It was the perfect storm. Four years ago, much of the Dutch fishing industry was foundering. Fuel costs were rising, and the expense of lugging heavy beam trawls around the North Sea was bankrupting many companies and driving others to decommission their boats.
Then, three NGOs pitched in. The North Sea Foundation and WWF-Netherlands produced a 'traffic light' card advising consumers which fish they could eat with a clear conscience, which they do best to avoid, and which they shouldn't touch on any account. Meanwhile, Greenpeace began a more aggressive, global campaign against 'bottom-trawling'—the practice where heavy nets are dragged across the sea floor, with potentially devastating effects to the marine ecosystem. It was "a happy coincidence," says Dr Nathalie Steins, who runs the Benelux office of the Marine Stewardship Council. "Dutch retailers are really anxious that Greenpeace might give them a bad reputation."
The national food retailers' association, CBL, decided to act. It drew up a 'seven-step plan towards sustainable seafood,' endorsed by the NSF and WWF, which included a commitment that by the end of 2011, the only wild-caught fish its members would stock would carry the MSC label. At the time, hardly any MSC-approved fish were on sale in the Netherlands, but the world's largest retailer, Walmart, was already on course to be MSC-only. Clearly that was the way the wind was blowing.
So the Dutch fishing industry had a choice. It could continue trawling in the old, high-impact, fuel-hungry ways and risk losing its domestic market. Or it could make a lot of difficult and expensive changes and gain the cachet of sustainability. In July 2008, it signed an historic 'memorandum of understanding' with the NSF, WWF and the (then) Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality which undertook that by the end of 2012 almost all the country's fisheries would be either MSC-certified or under assessment. Eager to facilitate this, the Dutch parliament voted to make more than $2 million available in grant aid to fisheries seeking certification.
Since then, progress has been dramatic. In 2008, only the herring fishery was MSC-certified; now, six Dutch fisheries are, with five more under assessment. North Sea plaice, once red-listed by the NSF and WWF, is back in the shops. One certified supplier is Ekofish, which has a strict quota, avoids areas with vulnerable seafloors and closes during the spawning period. It has also proven that its (significantly reduced) bycatch comes from healthy stocks.
"If you had told me four years ago that the flatfish fishery would make such huge changes, I would have said you were crazy," says Dr. Steins. Even Greenpeace (though it insists that bottom-trawling can never be sustainable) has acknowledged that improvements have been made.
Today, nearly 800 products in Dutch shops carry the MSC label. Public awareness is growing. A survey in March 2010 found that 40 percent of fish-buying Dutch shoppers recognized the MSC logo and 21 percent knew what it meant. A new survey this spring is expected to return much higher figures.
Can the MSC carry such weight in other cultures and economies? "Obviously, the drivers vary in different markets," says MSC's CEO, Rupert Howes. "But the take-up of our independent certification and labeling program in countries such as Japan, Vietnam, South Africa and elsewhere goes to show that the MSC concept is transferable. And there's a growing evidence base for the positive change it drives in the way our oceans are fished, too."
The priority now is to go to scale. There's no silver bullet to the global challenge of overfishing, but the MSC has a significant role to play. By recognizing and rewarding good practice, its program creates incentives for other fisheries to improve their performance. And if you add policy reform, advocacy and industry leadership to the bait, there's a good chance of a healthy catch.
A version of this article, by Huw Spanner, also appears on Green Futures.