MSC certifies North Sea cod, signaling fishery's recovery

Published on
July 19, 2017

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) announced its certification of cod caught by Scottish and English boats in the North Sea on Tuesday, 18 July, saying shoppers and diners “can finally buy the popular fish with a clear conscience.”

Cod stocks in the North Sea cratered around 10 years ago, with the annual catch dropping from historical highs around 270,000 metric tons (MT) in the 1970s to 44,000 MT in 2006. However, MSC said in its announcement that the fishery was brought back from the brink of collapse with the creation and implementation of a recovery plan formed between industry and the Scottish and E.U. governments.

“This is a huge accomplishment and the perfect example of what the MSC aims to achieve,” MSC Nort East Program Director Toby Middleton said in the release. “Thanks to a collaborative, cross-industry effort, one of our most iconic fish has been brought back from the brink. Modified fishing gear, catch controls, well-managed fishing practices – all these steps have come together to revive a species that was in severe decline.”

The “Cod Recovery Plan” closed spawning areas to fishing and introduced a system of fishing limits, with the goal of decreasing cod catches by 25 percent in 2009 and 10 percent every year thereafter, according to MSC. It also encouraged the development of better nets and the introduction of remote electronic monitoring using CCTV cameras onboard fishing boats. As a result, cod populations in the North Sea have risen fourfold since 2006.

A coalition of stakeholders in the fishery, led by Scottish Fisheries Sustainable Accreditation Group, pushed for the MSC accreditation, and the independent review began around 18 months ago. The certification means that North Sea cod caught by the 228 English And Scottish boats in the fishery can now be marketed with the MSC ”blue tick” label.

For fish-lovers in the United Kingdom, the result of the MSC accreditation is more access to a local supply of sustainably harvested cod, the U.K.’s most popular fish. National consumption of cod in the U.K. approached 70,000 MT in 2016. However, the MSC said in its announcement that its research showed many consumers in the U.K. are still unsure as to whether cod is a sustainable option.

“[This] certification marks the end of the cod confusion. If you can see the MSC label on your cod, you know that it has come from a sustainable source,” Middleton said. “By only choosing MSC certified sustainable North Sea cod, we can all help to protect this much-loved fish and ensure it’s never at risk again.”

Nigel Edwards, the technical and CSR director of Icelandic Seachill, a U.K.-based fish processor and retailer, said his company is “delighted” with the result, calling the North Sea cod “iconic and delicious.”

"Seachill are proud to have supported the assessment. I have personally worked collaboratively from the 90’s onwards with the MSC, retailers like Tesco, fish processors, and most importantly the fishermen and scientists,” he said. “Our shared vision of a sustainable North Sea has arrived.  North Sea cod now sits alongside the other sustainable MSC cod fisheries in Iceland and the Barents Sea that means we can be truly confident in the future of cod."

Even with the MSC certification, the North Sea cod still faces competition in U.K. markets with MSC-certified cod caught elsewhere in Europe. Currently, about 90 percent of cod consumed in the U.K. is imported, both from Iceland and from Norwegian and Russian boats fishing in the Barents Sea. 

The North Sea cod fishery also faces other hurdles. The MSC certification is good for five years, and is contingent upon annual checks and successful adaptation to new European Union rules banning the discarding of bycatch. It also must successfully navigate the changes in fisheries management processes likely to occur after the U.K. leaves the E.U.

In addition, the WWF and other nonprofit groups have questioned whether North Sea cod populations have reached sustainable levels.

“The amount of North Sea cod at breeding age is well below late 1960s levels and recovery remains fragile,” WWF’s head of U.K. marine policy Lyndsey Dodds told the Guardian. “If we’re to get North Sea cod back on British plates for good, it’s vital that we don’t lose focus on sustainably managing fish stocks and protecting the marine wildlife as the UK develops its post-Brexit fisheries policy.”

Another sustainability scheme, operated by the Marine Conservation Society, currently rates North Sea cod as not sustainable, but this rating is under review and could be changed soon, according to the Guardian. 

However, Mike Park, chairman of the Scottish Fisheries Sustainable Accreditation Group, said the MSC certification of the fishery is cause for celebration and a sign that the fishery is on the mend. 

“This is a massive development for the catching sector and is a testament to the power of collective action. The years of commitment to rebuilding North Sea cod has shown that fishermen are responsible and can be trusted to deliver stable and sustainable stocks,” Park said. “The consumer can now eat home-caught cod with a clear conscience.”

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