As we wrote last week, Greenpeace is attacking the pollock fishery in the Bering Sea as being destructive to habitat, when there is no scientific evidence to support this. They are doing this as part of their retail seafood campaign, where they are trying to pressure supermarkets into not selling 19 fish species they deem at risk.

For some reason, this also includes Alaska pollock, the most successful and carefully managed fishery on the planet.

Meanwhile, where is the MSC? The Marine Stewardship Council has established itself as the most widely accepted fisheries certification scheme. Fisheries that have been certified are known to follow good management and scientifically sound practices that will preserve the stock and the ocean habitat for future generations.

So why is the fact the the Alaska pollock fishery is certified not enough to make retailers kick Greenpeace out of their offices?

Why is the MSC not screaming from the rooftops that the Alaska pollock fishery is one of the most successful and sustainable fisheries on the planet.

Well, the reason is that there are limits to the MSC certification scheme, and the WWF which created the MSC, serves two masters.

On the one hand, the WWF and the MSC have been able to show decisively that scientifically managed fisheries exist and are sustainable. The MSC provides an established international standard that allows buyers to purchase from fisheries around the globe knowing that each has a minimum level of scientific and management competence.

The WWF idea behind this was to pressure governments to adopt scientific management practices, and in areas where government’s were reluctant to do so, this strategy has largely worked.

But there is another side to the MSC and WWF: Brand protection and brand enhancement. The MSC’s own blue logo serves as a brand, and the MSC promotes this logo at every opportunity, and also they get a significant portion of their revenues from license fees. Meanwhile the WWF panda is seen as one of the most widely recognized logos in the world.

The MSC and WWF try to persuade retailers that their brands are complimentary to their own. They even have co-branded products, where the retail banner pays to use the WWF or MSC logo. In other words, a banner like Loblaw’s, Safeway, or Hy-Vee is told that using the MSC brand, or promoting MSC certification will enhance their own brand reputation.

The seafood industry largely embraced the MSC because we supported the emphasis on science, and wanted a rigorous certification scheme. But we did not embrace establishing a universal brand that would eclipse regional and local seafood brands.

When a retailer see’s NGO’s fight among themselves, they will throw up their hands and try and get out of the way. What they will not do is take sides. And the reason is the supreme importance of protecting their own brand.

No banner wants to see an NGO telling their customers they are poor stewards of the planet. Especially among millennials and the upcoming generation, the idea that your company is corporately irresponsible is the kiss of death. When a brand is involved in controversy, the strategic imperative is to minimize the controversy in any way possible, not to prolong it. The scientific merits are not at issue.

That is why companies are reacting to issues such as animal welfare with guidelines against gestation crates, or minimum sizes for hen houses. They are looking for reduced use of palm oil, organic ingredients, and trying to protect their supply chain against labor abuses.

Brand protection is much more difficult in todays environment, when social media can almost instantly create a brand crisis.

The problem for the seafood industry is that these issues around marine protection and sustainability are not just in the realm of science- they are now the battleground among NGO’s. Some of the NGO’s have a large following of people who don’t care about the science. They simply believe that industrial scale fishing is harmful, or that all aquaculture salmon is destructive of the environment and full of drugs and hormones.

In this arena, certifications are tossed to the side. They don’t matter. What matters is tamping down the controversy.

If the MSC were only a certification standards body, then they could stand up and forthrightly defend their standard against anyone who would challenge it, including other NGO’s.

But because the MSC also has a ‘brand’, it cannot afford to have its ‘brand’ in conflict with a retailer’s own brand. It is hamstrung. It cannot create public controversy without undermining its co-branding efforts with retailers.

No matter how much the MSC may condemn Greenpeace’s anti-science campaign in private meetings, in public they will not go on the offensive, and attack NGO’s who attack retailers using the MSC certification program.

The seafood industry will always exist in a world where anti-science ideas gain a lot of traction. The best defense is a robust defense of the science behind fisheries management and habitat protection. Although many would like the MSC to take on this role, it is compromised by its own strategy as a ‘brand’. It too must maintain support from those consumers who don’t care about the science. It has to remain ‘green’.

Not so a technical standard. One reason why the GSSI / FAO initiative for a global fisheries sustainability standard is important is that this standard, i.e. the ability of a given standard to meet the Global Seafood Sustainability Initiative benchmarks, is not dependent on a brand. It is a pass / fail, yes or no answer. And its credibility has nothing to do with a brand.

If we are to defend the idea of science based fisheries, we have to get beyond the fight among brands, and unfortunately I do not believe the MSC can get us there so long as they have their own brand to maintain and defend.