Iceland’s Mackerel now MSC Certified – Elements of Greenwashing?

by aander05 on November 6, 2017 - 5:49pm

     Mackerel is a flourishing fish species that made its home in Iceland in the early 2000’s (MSC, 2017). An article posted on October 31, 2017 by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) stated that Iceland is the latest country to obtain MSC certification as a sustainabley managed mackerel fishery. Assessments by the independent certifiers SAI Global were conducted to ensure sustainability in the fishery. Mackerel continues to increase in popularity, and in 2016 the total catch in Iceland was 170,516 tonnes (MSC, 2017). The gear used for catching mackerel includes pelagic trawls, seine nets, handlines, and bottom trawls. The MSC certificate covers fish caught by any of these four methods. The certification comes with a stipulation that within four years Iceland Sustainable Fisheries (ISF) (includes companies engaged in fishing, production and sales of seafood products) must meet conditions agreed upon regarding the sharing of Total Allowable Catch (TAC) amongst Icelandic fishing companies (MSC, 2017).

     In response to this article, I argue that despite the positive tone regarding the new MSC certifications for Icelandic mackerel, there remain some significant management flaws and challenges. Specifically, the uncertainty regarding Total Allowable Catch (TAC) estimates, elements of greenwashing or deceptive “environmental” marketing, and conflicts between interest groups.

     Estimating TAC is a form of uncertainty, because we do not know the full knowledge of system dynamics. This puts a lot of faith in fisheries science. As shown in the cod fisheries of eastern Canada, TAC is not always accurate and there are many other factors at play that can influence fishery stocks (Walters and Maguire, 1996). Adaptive management should be considered for Icelandic fisheries, given that it accepts uncertainty and promotes frequent monitoring to ensure that the fishery is sustainable given the most recent assessments.

     Iceland will use the MSC as an economic instrument for environmental management through certification regimes, increased consumer demand for ‘sustainable’ products, and being able to sell Icelandic fish in new markets. The MSC certification is also form on neoliberalist governance. Namely, it is non-state driven and commodifies nature. A major flaw with this form of management is the potential for greenwashing and faith in market-based solutions. This article promotes the MSC certification as a tool for long-term fishery sustainability. However, the MSC certification also allows for bottom-trawling. This has been shown to be detrimental to aquatic habitat, which inherently influences fish species sustainability (Tillin, 2006). As such, when consumers buy fish labelled as MSC sustainable, they are not given the full picture. This is a form of greenwashing since consumers believe that they are purchasing fish that are sustainably harvested and do not negatively impact the environment. MSC only considers the number of fish caught in sustainability estimates rather than the larger ecosystem, leading to misinterpretations of the environmental impact and meaning of the certification.

     Lastly, the stipulations of the MSC certification will likely cause both value and interest conflicts amongst the various actors. Specifically, value conflicts may arise given the difference in opinion on the management outcomes of the certification. For example, whether the goals are maximizing profits by being able to sell to new MSC markets or on fishery and ocean sustainability. Interest conflicts may arise during the next four years when Iceland is required to distribute TAC among local fishing companies (both large and small-scale operations). If Iceland is seen to distribute benefits unevenly, this will likely cause management issues in the country.

     In conclusion, while this article provides some information regarding the new MSC certifications for Icelandic mackerel, there are some important management implications overlooked. While sustainability certification generally sounds like a positive step forward, there are other factors involved including greenwashing and emerging value and interest conflict.



MSC. (2017, October 31). Iceland's mackerel fishery gains MSC certification. Retrieved November 06, 2017, from

Tillin, H. M., Hiddink, J. G., Jennings, S., & Kaiser, M. J. (2006). Chronic bottom trawling alters the functional composition of benthic invertebrate communities on a sea-basin scale. Marine Ecology Progress Series318, 31-45.

Walters, C., & Maguire, J. J. (1996). Lessons for stock assessment from the northern cod collapse. Reviews in fish biology and fisheries6(2), 125-137.