Thursday, September 10, 2009

New Zealand hoki and the MSC

The New York Times has a great story out today describing the fight over the management of New Zealand's hoki stocks. The New Zealand government has been cutting the allowable catch of hoki by substantial amounts, which indicates that overfishing has harmed the stock, but hasn't formally admitted that there are problems. Complicating the issue is the Marine Stewardship Council's stamp of approval on New Zealand hoki, a fishery which uses bottom trawling, which makes it more popular with buyers. In a subtle way, the MSC label also makes it more difficult for environmentalists to raise objections, as its presence makes it seem as if those protesting are being too picky or hyperbolic. But there's nothing hyperbolic about opposing bottom trawling, a practice on which the UN considered imposing a worldwide moratorium. The moratorium failed because of political pressure - over a thousand scientists have signed a petition opposing bottom trawling as a fishing practice - not because there is any real debate over whether bottom trawling is ok for the environment. Imagine if logging were conducted by uprooting trees with a bulldozer while shooting all the local wildlife, churning up all the surrounding soil and destroying all other vegetation in the process. Would anyone tolerate that? Because that's what bottom trawling essentially does. It dredges up all the life on the ocean floor - sponges, corals, etc. - while catching huge numbers of fish, both the target species and non-target species. Most of the (dead) bycatch is discarded. The sediments stirred up by the nets dragged along the ocean floor can generate algal blooms. Some of the sediments contain pollutants which are then reintroduced into the water column. The hoki fishery kills seabirds and seals as well. Add to all this the fact that the high catch limits set by the New Zealand government seem to have caused drastic population declines and it's difficult to see what's sustainable about hoki.

ASOC is interested in the hoki fishery because of our concerns over Southern Ocean fisheries for krill and toothfish that the MSC is assessing for certification. The MSC standards, which allow clearly problematic fisheries to receive their blue seal of approval, are inadequate and should be revised to ensure that only truly sustainable, well-managed fisheries receive certification. Instead of looking for the blue MSC label, check out seafood guides from groups such as the Blue Ocean Institute, Food and Water Watch, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Some of these groups note MSC certifications, but in general they evaluate fisheries on other criteria as well, so their recommendations carry more weight. Some MSC-certified fisheries are well-managed, but their seal alone is not sufficient.

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