MSC stands for the "Marine Stewardship Council," an organization formed in 1997 by the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever, the maker of products like Vaseline, Slim-Fast, and Axe Body Wash. Seem like a pair of odd bedfellows? Well, Unilever also happens to be the world’s largest purchaser of fish, accounting for about 25 percent of fish supplies in the U.S. and Europe alone. In 1999, both companies ceased to be affiliated with MSC and the organization became an independent nonprofit.
MSC Certified is a label seen on wild-caught fish, and indicates that the product in question came from a fishery that upholds the three principles for the MSC Environmental Standard for Sustainable Fishing: limiting their catch in the interests of long-term survival of the species population, minimizing environmental impact, and complying with all local, national, and international laws.
Some of the underlying criteria used to determine whether a fishery is compliant are rather general and subject to interpretation, however, and were developed while Unilever and WWF were still on board. For example, in support of the first principle, one of the criteria states, "The fishery shall be conducted at catch levels that continually maintain the high productivity of the target populations and associated ecological community relative to its potential productivity." There aren't any numbers in that statement, and it's not clearly delineated how a population's "potential productivity" should be quantified.
In addition, the application of these criteria is left to third-party certifiers, which seems like a good thing, but also leads to inconsistent interpretations. MSC also collects money from businesses that sell MSC Certified fish. So, it’s all a bit, well, fishy.
To its credit however, the other component to MSC's program, the Chain of Custody for Seafood Traceability, appears to be a fairly rigorous system. It employs a paper trail system at every step in the harvesting process to ensure that the fish on your plate really is what the store says it is. It also helps keep illegally caught fish from entering the system, and for certain species, such as Alaskan salmon, Pacific cod, and Alaskan pollock, mandates DNA testing of the fish. Only retailers who meet such criteria can sell MSC Certified fish.
So all in all, it's not a perfect system. But perhaps its high visibility in the public eye in supermarkets like Whole Foods and increasingly in restaurants will encourage MSC to become more rigorous and consistent in its evaluation of fisheries.