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Big Fish, Big Business

The Atlantic longline swordfish fishery may be certified as sustainable, despite excessive bycatch of endangered species

by Palmira Boutillier

Conservation groups say the Atlantic longline swordfishery is not sustainable, and should not be labelled as such.  Photo: Matt De Turck
Conservation groups say the Atlantic longline swordfishery is not sustainable, and should not be labelled as such. Photo: Matt De Turck

The Ecology Action Centre (EAC) and David Suzuki Foundation along with 33 other conservation groups oppose the sustainable eco-label that is being recommended for the Atlantic Canadian swordfish longline fishery.

They have sent a letter opposing the certification to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which sets standards and labels certified sustainable seafood, and to Moody Marine, the third party certifier of MSC fisheries.

The letter from the conservation groups, dated April 10th, states that “This will be the first surface longline fleet in the world to receive MSC certification. Globally, this gear type is associated with excessive mortality of sea turtles, sea birds and sharks in our oceans. Given that this Canadian fishery has exceptionally high bycatch of these species and does not have even the minimal international best practices in place, this precedent-setting certification is deeply concerning.”

In a press release from April 11th Shannon Arnold, the marine coordinator with the EAC, stated that “There is growing consumer awareness and demand for sustainable seafood, but when fisheries that clearly have an impact on vulnerable species are deemed sustainable, one wonders what these certifications actually mean.”

The issue lies with the gear. Pelagic longlines can consist of up to 1,500 baited hooks. The lines can stretch for 60 kilometres and float near the top of the water for hours before being hauled in. They catch much more than just swordfish. The letter states, “for a catch of approximately 20 000 swordfish each year, roughly 100 000 sharks are caught. Very few are kept, and an estimated 35 000 die.”

The fishery catches endangered, threatened and protected species (ETP), including endangered loggerhead and leatherback turtles, endangered porbeagle sharks, threatened short fin mako sharks. The main catch is blue sharks which are considered to be special concern. These conservation listings are from the Canadian government's “Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada” (COSEWIC).

The MSC principles and criteria for sustainable fishing states that “the fishery is conducted in a manner that does not threaten biological diversity at the genetic, species or population levels and avoids or minimises mortality of, or injuries to endangered, threatened or protected species.”

The conservation groups do not feel this criteria is being met. “Shark species are not assessed under MSC’s ETP criteria. Unfortunately, even for the endangered sea turtle species scored under the ETP criteria, the assessment falls short.”

Pelagic long lining was introduced in the 1960's. Prior to this, swordfish and tuna were caught primarily by hook and line and harpoon fisheries. Now, only 10% of Atlantic Canadian Swordfish quota is caught by harpoon. Harpoon fishing is more sustainable in that bycatch (catching species that you don't want) does not occur. In other words, they only catch swordfish and no sharks or turtles.

The Atlantic Canadian Harpoon Swordfishery was MSC certified as sustainable in June of 2010. Now, it's the longline fisheries' turn.

The MSC certification process, started in March of 2009 for the Atlantic Canadian swordfish longline fishery, is due to be completed by the end of May. If it gets certified, then both a small scale, no bycatch fishing method, and a large scale, high bycatch fishing method for the same species (Swordfish) will have the same sustainability certification.

Along with the expert letter (mentioned above) and the EAC's submissions (as a stakeholder in the process), 800 citizens have sent in letters expressing their concerns through the EAC's letter writing campaign at www.friendsofhector.org. The number of letters continues to grow.

Rupert Howes the MSC's chief executive states in a response letter to the campaign that “all assessments against the MSC's environmental standard for wild capture fisheries are conducted by independent, accredited certifiers who recruit a team of scientific experts with the relevant expertise and experience to review that particular fishery. In this case, the certifier is Moody Marine Limited, and the expert team - Mr Robert O'Boyle, Mr Jean-Jacques Maguire and Dr Michael Sissenwine - each have over 30 years' experience in fisheries science and management...The MSC remains impartial and neutral throughout the entire assessment process.”

The EAC's Friends of Hector (the blue shark) state “it is not enough for the MSC to remain “impartial and neutral throughout the entire assessment process” if it is clear that unsustainable fisheries are being certified. The MSC has a responsibility – to the consumers that look for its brand and the conservation organizations that support its mission – to ensure that its label is only used to identify truly sustainable seafood.”

So the MSC doesn't do the certification but they hold the eco-label and the standards. Their certification is the most common sustainable seafood certification worldwide. It involves fishing industries paying a lot of money, between $15 000 and $120 000, to be assessed against the standard. Moody Marine is the main certification company for MSC assessments.

The Ecology Action Centre and The David Suzuki Foundation are part of Sea Choice whose listing criteria are based on the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program. Their listings are done based on science and separate from any industry payment for assessment. They both list longline Swordfish from Canada in their avoid category.

The MSC website states that “income for the MSC is only generated through licensing when retailers, restaurants and seafood processors choose to use the MSC label on their products.”

One major retailer supporting MSC products is Walmart. They made a pledge in 2006 to have all seafood sold in its stores MSC certified by 2011. Since then, the MSC process has exploded from 21 fisheries certified in 2006 to 91 today.

In a video about the MSC from 2008, Peter Redmond the VP of Seafood and Deli for Walmart says that they sell approximately 20 million pounds of fresh fish a year. That is a lot of sustainable fish needed to supply the corporate giant.

MSC was formed in 1996 by the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever, one of the world's largest fish buyers when they made a commitment to source all of their seafood products from sustainable fisheries by 2005 . MSC became independent in 1999, but the initial push was to source sustainable fish for large corporations.

Certifying small community fisheries doesn't meet the kind of demand necessary for our industrial food system. Large corporate fisheries need to be certified to meet the demand. The fact that they are, perhaps, un-sustainable by the nature of their scale or fishing technology (in the case of pelagic longlining) is not a stance that is likely to make MSC certification work for Unilever or Walmart.

The industrial food system moves Atlantic Canadian fish to the Boston fish market and back before they reach your plate. As the MSC video states “seafood is the most traded primary commodity in the world!”

Those fisheries that can afford the certification can get a higher premium price for their sustainable product. Countries such as Canada, that have fisheries management bodies and practices in place, are able to get certified.

The Atlantic Swordfish population is relatively healthy. It is managed nationally through the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and internationally through ICCAT.

In 1998 a successful American conservation campaign, “Give Swordfish a Break,” was waged to help ailing swordfish stocks. It lead to stricter quotas and the protection of nursery areas for juvenile swordfish in the U.S. and stocks have been recovering since 2000. Swordfish, especially North American caught swordfish, are considered to be well managed compared to other fisheries. The amount of swordfish caught by the Canadian longline fishery complies with the rules and thus may be sustainable for that stock.

The EAC and others are not saying that overfishing of swordfish is occurring but that the bycatch levels are unacceptable. DFO recognizes the significant bycatch issues with this fishing gear.

A 2010 report by the World Fisheries Trust for DFO looking at the impacts of longline fisheries states: “Pelagic longlines also have particular issues with turtle and shark bycatch, in Canada limited to the east coast. Turtle bycatch has been reduced significantly in most areas with the introduction of appropriately sized circle hooks, also with improved survival of hooked turtles (together with appropriate training of users), although Carruthers et al. (2009) found no benefit to loggerhead turtles. The use of fish bait, rather than squid bait, also appears to make a significant difference. Shark bycatch remains a management issue, in many jurisdictions complicated by the high value of shark finning.”

There are 8 conditions placed on the Atlantic Canadian swordfish longline fishery's MSC certification and three pertain to endangered, threatened, protected species. The EAC's assessment briefing states “the conditions do nothing to change the existing problems that we have identified in the fishery.”

The letter from the EAC, David Suzuki Foundation and 33 other conservation groups states “It is our firm and informed view that this fishery fails to meet the MSC sustainability standard. We ask that the Marine Stewardship Council and the certifying company, Moody Marine Ltd., either correct the above shortcomings or withdraw their recommendation to certify this fishery.”


Listen to the audio documentary “Shark Love” to take a closer look at our perceptions toward sharks.


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