angeln nachhaltige fischerei

9 fish labels at a glance: Are they trustworthy?

Recently, we showed you why all our Bracenets look so different and explained the many types of fishing nets and fishing methods. This has left a few questions unanswered, which we now want to address: Can fishing be sustainable at all and are the various sustainability certification schemes credible?

For this purpose, we adopt a critical lens and explore the various fishing labels, especially those popular in Germany. We take a particularly close look at the widely used MSC label and also look at the statements of the organisation behind it for fair judgement. Finally, we will reveal to you what we recommend when it comes to fish consumption.

The state of the seas

Why are we even talking about this? In short, the seas and fish stocks are not in very good shape.

According to the FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, about one-third of all fish stocks worldwide are overfished (as of 2017). Overfished means that more fish are caught than are naturally reproduced, so their numbers are steadily declining. In addition, 60 % of fish stocks are already exhausted to the maximum, so that the stocks remain just about stable. In the Mediterranean, the situation looks even worse: 62% of fish stocks are overfished there.

The consequences are grave, as overfishing rips ecosystems out of balance forever. As if that weren’t bad enough, many of the fishing methods are devastating: bottom trawls, for example, destroy the seabed and capture a lot of by-catch – including sea turtles, whales, sharks and dolphins.

Do we want to support this with our fish consumption? Of course not. Fortunately, certain certificates in supermarkets promise sustainable fishing. But is certified fish really free from the accusations mentioned above?

9 fish labels at a glance

1/9: MSC

The blue label of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is very common and many of you probably know it from the supermarket. For the certification, independent inspectors assess whether wild fish fisheries meet the environmental and traceability standards of the MSC. According to the MSC, the label requires that fish stocks are in good condition, the impact on ecosystems low and fishery management geared towards sustainability. The MSC was established in 1996 by Unilever and the WWF, but the WWF now criticises the MSC and calls for reforms. The environmental organisation thus joins a long line of criticism: In 2018, more than 60 organisations and scientists have demanded stricter rules and higher standards in an open letter. They complain that some fisheries were certified as sustainable despite the destruction of the seabed, continuous overfishing, high by-catch rates and more.

2/9: ASC

Like the MSC, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) was co-founded by the WWF, but has been independent since 2009. Its label certifies fish and seafood from aquacultures (controlled cultivation of, especially, fish) according to the ASC’s cultivation standards. The specific standards are aimed at ecological diversity, feed, pollution, diseases and social aspects. For wild salmon, for example, the ASC prescribes a maximum percentage of wild fish in the feed, requires that the waters are classified as “good” or “very good” by independent analyses, allows only certain medicines and always as a last resort, and is based on the International Labour Organisation’s working standards. According to the WWF (Germany), the ASC is the result of long negotiations with many interest groups and should therefore be seen as a compromise, not a premium label. This explains NABU’s (German environmental organisation) criticism: For example, the breeding of predatory fish such as salmon is permitted. The problem is, however, that other fish must be caught to feed the salmon. Additionally, the ASC label may already be used during the transition phase towards more sustainable methods.

3/9: Naturland Wildfisch

Naturland is an international association with the mission to spread organic farming methods. The guidelines for this label are based on both ecological and social standards and promise the conservation of fish stocks and ecosystems, the renunciation of environmentally harmful fishing methods, ecological processing, social guidelines for employees along the value chain and a transparent certification procedure. While Naturland stands out with its social standards and its sustainability bar is set higher than the MSC’s, NABU criticises the certification of fisheries that set up gillnets in protected marine areas.

4/9: Naturland Aquakulturen

The Naturland counterpart to the ASC: Naturland has formulated standards for both the cultivation and processing of fish, seafood and algae from aquacultures. The certification criteria include the protection of waters and ecosystems, appropriate conditions, the renunciation of genetic engineering, chemical additives, growth promoters and hormones, certified organic feed, strict requirements for medicines and social standards for employees along the value chain. Naturland emphasises that the proportion of fish in the feed is made up of leftovers from the processing of fish for human consumption and is not fished specifically for breeding. In comparison to the ASC, the Naturland aquaculture label is described by the WWF (Germany) as a “‘premium’ label”.

5/9: FOTS

Friends of the Sea (FOTS) certifies both wild fish and fish from aquaculture. The criteria for wild fish require that there are no overfishing, no “significant” impact on the seabed, a maximum of 8 % by-catch, no endangered species caught in the net, legal requirements met, and steps taken towards social responsibility. Aquaculture certification requires that aquacultures have no impact on threatened habitats, comply with water quality guidelines, reduce outbreaks to “acceptable” levels, do not use growth hormones, meet their social responsibility and reduce their carbon footprint. NABU supports the fact that certificates are only issued after the transition to more sustainable methods and not during this period, as is the case with the ASC and MSC. However, there is criticism that the specifications for animal feed should be more binding and the certifications more transparent.

6/9: Bioland (Friedfische)

Bioland is an association of over 8100 members and 1100 representatives from trade, production and gastronomy. Although it is more of a brand than a label, it functions as an association of independent businesses that subscribe to the high standards of organic farming. They attach importance to biodiversity, animal welfare, climate and environment as well as regionality and all members abstain from genetic engineering. Bioland rejects wild fish completely due to overfishing and by-catch, which is why only specific rules for aquacultures have been formulated. As predatory fish in aquacultures require meat and bone meal in their feed, for which other fish must be caught, Bioland only supports fish that feed on the nutrients available in the pond. At the moment, Bioland only sells carp (but not currently available). Thus Bioland is very close to the Greenpeace Fish Guide (German), which only recommends carp without exceptions.

7/9: EU Organic Logo

The EU Organic Regulation prescribes guidelines for fish from aquaculture. The corresponding EU organic label is obligatory for producers who meet the requirements. This makes it the highest legal standard for fish from aquacultures, even though, as with the other labels, compliance with the criteria is of course voluntary. The regulations include, among other things, principles for organic production (e.g. no genetic engineering or hormone use) and animal husbandry (e.g. 100 % organic feed). For aquaculture, specific rules are also formulated, such as a maximum stocking density, requirements for water quality and the use of organic feed, but with permission for fish feed from sustainable fisheries. Greenpeace (Germany) criticises that the maximum stocking density is set too high and that critical chemicals are allowed. Naturland and Bioland each state that their criteria go beyond the requirements of the EU Organic Regulation.

8/9: Dolphin Safe 

The Dolphin Safe label is an initiative of the Earth Island Institute with the aim of encouraging tuna fisheries to switch to fishing methods that do not threaten dolphins and to certify them accordingly. The criteria require: No intentional tracking or capture of dolphins, no drift nets, no accidental killing or injury of dolphins, no mixing of dolphin-safe and deadly tuna, and an independent observer on board vessels above a certain size. The label has been criticised for not making any further claims to sustainability or responsible fishing methods. But it is not designed for that, it only certifies fisheries that do not want to let dolphins go into the net. The Earth Island Institute sees itself as stricter on this point than the MSC label and criticises the MSC for certifying the Mexican tuna fishery despite a high by-catch rate of dolphins.

9/9: GGN – certified aquaculture

The GLOBALG.A.P. label stands for the global compliance with rules of good agricultural practice. The standard covers animal welfare, environmental protection, occupational safety and food safety and is continuously developed in cooperation with stakeholders such as producers and environmental organisations. The criteria for aquaculture comprise a total of 265 control points. The 13-letter GGN number of a certified product can be entered online to trace the supply chain and learn more about the fishery in question. Greenpeace supports the ban on feeding wild fish and genetic engineering, but criticises the sustainability criteria as inadequate and complains that the social standards are merely recommendations.

sustainable wildfish fishery

Sustainability in wild fish fisheries requires not overfishing stocks and avoiding by-catch. Photo by Paul Einerhand on Unsplash

Fish and a clear conscience?

9 labels, 9 reasons to buy fish? It’s not quite that simple. Only Bioland gets away without criticism, but their criteria are so strict that no fish is currently available under the brand. How should the other seals be regarded, or does it simply mean: stop eating fish? A closer look is important.

Criticism using the example of MSC

Most of the criticism is directed at the MSC, as their label is the most widespread. The German ARD documentary “Das Geschäft mit dem Fischsiegel” (The Business with the Fish Label) accuses the MSC of having certified the Mexican tuna fishery, although there are still many dolphins that end up as by-catch in their nets. In addition, independent experts have reported that they were offered bribes from the fisheries, which they refused, but these accusations have not been investigated.

The criticism carries on:

  • Greenpeace criticises that although stakeholders can raise objections during the certification process, the time frame is too short and stakeholders have to pay a fee

  • Moreover, certification standards are too lax, which leads to the certification of fisheries that fish in overfished areas or have high by-catch rates
  • It is also problematic that the MSC is largely financed by certification fees from fisheries
  • The WWF, co-founder of the MSC, advocates reforms of the MSC and calls for steps to improve objective assessment and to ensure strict ecological standards

The MSC denies the criticism and comments on the ARD report (German). In the report, MSC managing director Rupert Howes himself gets the chance to speak. He explains that particularly high standards are not the purpose of the MSC. He questions whether the MSC should certify the few, extremely sustainable fisheries or whether it would be better to concentrate on the big masses and ensure that they become a little better. So is the criticism of the MSC inappropriate, since the organisation’s standards are not that high?

No: rather, this is our main criticism. The MSC’s criteria for sustainable fishing should be higher, because the current strategy misleads consumers and puts their trust in a label that does not keep what it promises.

Even if the MSC is right that the ARD report misrepresents the label, criticism of the MSC’s structure remains legitimate, which in turn robs its label of credibility. For example, the MSC receives money through certification, which calls into question their motivation to certify fisheries. The independent verifiers are also paid directly by fisheries, which puts them under pressure to positively evaluate the fisheries.

Interestingly, the MSC label has been named one of the top eco-labels in the Netherlands. However, the criteria for the award are hardly ever mentioned – the MSC only had to achieve 4 out of 5 points in one of five areas, including humans, animal welfare and the environment. The MSC scored enough points for the environment, but only two for humans and – shockingly, but not surprisingly – no points for animal welfare. We say: this is not enough.

What about the other labels?

The other labels may get off a little better, but we have already shown that they are not free of criticism either. The ASC is a compromise of interest groups and therefore cannot be seen as a label that puts animal welfare and marine protection first. Even Naturland Wildfisch is criticised for questionable certification, and the credibility of Naturland Aquakultur is unfortunately in the same boat. The maximum by-catch rate of 8 % of FOTS legitimises by-catch to a certain degree, which we cannot support. Bioland has very high standards, which is very good – but they are so high that no Bioland fish is currently available. The EU eco-label has a special position as the highest legal requirement, but could go further. The dolphin seal of the Earth Island Institute fulfils its purpose, but does not stand for sustainable fishing overall. The standards of the GLOBALG.A.P. are also criticised as insufficient. 

aquaculture sustainable fishery

Sustainability in aquaculture is manifold: breeding conditions, feed procurement and medication all play a role. Photo by Hanson Lu on Unsplash

So what kind of fish can I buy?

Is there no way out when the most promising label has no fish to offer? Indeed, it looks difficult. With our mission, we naturally have a very critical eye, and recommend the strictest criteria. Generally speaking, you should rethink your own consumption – and even if you don’t want to do without fish altogether, maybe eat less of it and research the labels behind it well. For example, the Naturland and Bioland labels are far more sustainable than the MSC.

You can also stick to the particularly strict, but therefore credible, Greenpeace Fish Guide (German). It is easy to understand and clearly states which fish you can eat with a clear conscience.

A final word

After so much criticism, we would like to say that labels and certifications are a good thing. They help us to pressure the industry as consumers and to signal our desire for more sustainability.

However, there is still a long way to go to achieve sustainability in the fishing industry. We must continue to be loud and, if necessary, reduce our consumption in order to protest. We need labels, but we also need stricter laws, as voluntary action will not take us far enough. We need startups that make noise and do it better. And we need you, all of us, who can make a big difference together.

Header image: Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

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