Are MSC-certified ‘sustainable fisheries’ in fact unsustainable?
Small fisheries that use highly selective, low-impact techniques, such as hook-and-line fishing or hand picking, are often sustainable, but make up only a tiny fraction of MSC-certified fisheries.
As part of ClimateProgress’s effort to focus attention on the grave threat to ocean life, today’s guest blogger is marine-biologist-turned-filmmaker, Randy Olson.
Fisheries economist Jennifer Jacquet and a team of A-list marine biologists today took the Marine Stewardship Council out behind the woodshed and left it limping away with a sore posterior. It came in the form of an Opinion piece in Nature appropriately titled, “Seafood Stewardship in Crisis.”
Jennifer is my former co-blogger (we ran a blog called Shifting Baselines for a couple of years before I got too swamped and she morphed it into her feisty Guilty Planet blog). Her essay shows the world just how big the stick of the science voice can be. She has teamed up with four of the most accomplished marine biologists in the world for a message that has to have hit the Marine Stewardship Council like a 7.0 earthquake.
For starters, just look at the team of co-authors she assembled to back her up on the paper. If you take an introductory course in fisheries biology, one of the first things you learn about is the “Beverton-Holt Model” for population growth of commercial fish species. They published it in 1957. It is part of the firmament of fisheries biology. Beverton died in 1995. Sidney Holt is long since retired. But that tells you how important this paper is — he’s come out of retirement to add his name to the list of authors.
Daniel Pauly is the Director of the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Center and a long time firebrand in the fisheries world with his book “In a Perfect Ocean.” He coined the term, “shifting baselines,” in the mid-90’s to deal with the tendency of fisheries corporations to forget/erase their past. Jeremy Jackson is a historical ecologist who’s 2001 Science paper on needing to know the history of coastal ecosystems in order to understand their collapse was a landmark in ecosystem management. And Paul Dayton is the longest serving member of the Marine Mammal Commission. They are all in their mid to late 60’s and are some of the most powerful voices of seniority and experience when it comes to understanding the population biology of marine organisms.
And what the paper says is that the happy, happy, joy, joy Marine Stewardship Council that was created in 1997 to help everyone feel better about decimating the world’s fish populations, has (big surprise) lost it’s way. The graph they present [above] shows how shortly after M.S.C. formed a partnership with Wal-Mart in 2006 (where Wal-Mart agreed to sell only MSC-certified species) the number of fisheries certified skyrocketed.
The authors question a wide range of moves by the M.S.C. such as certifying as sustainable the Alaskan pollock fishery — a species which saw a 64% decline in it’s spawning biomass from 2004 to 2009. How can that be sustainable, they ask. Same for Pacific hake which has declined by 89% since the 1980’s.
The first sentence of their essay says, “A growing number of consumers want to eat seafood without guilt.” That is a lot of what it’s all about. Everyone loves seafood. Nobody wants to feel guilty about depleting the world’s fish stocks in what is the last major form of wildlife harvesting on the planet (we gave up on things like buffalo long ago when the inevitable outcome happened — they vanished).
The article ends on a soft note by saying, “The MSC can still fulfil its promise to represent””as it claims, “the best environmental choice””if it undergoes major reform.”
They offer a lot of specific recommendations such as looking at the Forest Stewardship Council which has 5 of 9 board members from developing countries where MSC has none of it’s 13 board members from developing countries. They also question the amount of money going into the program versus supporting smaller, inherently more sustainable fisheries and the creation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).
So it’s not a total scorched earth attack — just a very loud warning from the science world to, “get your act together.”
Moreover, it is “the voice of science,” at its best.
Update: The Marine Stewardship Council has posted a response on their website that is as long as the original article. It also seems fairly limp — more of a “here’s our version” presentation rather than, “they’ve got it wrong” (pretty hard to argue with the facts). Rumor has it they tried to label the authors as “activists” to the folks at Nature, but isn’t that the name that gets hurled at anyone with a brain who disagrees with you these days?
— Randy Olson is the writer-director of the feature films, “Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus,” and “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy.” He was previously a tenured professor of marine biology. Last year he synthesized his two careers with his book, “Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style” from Island Press.
- Geological Society: Acidifying oceans spell marine biological meltdown “by end of century”
- Nature Stunner: “Global warming blamed for 40% decline in the ocean’s phytoplankton”
- 2010 Nature Geoscience study: Oceans are acidifying 10 times faster today than 55 million years ago when a mass extinction of marine species occurred
- 2009 Nature Geoscience study concludes ocean dead zones “devoid of fish and seafood” are poised to expand and “remain for thousands of years.”
- A looming oxygen crisis and its impact on our oceans
- Imagine a World without Fish: Deadly ocean acidification “” hard to deny, harder to geo-engineer, but not hard to stop“