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The Greenwashing of Sustainable Seafood

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March 21, 2012

The Greenwashing of Sustainable Seafood

The environmental community rejects the sustainable certification of Nova Scotia longline caught swordfish

by Palmira Boutilier

Hector the Blue Shark, mascot for the Ecology Action Centre's campaign against bycatch, is raising awareness on the plight of his species and other bycatch species outside the MSC headquarters in London, England. Photo: Ecology Action Centre

HALIFAX—Sustainable seafood certification announces to consumers that the fish they are buying is caught using ecologically sound practices that ensure the conservation of the species of sea life in question. But not everyone feels the not-for-profit organization charged with certification process is doing its job in ensuring the sustainability of fisheries.

The not-for-profit Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) runs the world's main seafood certification program with a corporate vision of “the world's oceans teeming with life, and seafood supplies safeguarded for this and future generations.” Various environmental NGOs, such as the David Suzuki foundation, the Sea Turtle Conservancy and Nova Scotia's Ecology Action Centre (EAC) have been sounding the alarm against MSC's certification of one fishery in particular: the Atlantic Canadian pelagic longline fishery for swordfish, which has been regulated through the MSC process since 2009.

“Personally I am very frustrated by the thought of consumers being misled by eco-labels or not being able to trust sustainability certifications,” says Jordan Nikoloyuk, Sustainable Fisheries Co-ordinator at the EAC. “The [longline swordfish] fishery kills two sharks as bycatch for every one swordfish they bring in ... That fact alone should mean that people shouldn't spend more for it at the stores.”

Pelagic longline fishing is a large-scale industrial approach to fishing. Pelagic longlines have upwards of 1,500 individual baited hooks coming off a central line up to 60 kilometres long. The technology is non-selective, meaning that anything that bites a hook will get caught. There are around 20,000 swordfish caught annually in the Atlantic Canadian longline fishery. But the catch of other, incidental, or “non-target” species is much higher.

The EAC and the other NGOs, as official stakeholders in the certification process, recently filed a formal objection against the recommendation that this swordfish fishery receive its MSC certification. “Our objection was very wide-ranging. It was about bad data, monitoring the fishery and very high levels of bycatch,” says Nikoloyuk.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) estimates that 100,000 sharks and 1,400 sea turtles are caught annually in the fishery. Most sharks and turtles are released alive but approximately 35,000 sharks and 200 to 500 turtles die annually. “Blue sharks are the ones they catch most of ... Do we have to wait for those sharks to be endangered before you can stop catching so many of them?” asks Nikoloyuk.

It is important to note that while the MSC bestows certification and the use of its blue eco-label—an image of a fish combined with a check mark of approval—on fisheries that pass its international sustainable fisheries standard, it does not conduct the certifications. Jay Lugar, MSC Fisheries Outreach Manager for the Americas, says, “The MSC role in our process is to make sure that individual assessments are technically correct. In other words, we review documents that are posted on our website ... for technical correctness, but we don't evaluate the content and the analysis. We don't undertake the scientific analysis, the scientific team does.”

Third party certification firms are hired to conduct fishery assessments for upwards of $70,000, usually paid for by the fishery association benefiting directly from the certification. They are re-assessed every five years.

Fisheries paying for their own assessments can create a catch-22, whereby if the certification company applies the standard stringently and fails fisheries often, they will not be the assessment company of choice by other fisheries wishing to gain certification.

“I am increasingly unconvinced by the third party accreditation model," says Brendan May, CEO of the MSC from 1999 to 2004. "At the end of the day it is the MSC’s brand. There are also big questions about the model in which fisheries pay for their own audits and choose their own auditors. This is a common problem with all major certification systems.”

Intertek Moody Marine, a worldwide technical services firm with its head office in England, is the largest certifier of MSC fisheries worldwide. Moody Marine was hired by the Nova Scotia Swordfisherman’s Association, the organization that represents the pelagic longline fleet in Atlantic Canada, to assess their fishery. Moody Marine then hired a team of experts who found that the fishery passed the MSC standard for a sustainable fishery.

The EAC, on the periphery of this process, provided advice and information and highlighted relevant issues for the Moody Marine experts throughout the assessment. Left unsatisfied by the decision to certify the fishery, the EAC and other environmental groups made an official objection to the MSC directly. This was dealt with by MSC appointed adjudicator, Wylie Spicer.

According to Spicer's decision, he did not see it as his role to give the evidence and conclusions reached by Moody Marine a thorough second look. Rather, he deferred to the authority of the Moody Marine's role as certifier and limited his task to determining whether the organization's decision was “so unreasonable that no certification body could have come to that conclusion.” This limited view of the adjudication meant that there was very little within the objection that Spicer would actually comment on.

“I was surprised that this fishery, with its evidently high bycatch, did not meet the criteria for an objection,” says May. “I established the objections procedure around ten years ago ... It was, and I assume still is, designed to give stakeholders a final opportunity to present their case against a proposed certification. To my knowledge, however, no objection has ever been upheld, which must lead to some asking why it exists at all.”

Nikoloyuk and the EAC are asking question of their own. “It makes us wonder why a group like ours would put all the effort into participating in this if we are not going to be able to affect the outcome at all,” says Nikoloyuk.

The EAC has been involved in other MSC assessments, such as the Atlantic Canadian harpoon swordfish fishery, which was certified in 2010. This fishery targets one swordfish at a time with a modern-day spear. This fishing method has no bycatch and only catches mature swordfish and the EAC fully supports its certification.

Nikoloyuk says “[The swordfish harpoon fishery is] a Nova Scotian fishery that is environmentally sustainable, could be marketed with very high value and be something we could be proud of. I think the [longline] certification diminishes that.”

The harpoon fishery only holds ten per cent of Canada's swordfish quota and the longline fishery holds 90 per cent.

The MSC doesn't see any problem with two fisheries of contrasting scales and impacts both being certified as sustainable under their standard. “All fisheries go through the same process and they have to meet the same criteria in order to become MSC-certified,” says Lugar.

Lugar says the MSC standard reflects global best practices, but Nikoloyuk says that Canada's longline swordfishery is far from a global best and advocates looking at what some other longline fisheries are doing that Canada is not.

“What the Hawaii longline fishery for tunas has done is set a hard cap on the number of endangered sea turtles that can get caught every year,” says Nikoloyuk. “So in Hawaii it is 18 loggerhead and 18 leatherback turtles. Combined with that, they have 100 per cent observer coverage, which is key because when the fishery as a whole goes over 18 it gets shut down for the season.”

Observers are independent fisheries technicians who collect data from on board fishing vessels about what is caught, how much is caught and where it is caught. Canada's observer coverage has fluctuated from five to eight per cent since 2004 and has no hard caps or legally binding limits for bycatch.

Despite the issues with the MSC process, Nikoloyuk says: “We would really like to see a strong viable Marine Stewardship Council labeling system. It's enormously valuable to have one really good, really dependable certification ... I don't think it helps anyone to have a Marine Stewardship Council that got watered down, got some bad fisheries in it and isn't reliable.”

The EAC, David Suzuki Foundation and Sea Turtle Conservancy are currently drafting a formal letter to Whole Foods Market, requesting that it not carry Canadian longline-caught swordfish. Whole Foods is the largest retailer of MSC-certified swordfish and the NGOs hope that the retailer will help communicate the issues with the fishery and the certification process back to the MSC.

It turns out, however, that Whole Foods has already taken longline caught sword-fish off the menu.

“Prior to Earth Day 2011, we eliminated all swordfish and tuna from red-ranked fisheries,” says Carrie Brownstein, Whole Foods’ Seafood Quality Standards Coordinator. Canadian longline-caught swordfish is ranked as red by both SeaChoice and Seafood Watch, two sustainable seafood guides also used by Whole Foods. As such, it would have been removed from the shelves and replaced by other sources of swordfish.

Brownstein says that this move helped to forge longer-term commitments between Whole Foods and smaller niche suppliers of swordfish such as the Nova Scotia harpoon fishermen.

When asked if Whole Foods will re-stock the shelves with Atlantic Canadian pelagic longline caught swordfish once it is MSC certified, Brownstein replied, “Our purchasing decisions depend upon a number of factors and—as with any product—we’ll evaluate all of the science out there before making a final decision on what to sell.”

Brownstein says that Whole Foods considers MSC certification to be the gold standard, so the worry is that once certified it will go back on the shelves even though nothing has changed and it is still ranked as red by these other seafood guides.

If Whole Foods decides to stock MSC-certified longline swordfish, the MSC will have opened the market door for the longline fishery to be branded as “sustainable.” This also stands to decrease the short-lived benefit to the truly sustainable harpoon swordfish fishery.

“I am still hopeful that one day the MSC will take ownership over its brand and remove it from [the pelagic longline] fishery's products,” says Nikoloyuk. “In the meantime we are asking retailers not to carry this product.”

Palmira Boutilier is a biologist and journalist living in Halifax, Nova Scotia

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