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MSC considering granting sustainable status to a fishery with high shark bycatch

In a world where greenwashing, overfishing, bycatch and pirate fishing run rampant, it can be difficult for eco-conscious consumers to know what to buy. Many eco-certification agencies exist, but they often offer conflicting advice. Who should you listen to?

I am often asked that question when I give public lectures, and I’ve never hesitated to recommend the Marine Stewardship Council. They are the largest, most trusted authority in determining which seafood is sustainable. Additionally, they work closely with scientists and conservation groups.

The Marine Stewardship Council is in the process of evaluating several fisheries to decide whether or not they will be earn the “sustainable” label. One of these, the swordfish longline fishery on Canada’s Atlantic coast, has just been recommended for sustainable status by Moody Marine (a MSC certifying agency).  The Canadian conservation group “Friends of Hector” (Twitter) strongly objects to this recommendation.

Hector the Blue Shark

Friends of Hector claims that the bycatch in this fishery, particularly shark and sea turtle bycatch, is a major problem:

“Sharks are extremely important to our marine ecosystems and they are in trouble. Compared to the 1960s, most species have only 10 – 20 % of their populations left. Sea turtle populations have declined by as much as 75% over the last 20 years. Globally, surface longline fishing is one of the main causes of catastrophic declines in the populations of the oceans’ large predators and sea turtles.

Canada’s surface longline fleet is no exception. Every year, it is estimated that 50 – 60% of what the Atlantic Canadian surface longline fleet catches is unwanted and thrown back, including:

  • 100 000 sharks.
    • Blue shark
      Status: near threatened
    • Short-fin Mako
      Status: vulnerable
    • Porbeagle
      Status: vulnerable
  • 1200 Loggerhead sea turtles
    Status: endangered
  • 170 Leatherback sea turtles
    Status: critically endangered”


In other words, approximately 100,000 IUCN Red Listed animals are caught as bycatch when fishermen catch approximately 20,000 swordfish each year. Pardon the pun, but something sounds a little fishy to me – how can a fishery with such devastating bycatch be considered sustainable by the world’s leading authority on such matters?

A turtle caught as bycatch on a longline. Image from asquidsink.blogspot.com

The recommendation from Moody Marine explains their reasoning:

… huh? In case you’re unfamiliar with the process, let’s summarize how a fishery is certified as sustainable.

“In 2008 the MSC implemented the use of a default assessment tree which included defined Performance Indicators and Scoring Guideposts (PISGs)…all fisheries entering full assessment are to be assessed using the default PISGs

Within the default assessment tree there are 31 performance indicators…Individual ‘Scoring Guideposts’ (60, 80 and 100) are identified for each performance indicator. It is at this level that the performance of the fishery is measured…A performance score of at least 60 but less than 80 is intended to reflect ‘a pass with condition’, a score of 80 but less than 100 represents ‘pass without condition’, while a 100 score reflects ‘perfect performance.

In order for a fishery to be certified it must accomplish three things:

1)Achieve a score of 60 or greater for all 31 performance indicators;

2) Each MSC Principle must achieve an aggregated score of 80, or pass without conditions.

3) A contractual commitment to improve performance for each indicator that has a score less than 80 (i.e. certification condition)”

The Canadian Atlantic longline swordfish fishery was certified with conditions , which means that Moody acknowledged that although their practices meet an objective minimum score, their practices aren’t perfect. You can read the full report here (warning, it’s over 200 pages). The bycatch numbers in the Moody report more or less agree with those supplied by Friends of Hector. The swordfish fishery’s plan for addressing this bycatch is where the problem lies:


A letter to MSC, co-signed by Friends of Hector and numerous other environmental groups, explains this concern:

To define ‘ETP (Endangered-Threatened-Protected) species’ the MSC does not recognize listing by COSEWIC, Canada’s government science advisory body for species at risk, or the IUCN ETP status reports. Shark species are not assessed under MSC’s ETP criteria. Unfortunately, even for the endangered sea turtle species scored under the ETP criteria, the assessment falls short. The MSC’s minimum passing grade requires that “the fishery does not pose a risk of serious or irreversible harm to ETP species and does not hinder recovery of ETP species.” This fishery has no enforceable management measures in place to minimize catch of sea turtles:
• no bycatch limits
• no bait or soak time restrictions
• no spatial/temporal closures
• insufficient hook restrictions (16/0 circle hooks do not reduce the loggerhead catch rate)
• only 5%, biased observer coverage to monitor numbers, condition, and handling of turtles
The certification scoring does not mandate any of the above be implemented.

Friends of Hector for not only criticizes the existing plan, but provides a reasonable alternative. Here is what they suggest:

Are there ways to make this fishery less harmful to the marine environment?

Yes, groups in Canada and around the world are asking for the following conservation measures to be put in place:

  1. Scientifically based limits on the amount of each bycatch animal that can be caught. Once the fishery reaches this catch limit it would be closed for the season
  2. Human or video observers on every fishing trip to enforce limits and to get a better idea of all the marine animals that are being caught
  3. Work with fishermen to develop of gear modification and strategies to help avoid catching non-target animals
  4. More incentives for swordfish to be fished by harpoon instead of longline

Is there another way to fish for swordfish?

Yes. Nova Scotia, Canada has one of the last remaining traditional harpoon fishing fleets in the world. Harpooning for swordfish is a very selective way of fishing with no bycatch. You can support this fleet by asking for harpooned swordfish at your local seafood restaurant or supermarket.”

Based on the information in the Moody report and the Friends of Hector campaign, I do not believe that the Canadian Atlantic longline swordfish fishery should be considered sustainable. The bycatch of threatened and endangered species is just too high. I have sent a letter to the MSC expressing my concerns. You can do the same by clicking here.