Seafood certification scheme needs to step up action on bycatch
New report shows that Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) sustainable seafood certification scheme needs to do more to tackle bycatch of threatened species in certified fisheries
Seafood carrying the well-known Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) ecolabel may not be as sustainable as consumers think. According to a new review by BirdLife International, being certified by the MSC does not guarantee that a fishery is addressing the incidental capture, or ‘bycatch’, of marine mammals, seabirds, sea turtles, sharks and rays.
The review by BirdLife used a color-coded green/amber/red rating system to assess 23 fisheries certified by MSC. A green rating meant that the fishery was actively working to minimise bycatch, underpinned by effective data collection. An amber rating meant some measures were in place, with reductions in bycatch of some species, though action was not considered comprehensive. Fisheries rated as red found that no significant changes were identified over the certification period, with insufficient management measures, poor data collection and sustained or increasing bycatch levels. Ultimately, BirdLife found that only three fisheries merited an overall green rating, 12 were amber, and eight were red.
Perhaps most worryingly, only one of the fisheries reviewed clearly demonstrated a sustained reduction in bycatch levels. In seven fisheries it was found that bycatch either increased or stayed constant across the certification period. While in some cases this was the result of improved data collection driven by certification, the lack of a decrease in bycatch levels overall is still worrying.
“Our report highlights that MSC need to take the opportunity of their forthcoming review of their standards to implement serious improvements to their bycatch requirements,” says Rory Crawford, Bycatch Programme Manager for the BirdLife Marine Programme. “As it stands, consumers cannot be fully confident that certified fish comes without impacts on non-target species – from sharks to seabirds to whales.”
Founded in 1996, the Marine Stewardship Council is a non-profit organization that has established a standard to certify seafood as sustainable. Certification of fisheries is voluntary, and although MSC set the standard that fisheries are assessed against, assessments are conducted by independent consultants.
The MSC scheme is not simply pass or fail - fisheries may be certified with requirements to implement improvements, known as ‘conditions of certification’. In some cases, the BirdLife review found that this approach has worked very effectively. In the offshore South African hake trawl fleet, for example, seabird bycatch was substantially reduced when the fleet worked in tandem with BirdLife/RSPB’s Albatross Task Force to implement MSC requirements. However, conditions placed on ten of the fisheries reviewed were insufficient to address bycatch issues. Further, only three of the fisheries examined had in fact implemented effective measures to reduce bycatch.
In late 2018, MSC announced they would be commencing a review of their fisheries standard, with fishery impacts on endangered, threatened and protected species an element of this review. Given the findings of the study, BirdLife is urging the MSC to re-evaluate and tighten its standards relating to bycatch.
Sarah Dolman, Whale and Dolphin Conservations Bycatch Programme Coordinator commented “This report provides a wake-up call for the MSC and other seafood certification schemes. Dolphin, porpoise, seabird and other protected species bycatch is unwanted and unnecessary, and yet in some of the certified fisheries reviewed the bycatch levels themselves are unsustainable. The MSC must take responsibility and ensure protected species bycatch is prioritised and best practice management measures are standardised on all certified vessels.”
Crawford added “We’ve made a series of recommendations in this review for improvements to MSC’s requirements, from the development of much stronger data standards to requirements for certified fisheries to use best practice measures to reduce bycatch,” Crawford said. “We hope that MSC take the action necessary to ensure that the scheme better supports the fight to eliminate bycatch and meets the expectations of green-minded consumers.”
Capture in fisheries remains one of the biggest threats for many marine species. This includes one of the most endangered large whales, the North Atlantic right whale, and albatrosses, with 15 of 22 species at risk of extinction.
We would like to thank the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for funding this work.