If we want healthy seas, we have to track them

Sensemaking / If we want healthy seas, we have to track them

Consumers are getting more familiar with the Marine Stewardship Council's blue tick for sustainably sourced fish. But are stocks and marine environments actually getting any healthier?

By Roger East / 14 Aug 2012

Consumers are getting more familiar with the Marine Stewardship Council's blue tick for sustainably sourced fish. But are stocks and marine environments actually getting any healthier?

In a world where far too many fish have had their chips, Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification can reassure you that what's on the menu was sustainably sourced. But can you be sure that the MSC is getting it right? Are fish stocks getting any healthier through their work with fisheries?

The MSC was itself keen to have an answer to this, and so it commissioned three marine science consultancies to do a wide-ranging audit of the impact of its certification programme on the environment.

Happily, the study the consultancies produced, 'Researching the Environmental Impacts of the MSC Certification Programme', reached some broadly positive conclusions. Both newcomers to the programme and those pioneering fisheries with certification already in place were making progressive environmental improvements, the consultants found. Progress was more marked when the MSC had attached clear conditions to granting (or maintaining) certified status. Fisheries that were already doing OK had less apparent incentive to raise their game.

The report found improvements in target stock status and in the ecosystem in which the fishery operated reduced impacts on habitat. It also found that, very often, low assessment scores reveal uncertainty about the fisheries' impacts, rather than certainty the impacts are low. "We realise that fisheries are complex systems, and quantitative data isn't the 'be all and end all'", says David Agnew, the MSC's Director of Standards. "We have found that many improvements that eventually lead to changes in the impact that fisheries have on their environment start with improved collaboration between fishers, governments and stakeholders, new research and improved management practices."

The report is based on eight of the MSC environmental indicators, and addresses two questions. One relates to the population and management of specific fish stock, whether it's South African hake or Gulf of Alaska pollock. This is where the greatest improvements can be seen, partly because this is the most closely monitored indicator, and information is readily available.

The second question is whether the fisheries are safeguarding habitats, ecosystems and endangered, threatened or protected species. Reducing by-catch is a priority – good news for Chinook salmon in the Gulf of Alaska pollock fishery, and for birds sharing the sea with South African hake or Patagonian toothfish. Another success story in the toothfish fishery is the elimination of hooks discarded in the water. Sometimes, monitoring required to meet the MSC standard throws up previously unknown problems – such as the number of albatrosses being killed in collisions with hake trawlers in South Africa. Measures to reduce this mortality have been very successful.

But for Agnew, the real value in conducting such a report is not to reveal amazing improvements being achieved in every fishery, nor to give a conclusive statement about MSC performance. Rather, he wants to see it used as part of an ongoing process of increasing good practice in fisheries across the globe. This raises some tensions in the MSC's approach, he concedes. Not least, for some critics, there's the need to continually press the fisheries that join the programme to do more and better. The fisheries themselves may resist continual change, and so holding them to the existing standard is easier. They are currently re-scored on their performance every five years, and monitored annually, facing suspension if they fail to maintain their standard. Agnew cites the recent suspension of the Portuguese sardine fishery's certification, when an annual surveillance audit confirmed that stocks were falling fast, as an example of rapid and effective action.

Even more important, for Agnew, is encouraging other marine researchers to look long and hard at what's being done by the MSC and other fishery management organisations around the world. A first step would be to open up full access to the MSC's database. It's a vital resource, he argues, and critical inspection of it is going to be the best guide to more effective action. – Roger East

The Marine Stewardship Council is a Forum for the Future partner.

Photo: Stockbyte/thinkstock

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