Alaska Official Hits Out at Marine Stewardship Council Over Russian Fish

Russian trawler
A newly-built supertrawler for the Russian Far East fleet. Some Russian fishing vessels are believed to have a dual role as military intelligence assets (USC)

Published Jul 26, 2023 8:38 PM by The Maritime Executive

Alaska's fish and game commissioner has tough words for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the seafood certification body whose familiar blue-fish logo can be found in every supermarket. MSC certifies the sustainability of fisheries around the world, based on stock levels, management practices and environmental impact - but not the politics or warfighting posture of the coastal state. Alaska Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang disagrees: he believes that Russia's belligerence in Ukraine should be a disqualifier for Russian fishing vessels, and that Russian fish should not be marketed with the same "sustainable" check mark as Alaskan fish. 

"MSC . . . has observed Russian actions in Ukraine, assessed the implications for its Russian client fisheries, and chosen a path of accommodation and appeasement," Vincent-Lang argued in an editorial this week.  

Vincent-Lang took a step further and accused MSC of ignoring the invasion in order to keep receiving revenue from Russian members. "[This] gravely misleads consumers and markets who believe that the seafood they are buying is certified to the highest environmental and ethical standards," he asserted, and letting Russian fishermen keep MSC certification "denigrates the certification" of Alaska fishermen by association. 

Alaska has already launched its own third-party certification scheme to compete with MSC - the Responsible Fisheries Management (RFM) program - and Vincent-Lang suggested that the continued presence of Russian seafood on the MSC list is another reason to switch. 

"Unlike MSC, [Alaska's] RFM prioritizes sustainable fisheries management over corporate profits by applying consistent certification standards," he wrote. 

MSC has pushed back on the commissioner's allegation. In a statement, it defended its motivations for keeping Russian fisheries on the rolls, and it said that its standards were consistent and driven by science. It noted that it ceased new activity in Russia after the invasion, though it is still recertifying Russian companies with checks on sanctions compliance.

"If the MSC ecolabel disappeared from products, it may cause short-term disruption for retailers who have made sustainability commitments, but the legal trade in Russian seafood would continue. What would be lost would be the incentives for Russian fisheries to maintain the environmental performance needed," MSC wrote. "While we do derive logo fee revenue from ecolabeled products with certified Russian fish, the track record of our program is that fisheries which fail to meet requirements are suspended or lose their certificates."

As the largest and most prominent of the fishery eco-certification schemes, MSC has drawn scrutiny in the past over its finances and inclusion decisions. Its revenue tripled from 2009 to 2019, and the overwhelming majority of the funding came from licensing fees for the blue check mark logo, paid for by certified fisheries. The number of fisheries in the program jumped from about 40 to more than 300 over the same period. Its own partners - the Pew Charitable Trust and the WWF - have at times criticized some of the fisheries on its list.