Monday, August 3, 2009

MSC Certification - is it reliable? Part I

Like many involved in marine issues, I worry about the serious problems facing the world's dwindling fish stocks. Eating orange roughy or bluefin tuna would be akin to eating panda for me. But there are many fish species for which the case isn't so clear cut. So I personally use and recommend to others seafood guides such as those from the Blue Ocean Institute and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Both include information about the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), an organization that certifies fisheries as sustainable and well-managed. However, our organization and others have become increasingly concerned with gaps in the MSC's assessment methodology.

While the situation of many fisheries is so dire that many would say that some standards are better than none, the high public visibility of the MSC's label is worrying. Consumers may be misled by the label into purchasing fish that is not truly from a well-managed fishery. This might push a stock closer to collapse, increase environmental damage, or strain ecosystems. Not to mention it means that people may inadvertently support companies whose practices they strongly oppose.

For example, would you consider a fishery that has partially collapsed, and hasn't recovered even though commercial fishing hasn't taken place there for five years sustainable? Probably not. That's the case for the scallop fishery in New Zealand's Tasman Bay, which has passed the MSC's initial pre-assessment process and is now in full assessment and thus on the road to full certification. Greenpeace New Zealand, in a letter to the MSC, strongly criticized this development and the MSC methodology that allow the scallop and similar fisheries in NZ to be considered for certification at all. You can read their letter here. Although they are concerned with several New Zealand fisheries that are currently being assessed for MSC certification, their methodology is the same for all fisheries, including Antarctic toothfish and krill, which are also currently under assessment. Some key Greenpeace NZ criticisms of the MSC methodology are:

-"There is currently no initial step in the MSC assessment and certification process in
which consideration is given to whether there should be fishing of the species being
assessed in the given area, or indeed whether there should be fishing for any
species in the given area...Certification should not be considered for fisheries operating in areas that are under application or warrant marine protection such as marine reserve designation, or else the certification will have negative consequences for achieving that protection."

-"The definition of a destructive fishery is woefully inadequate. Only fishing with poisons or explosives is currently included in this definition. This should be extended to include driftnet fishing (which has an extremely high rate of bycatch of marine life including whales, dolphins, turtles and non-target fish species) and bottom trawling and dredging (which lay waste to seabed communities, including vulnerable and long-lived seamount ecosystems in the case of bottom trawling). These fishing methods do not meet sound sustainability criteria due to their impacts on marine life, ecosystems and habitats. "

-"There is no recognition given in the MSC Fisheries Assessment Methodology to the increasing environmental variability caused by CO2 emissions; ocean acidification and climate change. This should be included as an over-arching element of the certification requiring that management plans for the target species, retained and bycatch species and endangered, threatened and protected (ETP) species account for potential additional variability in populations due to acidification and climate change-related impacts.
This need for increased precaution is particularly relevant for fisheries conducted at environmental extremes or species range limits likely to be impacted by any shift in environmental conditions. This includes, for example, polar fisheries (where ocean acidification is felt first) and tropical fisheries (where sea temperature change is impacting ecosystems such as coral reefs and their associated communities). It is also particularly relevant for fisheries on species with calcium carbonate structures, such as shellfish, that may be impacted by ocean acidification."

Receiving MSC certification should be a reward for fisheries that have taken extraordinary measures to ensure that they are fishing sustainably on multiple levels. The primary concern should be the marine environment, not making sure that companies that jump through a few hoops get to tout themselves as environmentally-friendly. Particularly in the case of marine reserves and proposed marine reserves, the MSC should hold off on certifications for fisheries in areas under consideration for marine reserves - like Antarctica's Ross Sea. The establishment of fisheries (and concomitant commercial interests) in a region can only complicate the designation of reserves and protected areas. A recent news story reports that no-take zones (which reserves often are) have been proven to help depleted stocks recover. Thus if the MSC's interest truly lies with fish and not fishers, they should proceed with caution in certifying fisheries in areas actively being considered for marine reserves, or that have been identified as excellent candidates for designation.

In another post, I'll address Greenpeace's other concerns and some additional criticisms of the MSC from other NGOs.

1 comment:

BackwoodsGuy said...

There are certainly problems with some MSC certifications. For example the fishery on the two South African hake stocks is certified, even though the offshore stock was recently assessed to have a biomass less than 10% of the unexploited biomass, i.e. technically "collapsed". Even so, maybe the pros outweigh the cons? (See