What Does the Sustainable Label Look Like Under Water

Carie Jarrard


This podcast looks at the effectiveness of sustainable fishing labels or “eco-labelling”. Additionally, it investigates the securitization of fish stocks in hopes of producing sustainable fishery practices.

It uses a geopolitical context to analyze how the environment is framed by sustainably fished labels. It dives into role and impacts humans have on fish stocks and ocean health as well as the spatial impacts of this global problem. Finally, it speaks about the impacts of these labels on people, fish stocks, and marine health.




What up buttercups.


My name is Carie Jarrard and you’re listing to the podcast, “What Does the Sustainable Label Look Like Underwater?”


[Sound Effect]: Music


This podcast is covering an issue that is very important to the environment and particularly the health of the ocean. We will be looking at the marine stewardship council, or MSC for short’s, claim that anything with their label is sustainable, we will do this through the lens of environmental geopolitics. In order to better analyze this claim we will also be following a geopolitical framework for our analysis of what this claim is saying and what it is not saying.


Now, the claim is that, “anything with our label is sustainable” it is a very bold but also very vague claim. But luckily for us in their website, they actually give a breakdown of what they mean by that.

They define sustainably fished as maintaining sustainable fish stock, having minimal environmental impacts, and being effectively managed. Thus, they are arguing that this product is better for the environment than its competitors because it has a sustainable fishing practice.


So, in evaluating this claim we will be looking at the role of security within its labeling. We will be looking at the role and meaning of the environment and how it is described and specified, the human agency and world view within this claim, and the spatial focus and context of the claim. All of this should help to provide a well-rounded perspective on what the MSC is saying and what sustainable fishing looks like as a whole.


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Now, we first have to recognize that this is in fact a security risk. While this might seem weird when looking at a label and particularly fishing. In MSC’s use of sustainable labeling, they are in essence trying to secure current fish stocks and promote growing sustainability in the ocean through the protection of fish populations and in the future.


This leads us to the question, what is the role in the environment within this claim? So let’s dive a little bit into that and look into this deeply. The claim by MSC that anything with their label is sustainable is defining the environment in terms of fish stocks. If the fish stock is healthy, the environment is healthy and bam, yay! Just like that, they are sustainable.


However, the drawback to this is that sustainable fish stock a kind of hard thing to quantify. In a book called Making Fisheries Management Work by Stig Gezelius, illustrates that a specific number of fish being removed from a stock while still being sustainable is not something that can be reliably proven or quantified. This is because there are many factors at play for a healthy ecosystem and as a result, a healthy fish stock.


With that in mind we have to look at what is often overlooked or not mentioned within MSC’s claim.

One thing is how a quote “sustainable number of fish being removed” does not necessarily mean a healthy fish stock is there and a healthy population is protected. It ignores the many other factors that contribute to having a healthy ecosystem. According to Emma Bryce at the Guardian somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million tons of fishing gear and netting is dropped into the ocean each year, and according to a Harvard study called the ghost gear project, over 650,000 marine animals are killed or injured a year just from fishing gear or as it is often called ghost gear.


Something to keep in mind is that often in these studies, what is quantified is the number of large marine animals and crustations that are killed. It is incredibly difficult to keep track of fish and effectively track how much they are being killed from this netting. This leads to more danger for them to be overfished and pushed to extinction. And while this issue is incredibly relevant to the health of marine ecosystems and fish stocks it cannot really be measured. It is especially difficult to measure and take into account in terms of fishing.


This also does not even take into account climate change or other impacts on marine habitats and fish health, making it incredibly difficult and probably close to impossible in our current world to define what truly is a sustainable amount to fish that would secure future population.


The next aspect of this claim we will look at is the role of human agency within it. The role of human agency is very important and very apparent within this claim. I mean, after all, MSC is at the end of the day, a company run by humans, providing labeling and products that are being sold to humans from fishermen who are guess what, are also humans. The role of fisheries trying to qualify and work within the standards of MSC, and the role of consumers in choosing to buy products labeled by MSC go hand in hand.


For one, people have to go into stores and choose to buy these products that are sustainable and are labeled sustainable in an effort to try and help keep the environment and fisheries healthy. In order for this to happen, fisheries, the people working in them have to be willing to work within those standards, wanting to be sustainable.


There also has to be a market for it to be worth them being sustainable, that market is created by consumers. This human agency affects the fisheries individually. The policies made around fishing globally, and as a South Florida International University report by Nimechi Ikechi-Uko says the global economy surrounding fish products. The global market for fish leads to many populations being overfished or fully fished.


All of these aspects are incredibly important when analyzing a claim, but just because those aspects are important doesn’t mean that they’re the only things that matters. Something that gets overlooked within this is the accessibility for people to buy sustainably fished products. When looking at something like this it is a great step towards more sustainable fishing.


But it is also an issue because it puts the responsibility on the consumers to change what is happening by their purchases. In an article from the journal of fisheries research Maria Hadjimichael, it is stated that not only is MSC a fully market-based solution that continues the cycle of overfishing, but it also lacks any accountability because it is a private company. Unfortunately, not only does it lack accountability, but not everyone has the ability to buy more expensive products that are harder to find.


While it is a good effort and a good step to take towards helping with the problem of overfishing, it is not a comprehensive solution to be solely relied on the way that it is today. Additionally, when looking at human agency in relation to this claim, you have to look at things like technology. People are always innovating, they’re always creating new things to make more efficient and better ways to fish. Suddenly, people can catch 200 fish instead of 100 fish a day. This means a lot, it makes a huge impact on fishing and sustainable fishing because there are places where fishermen have been going for centuries, passing down these areas and their families to fish. But suddenly these places that they have been telling their kids about for years and relying on don’t have any fish.


Both the creation and innovations of new technologies are aspects of human agency and the adoption and use of these will change what sustainable fishing looks like. And that is often not taken into account when making decisions, both for local policy decisions around fishing and global policy decisions. Companies and standards for what sustainable fisheries can or should look like sometimes does not match what technology and practices are being used.


Conversely, there can also be positive impacts for new technologies in sustainable fishing. Every time radar gets better, nets are dropped and lines are cast with better accuracy, limiting the amount of by-catch meaning limiting the fish that are not mean to be caught. This helps prevent marine death and maintain ecosystem health and fish stock health.


The last aspect of human agency I want to mention within this analysis is the issue of child labor being used by fisheries. This might seem kind of random in our discussion, but it is a very important aspect to be talked about. In a marine policy article by Charlotte Tindell et al, it is stated that “about 70% of the estimated 160 million child laborers in the world work in agriculture and fisheries. Emerging studies increasingly suggest that reduced stock productivity levels and the consequent decrease in profit margins leads to pressures on operators to increase fishing effort and to cut costs involved in hiring and ensuring the well-being of crew, thus resulting in forced labor and slave-like conditions at sea.”


As horrible as this is, it is directly influenced by one human choice and two, the decrease in global fish stocks. This is both happening on small boats and on large-scale commercial fishing vessels. And it must be considered that a limitation of how much fish can be caught and the subsequent loss of profits could lead to more use of child labor.


Now we will change course a little and speak about the last important aspect of this claim that we will be inspecting. This will be the spatial aspects and the impacts of overfishing. Sustainable fishing is needed everywhere and overfishing is a global problem. The impacts of this claim can be seen in many places. MSC’s claim specifically can be seen very well in the UK.


One example of this is happening, according to Karen McVeigh at The Guardian, is that the UK’s largest fish processor is threatening to stop using fisheries that do not follow or qualify for MSC sustainable label. They are doing this because there has been a huge decline in three of their biggest fish stocks. This has a huge impact on the local fishermen, the local economy, and what products are available to people globally. However, it is bigger than just impacts on people. It also has impacts fish migration, ecosystems, and the habitats of one of the world’s the most fished areas.


What the claim does not address in the special aspect of this problem is the selling of fish or the local economy aspect. There is a huge global market demand for fish and fish-based products that results in major impacts being made on sustainable fishing. When looking at the MSC’s impact on local economies it is important to know that according to the ecological economics journal by Anna Anderson and Cecilia Hammarlund, in order to be MSC certified the fisheries themselves have to pay to be evaluated and pay every time they are checked after that.


For smaller fisheries, this could very well not be a viable option for them. And this could create huge problems. Take for example, the before mentioned story of the UK’s biggest fish producer, only buying from MSC certified products. Or think about when the market begins to only support MSC certified products. What happens when smaller fisheries cannot sell products because they are not certified and the huge commercial fishing vessels become the only certified option for fish? Will those vessels continue to be sustainable when there’s no longer any market competition? Probably not.


These are all important aspects to consider when looking at sustainable fishing and when you go to a grocery store and begin reading labels.


Unfortunately, we must bring this episode to an end. But before we do, I want to mention that this was not to discourage buying sustainable products. It was done to inform people that there is always more behind the labels. MSC labels are not bad, but they’re also not a solution. I recommend if you really want to buy sustainable find a small local fisherman that you can buy directly from. If you cannot, buy the MSC label and don’t worry about it. Just remember MSC is also a business. So when labels start saying they’re sustainable, think about who’s benefiting and what they might not be saying.


That’s all for this episode of What Does the Sustainable Label Look like Underwater. I hope it was informative both on sustainable fishing labels, on environmental geopolitics and on analyzing claims through a geopolitical framework. Hopefully you’ll be able to do this yourself in the future and thank you for listening. Have a great day.


[Sound Effect]: Music


Music and sound effects for this podcast are from freesound.com. “Free EDM songs” by “Seth_Makes_Sounds” with a Creative Commons copyright. And “Binaural Fishing Martha’s Vineyard, Katama Pond” by “napalmco” with an attribution copyright.



“Free EDM sounds” by “Seth_Makes_Sounds” licensed as creative commons. https://freesound.org/people/Seth_Makes_Sounds/sounds/657804/

“Binaural Fishing Martha’s Vineyard, Katama Pond” by “napalmco” licensed as creative commons attribution. https://freesound.org/people/napalmco/sounds/443129/


Bryce, Emma. 2022 “’An Invisible Killer’: How Fishing Gear Became the Deadliest Marine Plastic.” The Guardian. Nov. 7 2022.  https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/nov/07/invisible-killer-ghost-fishing-gear-deadliest-marine-plastic.

Gezelius, Stig S. 2008. “The Problem of Implementing Policies for Sustainable Fishing.” In Making Fisheries Management Work: Implementation of Policies for Sustainable Fishing, edited by Stig S. Gezelius and Jesper Raakjær, 1-25. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-8628-1_1.

Gulbrandsen, Lars H. 2009. “The emergence and effectiveness of the Marine Stewardship Council.” Marine Policy 33 (4): 654-660. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2009.01.002.

Hadjimichael, Maria, and Troels J. Hegland. 2016. “Really Sustainable? Inherent Risks of Eco-Labeling in Fisheries.” Fisheries Research 174: 129–35. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fishres.2015.09.012.

Ikechi-Uko, Nimechi. 2020. “The Impact of Overfishing on the Economy, Ecosystem and Social Life.” Caplin News. Sept. 11, 2020. https://sfmn.fiu.edu/the-impact-of-overfishing-on-the-economy-ecosystem-and-social-life/..

McVeigh, Karen McVeigh. “Stop Overfishing or We’ll Buy Elsewhere, Top UK Fish Firm Warns European States.” The Guardian. Oct. 22 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/oct/22/stop-overfishing-or-well-buy-elsewhere-top-uk-fish-firm-warns-european-states.

O’Lear, Shannon. 2018. Environmental Geopolitics. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

“What Is Sustainable Seafood.” US & Canada – English. October 2022.https://www.msc.org/what-we-are-doing/our-approach.


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