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Swordfish, certifications, and sustainable seafood

Jordan Nikoloyuk is the Sustainable Fisheries Coordinator of the Ecology Action Centre, a membership-based community environmental organization based in Nova Scotia, Canada. The Marine Issues Committee of the EAC was founded in 1995 after the collapse of the Atlantic Canadian groundfish stocks and works towards conserving and protecting marine ecosystems and maintaining sustainable fisheries and vibrant coastal communities.

As part of its sustainable seafood work and through its Friends of Hector campaign – www.friendsofhector.org – the EAC has participated in many Marine Stewardship Council assessments for Atlantic Canadian fisheries and encouraged retailers to support certified fisheries. Jordan has written this guest post to share his recent experiences with a certification that has left the EAC and other conservation organizations wondering whether seafood certification can contribute to sustainable fisheries management in the long term, or if the conflict between keeping an eco-label rigorous on the one hand and expanding its market appeal on the other is just too difficult to manage. What do you think?

The best way to buy seafood responsibly is to read a sustainable seafood guide and ask your retailer the two big questions: where is this from and how was it caught? When getting these answers is tough, many people turn to eco-certifications and labelling. Despite some increasingly controversial certifications, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is considered to be the most trusted and reliable label, but how many unsustainable fishery certifications will it take to ruin this credibility?

Last week, after lengthy and widespread opposition, the MSC approved certification of the Atlantic Canadian longline swordfish fishery, which catches 100,000 sharks and 1,400 endangered sea turtles every year. The Ecology Action Centre spent almost two years working to oppose this greenwashing. Now we are left asking: how can we promote sustainable fisheries with organizations the size of the MSC working against us? When a definition of sustainability is so weak that it lets the status quo continue, can this be seen as an effective ‘market-driven solution’?

About the fishery

Swordfish in Nova Scotia are caught using one of two different gear types: harpoons and pelagic longlines. Harpooned swordfish are killed one fish at a time. It’s a totally badass way to catch a fish. It’s also infinitely preferable from a conservation standpoint and creates a higher value, better quality, more marketable product. Harpooned fish can come with a significant price difference rewarding fishermen in a traditional fishery that has been practiced in Canada for over 100 years.

The problem with longline fishing is the high bycatch levels caused by setting 30 to 50 miles of baited hooks out overnight. In fact, the Canadian longline swordfish fishery has one of the highest bycatch:target species ratios in Canada, and the industry has lobbied hard against meaningful bycatch restrictions. In contrast, fishing for swordfish by harpoon has virtually no bycatch: it would take a very poor shot and a very unfortunate turtle or shark to wind up on the end of a harpoon.

As the infographic shows (and Fisheries and Oceans Canada science confirms), the Canadian longline swordfish fishery catches 100,000 IUCN Red Listed sharks[i] and almost 1,400 endangered sea turtles[ii] every year, for about 20,000 swordfish. Post-release mortality studies (35% for the most common species, blue shark) show that 35,000[iii] sharks and 200-500 sea turtles[iv] are KILLED every year – approximately two times more ‘by-caught’ sharks are killed than swordfish.

There are no scientific limits on the number of sharks that can be caught or killed. It would be possible to mitigate bycatch – through gear changes, bait changes, hook types, area and time closures, temperature restrictions, etc. – but there have to be regulations in place that require these changes. Right now there is a massive ‘environmental subsidy’ of being able to catch and/or kill an animal and discard it.

Even worse, these figures are based on observer coverage of only 4 – 8% since 2006. Observer accuracy in this fishery is unknown; coverage has not been in a representative way. It just can’t be expected to generate reliable information about bycatch.

How can we support sustainable fisheries?

With two different gear types being used to catch the fish – one of which has clear environmental, quality and value advantages – our organization has worked to support and promote the harpoon swordfish fishery whenever possible.

One of our biggest setbacks came in 2000 when a political deal was struck between the fisheries management and the longline industry lobbyists to divide the overall Canadian swordfish quota between the two fleets with 90% going to longliners and only 10% to harpooners (luckily longliners are allowed to harpoon their quota share if they want). Of course, as a political agreement, the quota split can always be revised if there is enough political will – and market demand.

With marketing support from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the provincial government, both fisheries entered Marine Stewardship Council assessment in 2009 and the harpoon fleets was quickly certified in June 2010. This made a difference. Over the next season, more swordfish was caught by harpoon in Nova Scotia and was more heavily promoted by high-end US retailers than previous years! It was a coastal livelihood win through certification! Exactly what the MSC is meant to accomplish! Huzzah!

We Object!

Unfortunately, this apparent success was short-lived. The longline fleet was also able to progress through the certification process – albeit slowly, and it now appears that both the long line and harpoon fishery will carry the same certification.

As certification of the longline fleet started to seem more likely, environmental groups became more vocal. In April 2011, 35 marine conservation organizations from around the world sent a joint letter to Moody Marine and the Marine Stewardship Council, outlining reasons that the fishery should not be certified. Over 800 people contacted MSC Chief Executive Officer Rupert Howes directly, who refused to comment on an ‘ongoing process’.

When the Final Report came out with a recommendation for certification, the Ecology Action Centre, the David Suzuki Foundation and the Sea Turtle Conservancy filed an official Objection (at a cost of 5,000 British pounds). You can read the Objection here  (warning, it’s 36 pages of legalese) – and see how wide-ranging it is. We objected based on the sheer volume of bycatch, the low quality of data and monitoring, and technical definitions in the MSC standard – and we lost.

We lost, what’s next?

Why did we lose? Incredibly, it’s not because we were wrong about something, but because the Adjudicator was required to show “deference to the Determinations of the Certification Body” rather than evaluate the scientific data and its interpretation. You can read the decision here and see how technical and legalistic it is; either the Adjudicator missed the point entirely, or his hands were tied by a process that favours the certifiers and their clients.

With the Marine Stewardship Council squarely focused on the number of products certified rather than their conservation impacts, it seems clear that the process is broken – perhaps irreparably. Conservation groups like ours are left wondering: what’s next? What is the path to sustainable fisheries?

The sustainable seafood movement is worse off by not having a trusted certification system to rely on, and unfortunately the MSC is actually the best certification standard there is. No retailers that have sustainable seafood policies will want to have products like this on their shelves and open themselves up to accusations of misleading eco-conscious shoppers. The Ecology Action Centre has told retailers about this situation and asked that they not carry Canadian longline-caught swordfish, regardless of the eco-labels they might carry. I don’t think this will be a hard decision for most.

I sincerely hope that the MSC is able to get its house in order and become a well-respected, credible label that only appears on the best-managed and most sustainable fisheries in the world. Weak labels don’t help anyone. I would be happy to support the MSC if it makes changes to keep unsustainable fisheries out of its system. If that can’t happen, we have to ask: is there still a role for seafood certification? Were we better off without it?