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?