Friday, 30 October 2009

Certified sustainable: A recipe for disaster?

Sustainable is the latest buzzword in fisheries management and seafood retailing. But with experts predicting that fish stocks will be gone by 2048, can any commercially exploited marine species be classed as truly sustainable?

In 1997, with the backing of Unilever and WWF, the Marine Stewardship Council was formed. Fisheries that are assessed and meet the standard can use the MSC blue ecolabel. The MSC mission is to reward sustainable and environmentally friendly fishing practices.

In an ideal world, and for the MSC to work effectively, the assessments would have been carried out from a pristine fish stock level and monitored continuously. But this is now impossible. At least eighty percent of commercial fish stocks are now classified as fully or over-exploited. On this basis what purpose does the MSC label serve, except to encourage the increased consumption of already severely depleted fish?

Several of the world's fishery stocks have been granted MSC certification in the face of growing opposition. Despite protests from California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium and the marine conservation group Oceana, MSC in October 2009 issued an ecolabel on fish products made with Pacific hake from the Pacific Northwest. Ben Enticknap, Pacific project manager for Oceana, maintained that “The Pacific hake are at an all-time low population. There’s no good signs of recovery.” Enticknap also said that the Pacific hake population has fallen 89 per cent since the 1980s, so regulators should restrict commercial fishing and develop plans to rebuild the population.

The MSC certification of the Alaskan pollock fishery in 2005 stirred up a similar controversy with Greenpeace stating in 2008 that "the world’s largest food fishery is on the verge of collapse. Pollock, used to make McDonald’s fish sandwiches, frozen fish sticks, fish and chips, and imitation crabmeat, have had a population decrease of 50 percent since last year".

The MSC base their sustainability criteria on current scientific data gathered about fish stocks, but with  illegal fishing all too common, and under-reporting of catches rife, how can we be sure that eco-labelling is a safe way of judging a fish species' health?

Before we can strike a balance between exploiting the oceans and sustainably harvesting them we must realise that, as it stands, very few so-called 'sustainable' fisheries can be sustained at current levels. As we move from one depleted species to another, the under-exploited fish becomes tomorrow's over-exploited fish.

Even now companies are exploiting the keystone species krill to fill the commercial demand for fish oil left because of over-exploited fish stocks. Talk about fishing down the food chain, what will we do when the fish and the krill have gone?

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Shark protection is finally gaining some momentum

There have been some small but significant developments recently in the fight to save sharks from possible extinction. Let's hope that it's a sign of more to come and that it is not too little too late.

Conservative estimates reckon that between 30 and 70 million sharks are killed annually in commercial and recreational fisheries, and some conservation organisations put that figure closer to 100 million.

Sharks are killed for a whole manner of reasons, their meat is used for food, fins for soup, cartilage in health supplements, livers for oil, skin for leather and teeth for curios, some are even killed just for the sheer pleasure of it.

Some species of pelagic shark such as the oceanic whitetip, blue, porbeagle and mako, have been pushed to the brink of extinction. As they travel the world's oceans they are susceptible to capture, particularly by longline fishing.

However, there might be some light at the end of the tunnel. The Pacific island nation of Palau recently declared that they would be creating a marine reserve for sharks. The sanctuary covers the full 230,000 sq miles of Palau's Economic Exclusion Zone, which stretches 200 miles out from its coasts. Within this region, all commercial shark fishing is banned. Previously, protection measures existed but certain levels of shark-fishing were allowed.

The Maldives in the Indian Ocean have also vowed to stop commercial fishing for sharks in its waters by 2010.

In the USA, a group calling themselves Shark Free Marinas was set up in 2008 to encourage marinas to operate a strictly catch & release policy for the shark fishing boats that operate from them.

Shark protection is also getting more support from celebrities such as January Jones from the HBO smash hit Mad Men, and a video featuring Olympic double gold medalist Amanda Beard has been released.

Even in Asia there is growing unrest over the practice of shark finning, most notably the Hong Kong based shark conservation website Shark Rescue.

In the Philippines the latest issue of Healthy Options Lifestyle Newsdigest is encouraging consumers to support eco-friendly habits rather than unwittingly supporting environmentally damaging practices like shark finning.

Unfortunately the shark conservation message isn't yet getting across to a wide enough audience, only last week in Florida, USA, a mature 750lb mako shark was gaffed from a boat, just for the fun of it apparently.

And whilst this kind of mindless slaughter of sharks is allowed to continue (and attract uncritical media coverage - the LA Times was an exception) sharks, and the people who want to protect them, still have a huge battle ahead.