OPAGAC continues debate with MSC on FADs for tuna fishing

Published on
October 31, 2016

SeafoodSource has been curating an ongoing discussion between the Producers’ Association of Large Tuna Freezers (OPAGAC), the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and SeafoodSource regarding the certification of fisheries that use fish aggregating devices (FADs). 

On 14 September, SeafoodSource published an article reviewing a scientific paper written by OPAGAC, calling into question MSC policies on FADs used in several of its certified tuna fisheries.

MSC responded with a letter to SeafoodSource addressing the reasons behind its policies and added additional responses after SeafoodSource contacted the organization with follow-up questions regarding issues not explicitly discussed by the organization in its letter.

Continuing the discussion, OPAGAC has sent the following letter to SeafoodSource, further questioning MSC's policies on FADs:

According to the Cambridge dictionary (dictionary.cambridge.org), "comprehensive" is defined as “complete and including everything that is necessary.”

The main message of our publication To FAD or not to FAD in Marine Policy (2016, 73:100–107) is precisely to point out that the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) certification of industrial tuna purse seine fisheries is anything but comprehensive, as it is selecting components of the fishery that can be certified (free school) according to arbitrary and imprecise criteria (e.g distance), but excludes a significant portion of the fishery (associated schools) because this part cannot achieve certification at this time. When associated catches of a fleet account for a significant part of the total, then a certification like this cannot claim to be “comprehensive” and assess the “impacts of a particular fishery and the environment,” as MSC claims, because it does not include all the relevant components of the fishery. If the fishery were being assessed in a “comprehensive” manner as MSC states, then it should be assessed holistically: free, FAD-associated, and other types of tuna schools present in the fishery.

MSC states that “the WCPFC [Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission] provides a clear definition for FAD associated catch” but that is not the case as the “definition” presented by MSC’s is in relation to a very specific Conservation and Management Measure (2009-02). This in no way constitutes a valid definition as it is not supported by any scientific evidence. Furthermore, regardless of what a Regional Fishery Management Organisation (RFMO) says, any statement must be supported by science. In this case, MSC has been remiss in this matter.

If an RFMO, or any other management body, uses data that are inaccurate, false or not supported by scientific evidence, then surely MSC and its Conformity Assessment Body (CABs) should use the best scientific data available, and in cases where such data are not available, apply the precautionary principle. The MSC itself states that the precautionary approach should be applied throughout assessments against their standard as defined in the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement (1995). According to this definition the precautionary approach shall be interpreted to mean “being cautious when information is uncertain, unreliable or inadequate and that the absence of adequate scientific information shall not be used as a reason for postponing or failing to take conservation and management measures." MSC further states on its website that “in the MSC standard the application of the precautionary approach in fisheries management systems is explicitly scored in PIs 3.1.3 and 3.2.2. However, the MSC also intends the precautionary approach to be applied implicitly throughout the Certification Requirements.”

For MSC to claim that using a different definition to what the RFMO defines as what constitutes a FAD or “unassociated” fishing operation would be “at odds with the current management practices, would cause duplication of effort, confusion and ultimately potential for inaccurate reporting” is passive and ignores the CABs responsibility to apply the precautionary approach. MSC basically argues that the onus of defining what is acceptable in terms of sustainable practices can be shifted onto other organizations, and that it does not have to be too critical on what it accepts in case it creates operational issues. The precautionary approach is the basis of the MSC certification yet it seems to be possible to ignore this when it is not convenient, when data are not available to support its claims, or when data exists but are ignored.

It is very important to understand that with the distance of 1 nautical mile (nm) currently used by MSC, it is possible to fish on a FAD-associated school and classify the catch as FAD-free or unassociated, as long as the fishing vessel is further than 1 nm from a FAD. All the scientific studies we referred to in our paper show that the distance of association of a tuna school to a FAD is on average 5 nm. What MSC has chosen to ignore is that a vessel can fish at a distance of 1.1 nm from a FAD, and that the tuna in that particular catch will still be associated with the FAD, yet it can be labelled as FAD-free tuna as long as the FAD is not encircled by the net. It is this issue which will mislead consumers when aiming to shop responsibly.

MSC further states that “therefore it’s not the definition [of free and associated] which is important, but whether or not that particular fishing operation is sustainable.” We cannot understand MSC’s approach as the basis for a robust Chain of Custody (CoC) certification relies on the initial description of what constitutes a sustainable catch, as well as how the components that go through assessment can be identified, i.e. their definition. If this definition is based on inaccuracies or wrong assumptions, then clearly the rest of the CoC and the certification are constructed from false information.

Also, in our publication, we clearly stated that FADs have impacts on the environment and stocks, many of them not well understood, and that we propose to comprehensively (in the true sense of the word) address them. This, however, is difficult when some fleets are certified for made-up subcomponents of the fishery where they are not forced to address the issues surrounding the use of FADs. The fishery must be assessed, in its totality (i.e. comprehensively) and not just on selected parts that do not take into consideration the consequences of the use of the other practices of the same fishery.

As part of the stakeholder input phase during the current recertification of the PNA fishery, OPAGAC emphasized the lack of science behind the certification of free schools with the CAB Acoura Marine. Acoura indicated that it was not its job to produce the science. We fully agree with this but it is clear that it is its responsibility to critically assess and determine the validity of the science used, however. This is obviously something that was not addressed properly when the fishery was originally certified in 2011 as there are no data supporting the choice of 1 nm. We do, however, expect this issue to be fully addressed by MSC and the responsible CAB during the recertification of the fishery.

MSC states that “the MSC program aims to incentivize change in the way our oceans are fished by rewarding and recognizing the development of sustainable fishing techniques." In this instance, however, there is no evidence to support this as fleets certified by MSC for over five years are still catching substantial amounts of bigeye tuna, a species that is and has been overfished for as long as the MSC certification has been in place. Indeed, MSC certification has had the opposite effect, as the contribution of FAD-associated effort from those fleets has increased over the time of certification of the fishery. The text reproduced below was obtained from a document for the 12th Session of WCPFC Scientific Committee (3-11 August 2016, Bali, Indonesia) :

The rate of increase in free-school sets per day over this period has been greater than FAD sets. However, examining the average set/day over the period 2014-2015 relative to that over the period 2012-2013, inside PNA waters free school set rates have remained constant while FAD sets increased by 3 percent (2 percent combined). Outside PNA waters free school setting rates increased by 8 percent, while FAD sets increased by 5 percent (8 percent combined).

Therefore, if MSC is trying to promote free-school fishing, it has failed, as fishing on FADs is now more common in PNA waters than before certification. This reinforces our claim that purse seine fisheries are highly reliant on FADs and that there is the need for CABs to assess the fishery comprehensibly.

As a final comment, we would like to emphasize that so far we have not received any response to the specific issues raised in our paper, especially: proof that MSC is realizing the sustainability agenda through the certification of the so-called free tuna purse seine fishery; and an overarching science-based definition for free and associated schools that can actually be enforced at sea, and is applicable to all oceans, fishing areas and seasons.

For further information that explains the weaknesses inherent in the MSC certification of industrial purse seine fisheries in its current form, please visit the Marine Policy page of the paper where we will be soon uploading a slide show to graphically explain the issues with MSC’s approach to industrial tuna purse seine fisheries.

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