A recent program on National Public Radio called into question claims made by the Marine Stewardship Council regarding their sustainability certification of certain fisheries. I think this topic deserves some analysis so we can gain an understanding of how to preserve our ocean resources. I will look at the challenges of defining sustainability, pressures from economic factors that encourage wasteful fishing practices, and examples of managed fisheries that point the way to cooperative sustainability.
There has been a growing awareness of the idea of sustainability among seafood consumers. Our largest national retailers feature labels and certifications attesting to the sustainability of the fish they offer for sale. This growing trend is also followed by restaurants and fast food chains. As a conscientious shopper, the term “sustainable” suggests to me that fish are harvested in a way that can continue indefinitely, with no harm to the population, ecosystem or other sea life. However the true situation may be very different. It is important to ask what lies beneath the sustainable label on seafood. How is sustainability measured and by whom? The answers to these questions become very complex.
Striving Toward Sustainability
One of the largest programs to assess and certify seafood is the nonprofit Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). A fishery, which is a group of fishing vessels and processors who target a particular species, seeks certification from the MSC. After third party analysis, the MSC grants a five year certification during which the fish can be marketed as “MSC Certified Sustainable.” This certification usually stipulates conditions the fishery must meet to remain certified. Though a fishery has been certified, it has five years in which to meet the conditions for recertification.
This is why the controversy has arisen with MSC’s certification. From the perspective of the MSC, “sustainable” is less a description than a goal. Even questionable fisheries can, and have been, MSC certified as long as the fishery addresses shortcomings and works to achieve greater sustainability. The MSC argues that immediate certification allows the economic incentive and funding toward betterment. Products bearing the MSC label bring an immediate economic boost, creating funds for gathering scientific data, addressing problems, implementing solutions and striving toward sustainability. This incentive has been shown successful in several fisheries already to everyone’s benefit. Economic incentive is a strong motivation to encourage improvement, but many challenges must still be overcome.
When someone claims a fish is sustainably harvested, how do we know the claim is true? How can sustainability be measured? These are difficult questions, because if we simply measure harvests each year, we will see a wide fluctuation in numbers during different years. Fluctuations in fish populations are natural and cannot be used to measure long term sustainability.
Should we study the fish and then use our observations to make better predictions? Yes indeed, for this is exactly the way the scientific method works, but in such a complex system, the accuracy of our predictions is still limited. In most fisheries, we simply have not collected enough information to make any definitive claims. Current ocean science points to trends and harvest numbers that suggest anything but sustainability. We need to be prudently cautious about blanket statements regarding future fishery health until we have more understanding.
Fortunately, our scientific climate models are becoming much more accurate as we understand more about our oceans. Soon the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release its latest report which promises a thorough analysis of ocean conditions as they apply to fisheries. This in turn can provide the information we need to more accurately assess fisheries’ future health and adapt for sustainability. The next challenge, though, is to address political and economic factors that threaten ocean health.
Politics of Survival
Relying on rivers, lakes and oceans for food, human interaction with waterways has shaped the economics and politics of civilization. Much of the globe still relies on fishing for sustenance, and seafood harvest has historically been a primary driver of the economy.
In some regions, there are very few alternatives, so if fish stocks become too low, competition for the dwindling resources creates a vicious cycle of over fishing and collapse. A notable example of this was the collapse of the Atlantic Cod fisheries. Once abundant, Atlantic Cod were over fished to the point where the species could not recover, and by the time governments reacted it was too late and the fisheries ceased. This lesson reverberates strongly in other managed fisheries, where all parties now see the necessity of cooperating to preserve both the fish and the fishing industry. Though a dramatic loss, this collapse helped strengthen the interrelationship between the fishing industry, fisheries science, and government fisheries management.
Economics of Sustainability
The marketplace in the US is strongly driven by consumer demand. As a consumer, this is a great way to express your values. To buy a sustainable seafood product is to literally create more incentive towards good fishery management and sustainable harvest practices. Unfortunately, a disproportionate amount of consumer demand is price driven. People can be misled into buying something harmful by a low shelf price, without realizing they are encouraging destructive fishing.
Let us focus on Tuna, one variety of commonly available fish that exemplifies this issue. Two of the major US brands of canned tuna are owned by companies in Thailand and Korea where fishing regulations are lax. These Tuna fisheries’ practices are some of the most wasteful and destructive methods of fishing on the planet. Purse seine nets and high seas drift nets indiscriminately capture entire schools of tuna and the sharks and sea turtles that accompany them. Once entangled in the nets, most of the sea life is destined to perish. All the targeted fish are converted to product leaving no breeding stock to replenish the population.
The strong international demand for cheap Tuna means no thought to conservation and frequently a “look the other way” approach to high seas fishing violations. This allows fish caught illegally or unscrupulously to reach the international market and drive the market price for commodity tuna down. Even with the almost meaningless ‘dolphin-safe’ label, commodity tuna comes to market at the price of rampant wastefulness. Despite its low price tag, this tuna isn’t truly cheap. The costs are simply hidden from the consumer and passed to people in disadvantaged countries. There is also the long term cost of the wasteful destruction of ocean life. When fishing vessels are forced to compete for the scarce commodity dollar, they have little choice but to endanger both crews and the environment.
Is there a way beyond this seeming race to deplete fish? Yes: change the demand to create incentive. This is where the power of the consumer can make a big difference. Fortunately, there is a marketplace trend of consumers willing to pay more for quality. Many premium quality fish in today’s markets are caught by the “hook and line” method, where specific bait and fishing poles are used to selectively harvest targeted species. Because of the gentle treatment and attention to quality that these fish are given on the boats, they are worth more in markets and fetch higher prices at the docks. Boat captains trade quantity for quality and succeed by upgrading what they have to offer. Retailers listen to their customers’ demands for hook and line caught Tuna and buy more to stock their shelves. Fishing vessels that participate in MSC certified fisheries are a model to others looking for a sustainable business.
Think Globally, Thrive Locally
LifeSource recognizes the value inherent in a better quality product and we apply these principles to the seafood products we offer. Additionally, we strongly support Oregon fisheries because of their pioneering approach to sustainability. Besides the pristine ecosystem, Oregon fisheries exemplify a positive role model for other fisheries seeking MSC certification. Oregon has some of the best managed fisheries in the world, with a strong commitment to rigorous scientific management and cooperation between the fishing industry, trade councils and regulatory agencies.
Beyond MSC certified products, LifeSource uses guidelines established by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. Seafood Watch offers suggestions based upon MSC certification as well as a number of other science-based criteria for fisheries that are not yet certified. We adhere to the Seafood Watch recommendations and do not offer seafood from their avoid list.
A Cooperative Effort
Most of the world’s fisheries need significant study and improvement to be truly sustainable, but there has been a lot of progress towards this goal. Primarily driven by consumer demand at the marketplace, economic incentives toward sustainability are furthered by MSC certification. Fisheries today have growing incentives to abandon harmful over fishing and instead choose certification and sustainable practices. You can support seafood sustainability with the purchasing choices you make.
Fishing vessel photo by: mikebaird