Voluntary fishery certification is newly positioned to catalyse EM adoption. Under its updated Fisheries Standard released in late 2022, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) will require fisheries to have independent monitoring in place, such as that provided by EM and human fishery observers. As a result, many fisheries will need to augment their monitoring to obtain (or retain) use of MSC’s widely recognized ecolabel.
The MSC sets a global standard for sustainable fishing. Globally, 19% of all wild marine catch is engaged with the MSC program. This includes 674 fisheries in 66 countries, and almost 21,000 seafood products that carry the MSC’s ecolabel. The MSC standard is built around three principles: sustainable fish stocks, minimal environmental impact, and effective management.
Certification by MSC requires a detailed evaluation of fishery performance across these three principles. In October 2022, the MSC published version 3.0 of its standard. This included significant changes to fishery monitoring requirements, as part of a new Evidence Requirements Framework.
What caused the change?
Most of us would agree that fishery information can and should be improved. A lack of high-quality information often constrains fisheries management. However clichéd it may sound, the old adage “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” often applies.
Those familiar with MSC fisheries assessments will have noticed broad variation in the quantity and quality of information used to evaluate fishery performance. With stakeholder input, MSC developed its Evidence Requirements Framework to help address information quality.
Some fisheries may exit the program, while others remain and new fisheries enter.
To achieve MSC certification under the new standard, a fishery must have an effective monitoring system in place. Fisheries can enter certification with a system that allows for ‘independent verification’ of catch. This could, for example, include some combination of at-sea inspections, VMS, and dockside monitoring that enables cross-checking of logbook records. It could also include use of EM to audit logbook reporting. However, to fully meet the new version 3.0 requirements, ‘independent observation’ of catches must be in place. Independent observation may be provided by human observers onboard vessels and/or EM, and must be representative of the assessed fishery’s operations.
How could this be a catalyst for EM adoption?
Over time, there has been much discussion of barriers to EM adoption. For EM, as for any monitoring system, implementation obviously carries financial costs. There may also be operational and logistical impacts. However, the premise of certification programs is that participation brings rewards. Market-based or other incentives drive voluntary participation in the MSC certification program. Through version 3.0 of the MSC standard, these incentives will also support voluntary adoption of EM, as part of a business strategy that includes certification by MSC.
What does this mean for EM providers?
An unprecedented demand for EM (and human observers) is inevitable from fisheries that want to be MSC-certified. The expertise of EM providers will be invaluable for developing monitoring to meet the requirements of the MSC standard v3.0. Considering monitoring as a package – what’s already in place, what EM can add, and how the best value can be achieved – will be an important part of fishery decision-making. Fisheries that are already certified will need to decide whether to transition to the new version 3.0 standard within about five years (at most). As a minimum, fisheries seeking their first certification against v3.0 of the Standard will need to have catch monitoring systems in place that allow for data to be independently verified. Implementation of a monitoring system that includes ‘independent observation’ will then be required before the end of their first certification period of five years.
The expert inputs of EM providers will also be valuable in fishery assessment processes. EM providers know the capabilities and limitations of their systems best, contributing to fishery assessors’ evaluation of information quality.
How will MSC fishery assessors evaluate EM-derived information?
Fishery assessors will need to determine if the data produced by EM is sufficient in quantity and quality to meet MSC’s requirements. To do this, assessors will look at systems and processes in place for EM. Ensuring EM programs are well documented will be essential for data quality assurance.
MSC has published a report for client fisheries and other stakeholders on how EM to meet MSC requirements can look. The report was developed by three independent fisheries consultants with knowledge of the MSC program and fishery monitoring. While the MSC standard v3.0 provides specific context, the report is really about what makes a good monitoring program. Its content includes topics that are familiar among fishery monitoring practitioners, managers and scientists, such as program design, documentation, and data collection.
What does this mean for management bodies?
When fully implemented, monitoring that meets MSC requirements will provide better fishery data than ever before in many fisheries. This will reduce uncertainty and provide a better understanding of management effectiveness. More targeted management will be possible, and new issues will emerge that require policy development and resolution.
Fisheries may also seek support and collaboration from management agencies, perhaps to use EM data from voluntary implementation to satisfy legislated monitoring requirements, or to increase government support for scaling up monitoring such that MSC requirements can be met. Pressure for management agencies to adopt standards enabling their acceptance of EM data is also foreseeable.
A tipping point?
Some level of turbulence typically accompanies change and MSC recognises that the v3.0 standard raises the bar significantly on what is required of certified fisheries. Some fisheries may exit the program, while others remain and new fisheries enter.
The MSC standard is focused on outcomes, and there is some flexibility on how its requirements are met. Therefore, changes in EM methods and capabilities (such as incorporation of AI) over time can be accommodated as long as these support high quality fishery data.
Incorporation of EM in the MSC’s voluntary fishery standard may be the long-awaited tipping point for EM adoption, and the realisation of EM’s benefits at scale.
To read more:
- Latest news on version 3.0 implementation
- How EM can be implemented to meet MSC requirements
- The MSC program
- MSC’s Evidence Requirements Framework
- The MSC Standard version 3.0
Johanna Pierre is an independent consultant working in New Zealand who specializes in fisheries monitoring, management and policy. She provides consulting services to government agencies, industry and non-governmental organizations globally.