MSC sets out agenda to strengthen assurance model and revisions to certification requirements

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By Milthon Lujan

UK.- The Marine Stewardship Council will release in 2018 the widely consulted changes to its Fisheries and Chain of Custody certification requirements, launch new initiatives to strengthen the organisation’s assurance model, and initiate a process for the review of its Fisheries Standard.

Through its world-class certification program, the MSC pursues its vision for oceans to be teeming with life and seafood supplies safeguarded for the future. Over the last 20 years, the MSC has helped incentivise responsible stewardship of global fisheries – delivering real change on the water from the Arctic to the Indian Ocean, and forged partnerships in support of healthy oceans.

The MSC journey is not always an easy one. Fisheries science is complex and evolving, and where the bar for sustainability is set is often hotly debated among diverse stakeholders. The MSC is a listening organisation and works hard to understand and meet evolving expectations of sustainability, while maintaining a program that is also practical, accessible and science-based.

Credible market-based programs like the MSC are an important part of the solution to tackling the pressures on our oceans. The MSC is determined to remain a leading catalyst for improved fisheries management, contributing to the sustainable use of our oceans and supporting food security and livelihoods in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Strengthening the MSC assurance model

The MSC takes the credibility and independence of its program extremely seriously. It is important that all stakeholders have confidence in the organisation’s assurance system. The MSC is committed to fully exploring where real or perceived issues may lie in its third-party assurance system – the MSC does not certify fisheries, assessments are carried out by independent, accredited conformity assessment bodies (CABs).

As part of its commitment to ensuring the effectiveness of its assurance system, in June 2017, the MSC announced that it would initiate a governance-level working group to monitor actions being taken to provide a high level of assurance that certifications against the MSC standards are robust, independent and impartial. This group met in October 2017 and as a result of its recommendations the Board has decided to review several elements of the MSC’s assurance systems in 2018.

Review of MSC’s assurance model: The MSC will launch a roundtable dialogue in the first half of 2018 to review the MSC’s third party assurance system. The MSC is also committed to demonstrating leadership in this space by engaging with other standard setters, along with other concerned parties to share experience and determine where improvements can be made. The initiative aims to improve understanding of the measures certification bodies currently have in place to ensure impartiality and robust fishery assessments, find where improvements can be made, and explore alternative assurance models. The MSC will undertake additional work to strengthen its system, including;

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Conditions of certification: MSC certification requires annual audits to ensure that each fishery retains its status while also implementing time-bound improvements, known as conditions, where required. The MSC has commissioned an in-depth analysis by Accreditation Services International (ASI) to analyse the completion of conditions across MSC fisheries and make recommendations for any changes to MSC requirements arising from the review.

Peer Review of fisheries assessments: the MSC strengthened the peer review process for MSC assessments by formally establishing an independent Peer Review College in August 2017. The College currently includes around 50 experts in marine science and fisheries management and provides additional confidence that fishery assessments undertaken by third party certifiers are rigorous. MSC will review the performance of the peer review system, and consider extending the use of peer reviewers to resolve areas of scientific uncertainty.

Key changes to MSC certification requirements

The MSC certification requirements for fisheries and the supply chain set out how certification bodies assess them against the MSC’s standards. Key changes to the requirements, include:

Strengthening labour requirements: In recognition of growing concern about labour abuses in the global seafood supply chain, the MSC will extend its existing provisions to address forced labour in fisheries and supply chain companies. Currently, fishing and supply chain companies and their subcontractors that have been successfully prosecuted for forced labour violations in the past two years are not eligible to participate in the MSC program. The MSC proposes to extend this provision to require that high risk supply chain companies pass an audit against the forced and child labour provisions of credible third party social standards such as SEDEX, BSCI and SA8000. Fisheries and at-sea chain of custody holders will be required to complete a self-disclosure document that reports on the measures, policies and practices that are in place to ensure absence of forced and child labour. Fisheries and supply chain companies will need to comply with these new requirements from 2019. For high risk fisheries, MSC will extend these requirements to an audit when appropriate third party social standards relevant to at-sea operations have been developed.

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New requirements for Unit of Assessment: The MSC will require all fishing activities on a target stock on a single trip to be certified. In early 2017, the MSC initiated a review of its UoA requirements in response to concerns that the current rule allows a vessel to catch fish from the same stock using both certified and uncertified fishing gear or catch methods on a single trip. Under the new requirements, to be released in August 2018, this will not be possible; certified seafood will only enter MSC certified supply chains if it comes from fishing trips on which all activities on the target stock are certified. In line with FAO guidelines, fisheries entering assessment for the first time after February 2019 will need to comply with the new UoA requirements, and fisheries which are already under assessment or certified will have three years from August 2018 to make the transition to the new requirements. Compliance will be audited by MSC’s third party Conformance Assessment Bodies.

New streamlined fishery assessment process: Following wide consultation and piloting over the last 18 months, in August 2018 the MSC will release a new streamlined assessment process. The new process aims to frontload stakeholder input into a fisheries assessment, increase the amount of meaningful input periods for stakeholders, and help to focus the third-party assessment team at site visits on the right questions, leading to more robust assessment reports.

MSC’s Fisheries Standard widely consulted and reviewed

The Fisheries Standard was initially developed in 1997 in consultation with 300 organisations and individuals including NGOs, governments, retailers, fisheries and scientists. Since its first release, fisheries science and best practice has made enormous progress – along with our understanding of the oceans, while market demands and consumer expectations continue to evolve. Therefore, every five years, the MSC reviews its standards, following established international requirements for rigour and transparency.

Important changes were introduced to the Standard in 2014, including consideration of new types of harvest strategies used for managing the target stock, requirements for reducing the impact of fisheries on seabed habitats including those considered particularly vulnerable ecosystems, and strengthened requirements to address the cumulative impact of certified fisheries on bycatch species, including endangered, threatened and protected species.

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As part of the 2019 review, which will be formally launched in the second half of 2018, the MSC will consider ways to further improve the efficiency and effectiveness of fisheries assessments and determine which aspects of the standard may need to evolve to address improved scientific understanding and fisheries management best practice. The scope of the review of the Fisheries Standard will be decided by the Board in mid-2018.

Endangered, threatened and protected species in focus

A review of MSC’s requirements for assessing the impact of fisheries on endangered, threatened and protected (ETP) species requirements will form a major part of the Fisheries Standard review. The MSC recognizes the importance of providing robust protection for these species, and the need to address the cumulative impacts of a fishery on them. Changes were introduced to the Standard in 2014 to strengthen provisions for minimising impact on (ETP) species and reducing unwanted catches. The MSC has commissioned a thorough review of the application of these requirements to determine where further changes may be required. 

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