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Eco-Labeling: What does it really mean?

by Campaign for Eco-Safe Tuna
May 15, 2014

Eco-Labeling: What does it really mean?

According to the Global Ecolabelling Network, "‘Ecolabelling' is a voluntary method of environmental performance certification and labelling that is practised around the world. An ‘ecolabel' is a label which identifies overall, proven environmental preference of a product or service within a specific product/service category" [sic].

For tuna, there are a number of eco-labels to know. The three biggest ones are Earth Island Institute's (EII) "dolphin-safe" label, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified sustainable seafood label and the Agreement on the International Dolphin Conservation Program (AIDCP) dolphin-safe label. Keep in mind, however, not all labels are created equal.


AIDCP Dolphin-Safe

Earth Island Institute

Marine Stewardship Council

Sustainable Seafood

Ensures zero death or injury to dolphins


Maintains separation of dolphin-safe and non-dolphin-safe caught tuna


Tracks tuna from ocean to market


Prohibits dolphin-safe labeling for illegal, unreported and unregulated catch


Certification fully verified by independent observers



AIDCP Dolphin-Safe Label

As noted when the AIDCP dolphin-safe label was launched, "The new AIDCP Dolphin Safe Tuna Certification is the only one in the world supported by a comprehensive and transparent multilateral tracking and verification system administered by member governments and the treaty organization that will ensure full consumer confidence in the AIDCP Dolphin Safe label and the certification behind it."

And since its inception in 2001, the AIDCP dolphin-safe label has been an unqualified success.

In order to earn the AIDCP dolphin-safe label, every catch must be overseen and verified by independent observers who report on every net set to the International Review Panel of the AIDCP. These observers report on dolphin interactions, by catch and the quantity and species of all catch. In addition, they report on the performance and compliance of the captain and crew to ensure all regulations are truly dolphin-safe. The independent observers also verify that all catches are loaded and separated into dolphin-safe and non-dolphin-safe and kept segregated until they reach port and can be unloaded separately. This ensures that, from net to market, AIDCP dolphin-safe labeled tuna is credibly certified.

EII's "Dolphin-Safe" Label

EII can be credited with galvanizing the eco-labeling movement. However, the weak criteria and non-existent verification mechanism make EII's "dolphin-safe" label essentially meaningless. In order to purchase EII's "dolphin-safe" label, ship captains must certify that the catch they bring to port meets the EII's requirements.

EII claims that the "dolphin-safe" label they sell to big tuna companies guarantees that dolphins were not killed or harmed in the catch of tuna at sea. However, their claim lacks any credibility. The organization claims that they have six inspectors who verify globally through on-board spot checks that tuna catches meet EII's "dolphin-safe" criteria. But with only six inspectors only conducting spot checks, most catches come in with only the ship captain's self-certification.

These certification criteria fail to institutionalize any meaningful mechanism for independent verification that these criteria have been met. In fact, EII requires only a captain's self-certification. With no incentive to report truthfully and an economic incentive to lie, it's no wonder that policy and sustainability advocates decry the label and the organization.

MSC Certified Sustainable Seafood Label


MSC, in contrast, has stringent requirements for both certification and verification. MSC's certified sustainable seafood is awarded based on three principles:


Principle 1: Sustainable fish stocks

The fishing activity must be at a level which is sustainable for the fish population. Any certified fishery must operate so that fishing can continue indefinitely and is not overexploiting the resources.

Principle 2: Minimising environmental impact

Fishing operations should be managed to maintain the structure, productivity, function and diversity of the ecosystem on which the fishery depends.

Principle 3: Effective management

The fishery must meet all local, national and international laws and must have a management system in place to respond to changing circumstances and maintain sustainability.

Having met these requirements, all catches verified as certified sustainable seafood must have a traceable chain of custody. This ensures that the integrity of products is maintained from ship to store. Finally, MSC requires independent third-party oversight to maintain certification. This prevents corruption and the deceptive labeling of unsustainable products.

There is little wonder then why MSC certified sustainable seafood is the gold standard for sustainable eco-labeling.

Looking for a Sustainable Solution

At this time, the U.S. government has effectively outsourced its regulatory authority to EII, which has demonstrably inadequate certification standards. With such weak criteria, it is little wonder that efforts to advance sustainable fisheries have made little progress. Now is the time to develop real solutions with enforceable and enforced regulations that stop allowing irresponsible fishing operations off the hook. We need a real solution.