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Is MSC certified fish dolphin-friendly?

Whether or not you eat fish, you will probably have seen the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) logo on some fish products at your local supermarket. We are encouraged to trust this mark as evidence that the fish is sustainably caught. But what about whether any dolphins, porpoises or whales have been harmed or killed to bring us this fish? Accidental entanglement in fishing gear (or ‘bycatch’) is the single biggest killer of dolphins, porpoises and whales and it’s a horrific way to die. Our colleagues at Birdlife have reviewed how MSC considers bycatch measures in its certification, and WDC contributed to this important piece of work.

This bycatch review considered ‘protected species’ (dolphins, porpoises, seals, seabirds, sea turtles, sharks, skates and rays) in 23 fisheries (or groups of fisheries) which have been certified by the MSC (with the exception of one fishery, which withdrew before completing the process) to assess the effectiveness of the MSC criteria and standard in ensuring that the impacts of certified fisheries on these non-target species are minimised, or at least reduced.

A dolphin trapped in a fishing net

In short, MSC fisheries don’t monitor or mitigate adequately to understand or prevent levels of protected species bycatch. Only three of the fisheries reviewed achieved an overall green score, alongside 12 amber and eight red.

And specifically for dolphins, porpoises and whales, generally, we lack data and where data does exist, it is very worrying in a number of cases. This is the situation in the six categories of fisheries that were reviewed:

  • Northwest Atlantic snow crab and lobster trap fisheries are contributing to a decline in North Atlantic Right Whales.
  • North Atlantic gillnet fisheries are likely to be having population level effects on harbour porpoises.
  • North Sea mixed fisheries are a mixed bag with an unknown level of impact on bottlenose and white-beaked dolphins.
  • North Atlantic longline fisheries have a population level impact on short-finned pilot whales and may be having a population level impact on northern bottlenose whales.
  • Southern hemisphere trawl fisheries are contributing to a population decline in Māui dolphins.

Tuna purse seine fisheries are a mixed bag too, with reductions in dolphin bycatch from historical times in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, but still no recovery of populations since previously very high levels of bycatch.

MSC is beginning a Fisheries Standard Review that will take two years to complete, and will include consideration of protected species bycatch. The study concludes that MSC must strengthen the bycatch elements of the MSC standard, to prevent fisheries with unacceptably high impacts from being certified and to ensure that mortality of non-target species in certified fisheries is monitored and prevented, as standard.

Until that happens, you simply cannot eat fish, unless it is caught by pole and line, with any kind of certainty that dolphins, porpoises, whales and other protected species have not died in the fishing process - even if it does carry an MSC stamp of approval.



  1. Avatar Calogero on 22nd March 2019 at 1:08 am

    Good Morning Sarah Dolman I am Calogero i write from Picinisco Italy; i am Agreement for you don’t eat fish to save the whale and the dolphins. Is it just the same thing In the Mediterranean sea ? Could you information me when i will could to eat the fish, please? Could you information me when the MSC will resolve the problem of the fishing to save the whale and the Dolphins? Is MSC certified fish dolphin-friendly also in the Mediterranean sea? Thank you very much.

  2. Avatar Emmanuelle Arnold on 23rd March 2019 at 1:00 am

    I think it would have been worth mentioning in your list sea bass fisheries in France with their industrial double trawlers and fishing vessels on the West Coast of France . According to Sea Shepherd, an average of 6,000 dolphins are killed each year on France’s west coast by large industrial trawlers and fishing vessels. That number could be as high as 10,000 according to the Pelagis Observatory (this is a much higher number than the massacre of dolphins in the Danish Faroe Islands and Japan Taiji Cove) . Dolphins are trapped in the nets between the double trawlers and they drown as bycatch. Meanwhile the French Ministry of Fisheries fails to take action and the general public are kept in the dark, while dolphin populations may be wiped out on the Atlantic Coast of France. People need to be made aware of this. We are not only inflicting pain and suffering on sentient beings, but we are also destroying the environment and driving many species to the brink of Extinction if we do not change our way of life and eating habits. Ultimately we are threatening our own survival on this planet. 2/3 of our oxygen come from the Oceans. Once we have emptied the oceans and destroyed its fragile ecosystems, we are gone.

  3. Avatar jane craig on 24th March 2019 at 11:02 am

    Sadly greed and profit seem to be the overwhelming issue in so many disasters and since most of this comes from large corporations will be difficult to stop. It’s very sad for people whose jobs rely on fishing, but we are rapidly running out of time to put things at least partly right before we all become extinct.

  4. Avatar Sophie Milano on 24th March 2019 at 7:06 pm

    Wow, this is very scary and upsetting! Though I’m a vegetarian and do not eat fish I would expect food with the MSC logo to be safe and have no impact on whales and dolphins (all all-other species mentioned) I find it extremely misleading! And I hope others who do eat fish take notice and only purchase fish caught my pile and line. (Or preferably don’t eat fish at at but I think that’s too much to ask for, Ha).
    Very informative piece.

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