Upgrade in Seafood Watch recommendation for Sri Lankan crab a milestone for fishery improvement project

Published on
January 15, 2019

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch's released new precommendations for several species on Monday, 14 January, and an upgrade in the rating of two Sri Lankan crab fisheries are cause for celebration for the National Fisheries Institute’s Crab Council, local producer Taprobane Seafoods, and the fishery improvement projects that have worked to improve the sustainability of the regional crab fishing sector.

The blue swimming crab fisheries in the Gulf of Mannar and in Palk Bay both were moved from a red “Avoid” ranking to a yellow “Good Alternative” rating, five years after parallel fishery improvement projects (FIPs) were created to push the fisheries to implement more sustainable practices. Now, the two FIPs have become the first out of the 14 in Asia to advance a blue swimming crab fishery from red to yellow under Seafood Watch's paradigm, even as many of the other FIPs have been operational for longer periods of time. 

“It really is a huge achievement,” Steve Creech, the founder of the sustainable fisheries consultancy Pelagikos Ltd. and the coordinator of both FIPs, told SeafoodSource. “When we started out back in 2013, there wasn't a single scientific paper or report published on blue swimming crab in Sri Lanka, never mind about the fisheries. Now there's a considerable body of research and reports. It has been long journey, but we have finally gotten there and done something that no one else has done for a small-scale blue swimming crab fishery in South and Southeast Asia.”

The data collection has been an enormous effort, Creech said, but has resulted in 10 individual studies and four annual stock assessment reports.

“The body of data and information gathered by the members of the FIP about the fisheries over the last five years means that the fisheries are no longer 'data deficient.' The new data and information about the fisheries was critical to generating the improved scores for the fisheries for stock status, non-target species, management, and environmental impact,” Creech said. “Data generated through the FIP has demonstrated that crab stocks are generally healthy (i.e. at or above a level equivalent to the maximum sustainably yield) in both fisheries. Furthermore, the status of the stocks has remained at or above a level equivalent to a sustainably managed fishery in each of the past four years.”

The FIPs are backed by National Fisheries Institute’s Crab Council, Taprobane Seafood Group through the Seafood Exporters' Association of Sri Lanka, and the United Nations’ International Labour Organization, the International Organization for Migration, the Asia Foundation, and Santa Monica Seafood through FishWise. The FIP represents a USD 450,000 (EUR 392,000) direct investment over the past five years, plus about half that amount in in-kind investments, according to Creech.

“The National Fisheries Institute’s Crab Council congratulates the Seafood Exporters’ Association of Sri Lanka (SEASL) on its latest fishery improvement project milestone; earning the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Good Alternative rating,” NFI Crab Council Executive Director Ed Rhodes said in a press release. “The NFI Crab Council has been proud to support SEASL’s Blue Swimming Crab sustainability work since 2013. The dedicated FIP managers on the ground in Sri Lanka and our committed companies have worked tirelessly to improve the ecological status of the stock, advance its management and improve the economic equity of the fishery. The history of crab FIP work, ongoing, in Sri Lanka, and this latest achievement illustrate the power of successful precompetitive collaborations and deserve our sincere applause.”

While not a formal certification, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program offers influential recommendations for consumers and businesses based off the degrees of consideration a given seafood source puts into ocean health. Its new recommendations for amberjack, carp, crab, smelt, and trout and updated recommendations for crab and lobster fisheries were released at the same time the Global Seafood Market Conference is taking place in San Diego, California, U.S.A.

Jennifer Kemmerly, director of global fisheries and aquaculture at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, congratulated those involved with the FIPs on the progress.

“Engagement with the Sri Lankan government has been critical to advancing fishery improvements in the region,” Kemmerly said. “Their efforts have culminated in a more sustainable fishery and now a new relationship with SeaChange Ignite. This relationship, and the resulting market connections, can help incentivize fisheries improvements in other regions.”

Creech said local support has been key to making real improvements in the fisheries. Sri Lanka’s Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources are have introduced a new code of conduct and other fishing regulations, as well as a new export schedule. And the fishermen of the 70 or so fishing communities along the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar, off the northern and northwestern coast of Sri Lanka, despite being spread across two provinces encompassing four religions and two languages, are “strongly committed to sustainably managing the blue swimming crab resources in both the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Bay fisheries,” Creech said.

Creech said the “Good Alternative” rating is not an end-point for the FIPs, but rather just a waypoint to reaching even higher levels of sustainability. In November 2018, the two fisheries were submitted for pre-assessment against the Marine Stewardship Council’s fishery standard, and the FIPs are both targeting the green, “Best Choice” rating from Seafood Watch. In order to achieve that, more work is needed to better understand the impact of the fisheries on endangered or threatened non-target species, and more time is necessary to know for sure if the newly implemented management measures will be effective.

“To drive this process on, we want [a] green [rating],” Creech said. “We're confident that the NFI Crab Council will continue to meet the cost of funding the FIP over the next and of bringing in more direct funding from the seafood industry in Sri Lanka. Taprobane Seafood Group has already commitment to set up an accruement from the sales of its soon-to-be-launched own label, Taprobane Crab Meat. We're confident we can get other crab exporting companies to also commit to financing further improvements to the fisheries, that will take the fisheries from Good Alternative to Best Choice within three years.”

Taprobane Seafoods CEO Tim O'Reilly said the new Seafood Watch rating will have a significant impact on his business.

"It means we will be able to access new markets, which will enable our fisherman too get better prices. It will also stabilize our supply chain,  which will enable our workers to earn more income," he told SeafoodSource.

Taprobane is working to implement an acrument scheme to ensure that any premium paid for the company's crab products will return to the communties involved in the fisheries, O'Reilly said.

Photo courtesy of Steve Creech

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