Australian fisheries seeking sustainability certification largely driven by social responsibility

Australian fisheries seeking sustainability certification largely driven by social responsibility

MSC certification has a deeper impact on people than just market access or price premium 

Ensuring their businesses are sustainable and therefore seen as more socially acceptable to local communities, are the two leading factors driving Western Australian commercial fisheries to seek MSC certification – according to new research by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).  

Published in PLOSONE on 20 May 2020, the research surveyed 33 stakeholders across seven commercial fisheries in Western Australia and one Commonwealth fishery to understand the core drivers and impacts that MSC certification has provided to them.   

Out of the 80 drivers mentioned, the top three were: validated sustainability credentials and social license (such as being world leaders); economic incentives such as new market access and the availability of government support equal with improved management outcomes.  

In 2012, the WA government invested AU$14.56 million over four years to support commercial fisheries to become MSC certified. This meant the upfront cost of assessment was significantly lowered.  

Dr Katie Longo, MSC’s Senior Scientist and co-author explains: “It’s perhaps not surprising due to the rise in conscious consumerism and global sustainability business efforts that sustainability credentials are a driving factor for fisheries seeking MSC certification. Yet, most of the fisheries didn’t use the MSC’s ecolabel on their end products – but still experienced many benefits.  

“From managers finding it easier to ask fishers to follow new regulations because of greater trust built from the MSC Program, to fishers finding better dialogue with communities concerned about impacts. This shows the MSC process has a deeper impact on people than just market access or price premium. It changes relationships by pushing stakeholders to work together.”  

Initiated by the MSC’s need to understand how its sustainability program impacts social and economics of fishing and seafood supply chains, it was found that out of 380 impacts mentioned 60% were positive, 6% negative, and the rest were neutral – they fell, from most to least mentioned, into social; institutional (such as stronger stakeholder relationships); economic and environmental categories.   

Over half of respondents agreed that the benefits of certification outweigh the costs, but 19 out of 33 said this would not be the case if economic benefits alone were considered. For these fisheries the combined social, environmental and institutional advantages offered more in terms of payback, than economic impacts alone.   

Although economic incentive was the second key driver, only 31% of comments around economic impacts explained they currently receive economic benefits. These benefits included enhanced market access and price premiums by fisheries currently selling to markets with an interest in the MSC ecolabel. They were also vertically integrated – that is where the fishery and supply chain are owned by the same parent company – making it easier to trace where the fish comes from. Traceability is a key requirement to meeting the MSC Chain of Custody Standard, which is permitted for fisheries to display the MSC ecolabel on their products.  

For other fisheries, products were predominantly sold without the MSC ecolabel, either on Asian export markets or locally.   

Matt Watson, Senior Fisheries Outreach Manager explains: “Market demand for seafood products with ecolabels can depend on a number of factors. Some fisheries pursued MSC certification for reasons beyond market recognition, and therefore feel they don’t need to use an ecolabel.  

“At the other end, some markets are yet to prioritise environmental sustainability as consumers just aren’t demanding it. So, although there are contrasting market experiences – this comes down to the fact each fishery is unique and there are a range of ways to generate value from MSC certification.   

“What initially drives a fishery towards MSC may also change as markets diversify and stakeholder values change from year to year. Once certified, the journey doesn’t simply end – fisheries commit to long-term sustainability to safeguard ocean health as well as their own livelihoods.”  

Support for this work was in part provided by the Walton Family Foundation and the Western Australian Fishing Industry Council (WAFIC).   

Glossary of impacts: 

  • Social: such as managers finding it easier to ask fishers to follow new regulations 
  • Institutional: such as better dialogues with communities concerned about impacts 
  • Environmental: such as enabling habitat restoration or protection work 
  • Economic: such as access to new markets to sell their products or market premiums 

Fisheries involved in the research: 

All fisheries achieved MSC certification under the WA state government funding, apart from Western rock lobster and toothfish and mackerel icefish because they were either already certified or not part of a WA state fishery. 

  • Western Rock Lobster  
  • Shark Bay Prawn 
  • Exmouth Gulf Prawn 
  • Peel Harvey Estuary Blue Swimmer Crab 
  • Peel Harvey Estuary Sea Mullet 
  • West Coast Deep Sea Crab 
  • West and South Coast Abalone 
  • Pearl Oyster fishery 
  • Heard Island and McDonald Islands Patagonian Toothfish and Mackerel Icefish Fishery

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an international non-profit organisation. Our vision is for the world’s oceans to be teeming with life, and seafood supplies safeguarded for this and future generations. Our ecolabel and certification program recognizes and rewards sustainable fishing practices and is helping create a more sustainable seafood market. The MSC ecolabel on a seafood product means that:  

  • it comes from a wild-catch fishery which has been independently certified to the MSC’s science-based standard for environmentally sustainable fishing.  
  • it is fully traceable to a sustainable source.  

Currently, 408 fisheries in 36 countries are certified to the MSC Fishery Standard. 

For more information visit


The MSC Program 

As of 2019, 406 fisheries worldwide are MSC certified and 90 are in the process of becoming certified, accounting for 16% of global wild capture production. Obtaining MSC’s Fishery Standard requirements as verified by an independent third party (a Conformity Assessment Body). A certificate lasts five years, with a surveillance undertaken each year. Certified fisheries need to undertake and pay for all assessments and surveillance audits. At the end of five years, fisheries wishing to remain certified must begin the full cycle, i.e., recertification. To enable a product to be sold to the public with the MSC ecolabel, each actor involved in its supply chain (i.e., processors, traders, buyers and retailers) must hold valid MSC Chain of Custody certifications in order to assure full traceability back to the certified fishery or fisheries it is sourced from.  

Government support 

In 2012, the WA government invested AU$14.56 million to help commercial fisheries to become MSC certified. One of the expected outcomes of the original 2012 commitment to MSC certification included credible and defendable sustainability claims with regard to industry practices and government stewardship. Other expected outcomes were, securing and maintaining access to new and established markets, security of access to fishing grounds, and encouragement for investment in regional fisheries. In addition, it was also hoped that by making the financial commitment to MSC, it would make sustainability data for fisheries publicly available to different organisations that make frequent requests for this data (i.e. retail, non-government organisations, and the Australian government) through the MSC certification reports. There are currently 16 MSC certified fisheries in Western Australia, 15 of which were supported by the government. 

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