How Sustainable is Sustainable Seafood?

Issue 1, 2011 Article:

* Recovered Oil Fund Helps Florida’s Sea Turtles
* How Sustainable is Sustainable Seafood?

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How Sustainable is Sustainable Seafood?

By Marydele Donnelly

The word “sustainable” is an important word in today’s environmental vocabulary. Used to describe the ability to last indefinitely, a host of things from communities to agriculture to fishing have been declared sustainable. In 1997, the World Wildlife Fund and the European food giant Unilever founded the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) to recognize and reward sustainable fishing and influence choices made by seafood consumers; two years later the MSC became an independent non-profit organization. In the last 22 years, the MSC has awarded its blue eco-label for sustainability to 102 fisheries around the world, and 144 additional fisheries are currently undergoing assessment. Today the Council is well-known to consumers in Canada, UK, Germany, France and Japan, and is becoming better known to US consumers. Of the seven organizations certifying sustainable, wild-caught seafood, MSC is regarded as the best.

So what exactly do consumers expect when buying sustainable seafood? For starters, a product that is not over-harvested. We also want to know this seafood was not caught in a way that harms the environment and other species such as sea turtles, marine mammals, seabirds, and undersized and non-target fish. Millions of tons of seafood are consumed each year so the more sustainable fisheries are, the better off marine ecosystems and the oceans will be.

Despite its laudable mission, conservationists are becoming increasingly critical of Marine Stewardship Council certifications. The Council’s shortcomings are the subject of considerable attention, such as an opinion piece in September 2010 in the prestigious journal Nature, in which leading scientists call for radical reform of the MSC to protect the environment. Some MSC fisheries are widely regarded as sustainable but a growing number of fisheries have been identified as problematic. From our focus on reducing the unintentional capture of sea turtles in fisheries, the Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC) is especially concerned that the MSC could certify as “sustainable” the Northwest Atlantic longline fishery, which unintentionally captures and kills hundreds of sea turtles each year.

STC registered as an MSC stakeholder in 2009 when we learned that the MSC was assessing Canada’s Atlantic longline swordfish fishery for sustainability. Like other pelagic (open ocean) longliners catching tuna, swordfish and sharks, Canadian fishermen set out mainlines up to 40 miles long with many attached lines and baited hooks. In addition to catching fish, this fishing equipment catches numerous non-target animals and protected species including endangered loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles. US fishermen must use special equipment and bait to reduce the capture and death of protected species, but Canadian fishermen are not similarly restricted. All US boats also carry line cutters and dehookers to improve chances of survival for turtles which are caught, but Canadian boats do not. Canada’s fleet of 35 longline boats is estimated to have caught 9,592 loggerheads between 1999 and 2006, with the number of interactions increasing over time to 3,368 in 2006 alone. The majority of these turtles have been released alive, but post-release mortality can be as high as 40-50%. Because any fishery with such high levels of unintentional capture of non-target and protected species should have been filtered out of the process very early in the assessment, conservation organizations are highly critical of the MSC’s assessment of this fishery and believe it exemplifies the way in which economic interests are driving MSC to the detriment of the environment.

Under MSC, each fishery is assessed by independent reviewers using an established step-by-step process and performance indicators. Key elements include information gathering and monitoring, the development of a management strategy, prevention of irreversible harm, species recovery, and minimal levels of mortality in non-target species. Assessments allow for ample time to comment, and MSC assessors accept comments from all stakeholders. A major flaw, however, is that assessors are financially motivated to take fisheries undergoing assessment to the next step in the process. Ultimately, the inclusion of more fisheries is lucrative for the MSC which provides blue eco-labels and reassesses fisheries every few years. As envisioned by its founders, the MSC is valuable, but it is clear that significant changes are needed to improve the way the Council operates.

Unfortunately, the failure of MSC to deny the Canadian application has generated interest among US longliners catching swordfish and yellowfin tuna in the Atlantic to apply for MSC certification. Although the larger US fleet is doing a better job of reducing sea turtle interactions than the Canadians, it is nevertheless implicated in hundreds of sea turtle interactions each year; 20-25% of the turtles caught by the US fleet probably die. STC will continue to oppose this fishery’s certification as “sustainable” as well as the Canadian application.