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’?

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Saving Nemo: 1 out of 6 species that appear in Finding Nemo are threatened with extinction

WhySharksMatter found Nemo at Disney's Living Seas Aquarium

Like most marine biology geeks, I’m a huge fan of Disney/Pixar’s “Finding Nemo”. In addition to a heartwarming story of a father trying to bring his son home to their aneme…anemeneme… amenememe… anemone,  the film showcases an enormous variety of beautiful real-life coral reef species. According to  research published today in Conservation Letters, however, we may soon only be able to see some of these animals in the movies. The paper, titled “Extinction Risk and Bottlenecks in the Conservation of Charismatic Marine Species”, concluded that many of the stars of Finding Nemo are in deep trouble.

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#SciFund Challenge: Turtles in the Deep

#SciFund is a month-and-a-half long initiative to raise funds for a variety of scientific research projects. Project leaders post a project description and an appeal for funds, and members of the public are invited to make small donations to projects that they deem worthy. Donations come with rewards such as access to project logs, images from fieldwork, your name in the acknowledgements of publications, among other possibilities. Many of these projects are marine or conservation themed. Over the next week, we’ll highlight some of our favorites. Please take a look at these projects and, should you so desire, send some financial support their way. If you do make a donation, let them know how you found out about their project and leave a comment (anonymous if you’d like) on this post letting us know.

Turtles in the Deep

Lindsey Peavey is a graduate student at the University of California (and formerly from the Duke University Marine Lab) who studies the ecology of large marine vertebrates, including sea turtles. She is currently tracking the foraging behavior of Olive Ridley sea turtles in the open ocean. Funding for this project will go towards covering travel expenses, satellite tracking tags, and supporting research interns.


As a nice bonus, her home institute will match funding, so your donation will count double. It’s a good enough project that we’ll even forgive her misuse of the term “deep” for “open ocean”, because we can’t all be as poetic as deep-sea biologists. Go check out Lindsey’s project page and pitch in to help a new graduate student get her research off the ground.

Biodiversity Wednesday – Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge

These beaches are narrow, beautiful, and largely undeveloped

On the east coast of Florida lies a thin, 20 mile long stretch of beach. It looks a great deal like the many other beaches in Florida, but one important difference is immediately clear. It is some of the least developed beachfront real estate in the United States, which is particularly jarring considering that it is close to the city of Melbourne and right off of the major A-1-A highway. Why isn’t this beautiful and accessible stretch of beach covered in hotels and luxury apartments?

An enormous number of signs listing the things you can’t do on this beach also grabs your attention. No ATV’s, horses, dogs, or beach chairs are allowed. Feeding wildlife, including seagulls, is strictly prohibited. Under no circumstances can you build a campfire- not that you’d need to, since the public isn’t allowed on the beach at all after dark.

What is this place?

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Turtle excluder devices: analysis of resistance to a successful conservation policy

Conservation efforts often have an associated tradeoff, and many proposed solutions are shot down because the costs are perceived to be too high. A conservation policy that benefited a charismatic endangered species with very little cost should be popular and enthusiastically adopted. However, even though turtle excluder devices greatly reduce sea turtle mortality and have very low costs, they were vigorously opposed by shrimpers. Though many factors contributed to this opposition to turtle excluder devices, analysis of quotes from newspaper articles reveals that one of the major issues was a failure of the conservation community to educate and communicate with shrimpers.

The problem

Most species of sea turtles are either threatened or endangered. Although they face many threats, a 1990 National Academy of Sciences study reached the conclusion that “drowning in shrimp trawls kills more sea turtles than all other human activities combined”. Trawling consists of dragging a large net behind a boat to catch shrimp. This fishing method has one of the highest bycatch rates of any used today, resulting in over 11 million metric tons of bycatch a year. Sea turtles breathe at the surface, and being trapped underwater in a net can be fatal if they aren’t freed in time. Adult loggerhead turtles can hold their breath for up to 45 minutes, but trawlers often wait up to four hours before hauling in their nets. This resulted in an estimated 48,000 sea turtles caught in trawl nets each year from 1973-1984 in U.S. waters, of which 11,000 died . Gulf of Mexico shrimping was particularly hard on loggerhead and kemp’s ridley sea turtles.

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Altered sea turtle sex ratios: Can global warming harm warm-water animals?

When most people think of an animal threatened by global warming, images of a polar bear drowning because of lost ice habitat come to mind. Few know that climate change can also threaten animals used to living in environments much warmer than the Arctic. Even when you’re used to heat, too much heat can be a serious problem- particularly in vulnerable early life history stages.

One example of this phenomenon is the sea turtle. Though one species (the leatherback) often ventures into Arctic waters, the other species are largely confined to tropical and temperate climates. All seven species are threatened or endangered due to decades of bycatch mortality and habitat destruction, and they are in serious trouble as a result of warming beach temperatures.

Photo credit: David Shiffman

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A short note on the “turtle harvest” e-mail

An e-mail has been making the rounds over the last few weeks purports to show evidence of an illegal turtle egg harvest in Costa Rica. It contains several pictures like this:

While the pictures are real, the e-mail is misleading. They show a sustainable, legal turtle harvest that actually helps the Olive Ridley turtle population. Our favorite observational nerd, Christie, has a thorough break-down of the what’s really going on and the Costa Rican Tourist Bureau has released further information. It’s a shame that a few people more interested in sensationalism than the truth are hurting the efforts of dedicated and effective conservationists.

~Southern Fried Scientist