50 NGOs critique MSC over bycatch

A group of 50 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has sent a letter to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) expressing their concerns about its certification of fisheries with high levels of bycatch.

The letter was authored by Kate O’Connell of the Animal Welfare Institute and Friederike Kreme-Obrock of Sharkproject Germany and signed by the heads of 50 nonprofits dedicated to environmental conservation, including dozens of groups dedicated to the protection and preservation of sharks, whales and dolphins.

“Many of our organizations have commented on fishery assessments under the MSC process, and over the years we have noted an apparent, and deeply worrying, lack of concern regarding the potential impacts on these species, as well as certain target species,” the letter said. “It is our view that many of the fisheries that have been assessed via the MSC certification process have not been subject to an adequate review of information available on bycatch of non-target species.”

The letter accuses the MSC of being subjective in interpreting evidence and in estimating the effects of a fishery’s impact on non-targeted species. It cites the absence of in-depth stock assessments for some species of bycatch as a problem under MSC Principle 2, which aims to maintain population levels of all species affected by a fishery at biological based limits.

“It is a scientific principle that an absence of evidence should not be taken as evidence of an absence of impacts. This is an essential part of the precautionary approach to fisheries management,” the letter said. “However, even when the CABs involved in the certification process acknowledge this lack of data…fisheries have still been recommended to receive the MSC stamp of approval.”

The NGOs offer six examples of certified fisheries or fisheries recommended for certification that have bycatch levels either worrisome or unacceptable to them, though they said there are many others for which they have concern. According to the letter, those are:

  • The Atlantic Canadian swordfish longline fishery: High levels of bycatch of endangered, vulnerable and near-threatened sharks, as well as endangered sea turtles. “Despite the knowledge that this fishery has a very high bycatch to target catch ratio, and that the quantity of bycaught species can even exceed that of the target species, MSC granted certification,” the letter said.
  • The Antarctic krill fisheries: The NGOs claim that no annual or updated stock assessment exists for Antarctic krill, and that concerns about data deficiency and ecosystem changes due to the effects of climate change were ignored through the successful certification applications of Aker Biomarine and Rimfrost in 2009 and 2015, respectively.
  • The New Zealand orange roughy deep-sea bottom trawl fishery: This fishery was certified by MSC in December 2016 despite concerns raised by NGOs as to “the unsustainability of orange roughy fish stocks, and the fact that there had been known under-reporting and dumping of fish species, including misreporting of orange roughy landing data,” according to the letter.
  • The Gulf of Maine lobster fishery: “The CAB for this fishery has recommended certification despite the fact this fishery potentially impacts several species of cetaceans listed by the United States as endangered,” the letter said. Of particular concern is entanglement of the North Atlantic right whale, a species with an estimated population of 450 individuals. “A single mortality of a right whale is above what could be considered a biologically safe removal level,” the letter concluded.
  • The Spanish North and South Atlantic swordfish fishery: This fishery primarily targets blue, mako, hammerheads, porbeagle and thresher sharks. The CAB acknowledged in its assessment that “the possibility of the stock being overfished and overfishing occurring could not be ruled out,” according to the letter.
  • The Northeastern Pacific Ocean purse seine yellowfin and skipjack tuna fishery: “The CAB for this fishery has indicated its support for MSC certification, despite the fact it involves the deliberate setting of nets on dolphins,” the letter said. Tuna management bodies, including the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission and Western and Central Pacific Tuna Commission, have passed resolutions stating that the deliberate setting of nets on dolphins should not take place, the letter noted.

The 50 NGO signatories of the letter are asking the MSC not to certify those fisheries with concerning levels of bycatch of that are still pending certification, and for reassessment of the certifications of fisheries with practices they deem questionable. The consortium is also asking for MSC to clarify its standards “so that it is not possible that unsustainable fisheries are certified.”

“We believe that by certifying fisheries without considering their wider environmental impact and conduct, MSC undermines public confidence in its certification program, and as a reliable environmental certification standard,” the letter concludes. “As consumers look to the MSC ‘brand’ to help them make informed seafood purchasing decisions, our organizations believe that they should be made aware of the fact that an MSC certification does not indicate the absence of shark and cetacean bycatch.”


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