Concerns over fishing impacts on marine populations and ecosystems have intensified the need to improve ocean management. One increasingly popular market-based instrument for ecological stewardship is the use of certification and eco-labeling programs to highlight sustainable fisheries with low environmental impacts. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is the most prominent of these programs. Despite widespread discussions about the rigor of the MSC standards, no comprehensive analysis of the performance of MSC-certified fish stocks has yet been conducted. We compared status and abundance trends of 45 certified stocks with those of 179 uncertified stocks, finding that 74% of certified fisheries were above biomass levels that would produce maximum sustainable yield, compared with only 44% of uncertified fisheries. On average, the biomass of certified stocks increased by 46% over the past 10 years, whereas uncertified fisheries increased by just 9%. As part of the MSC process, fisheries initially go through a confidential pre-assessment process. When certified fisheries are compared with those that decline to pursue full certification after pre-assessment, certified stocks had much lower mean exploitation rates (67% of the rate producing maximum sustainable yield vs. 92% for those declining to pursue certification), allowing for more sustainable harvesting and in many cases biomass rebuilding. From a consumer's point of view this means that MSC-certified seafood is 3–5 times less likely to be subject to harmful fishing than uncertified seafood. Thus, MSC-certification accurately identifies healthy fish stocks and conveys reliable information on stock status to seafood consumers.