heatwave in 2011. 

Entrepreneur Brad Adams, founder of Rare Foods, pioneering an artificial reef off the coast to try and rebuild the fishery as a sort of fish farm but in the wild.

“That reef system is now booming,” says Webb. 

“They dive and hand harvest the abalone. Increasingly, aquaculture is going to be more and more important because you can more easily control that environment than with fish. Around half of all fish are now farmed, alongside the need for wild catch sustainable fisheries through innovative feed solutions,  and I’m sure that will increase especially with climate change.”

While millions of people are choosing sustainable seafood products every day, Webb says much work remains to be done to tackle the dubious claims that accompany many products in the seafood industry.

“What the MSC has done is kind of democratise sustainability in the sense that people can vote with their wallets and select certified sustainable seafood.”