Atlantic halibut fishery given MSC certification despite 'endangered' classification
July 03 2013 Lewis Smith
A serving of Atlantic halibut
A wild Atlantic halibut fishery has been awarded a certificate of sustainability despite the fish being classified as endangered.
Atlantic halibut caught in Canadian waters won the prestigious Marine Stewardship Council eco-label after demonstrating that the fishery has recovered from a population crash in the 1990s.
Crucially, the fish were also shown to be a separate stock from the Atlantic halibut found in the North East Atlantic.
Atlantic halibut are classified as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and is on the organisation’s Red List of threatened wildlife.
However, the classification dates from 1996 when stocks in the Atlantic Ocean slumped because of overfishing and the IUCN admits that its description is in need of updating.
Bruce Chapman, of the Atlantic Halibut Council (AHC), the umbrella organisation that applied for the certification, hopes the MSC label will persuade "environmentally tunes consumers" to buy the fish and is confident it will be more persuasive than the "out of date" IUCN classification.
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"There are a number of customers, I'm told, who were seeking some way to open up these Atlantic halibut to their environmentally tuned customers," he said.
"It's not a question of price differential, it's a matter of opening up some markets that aren't available.
"There are some customers who are tuned into the IUCN, but by and large most customers are not. Retailers are quite familiar with the MSC and not as familiar with the IUCN so I think the MSC certification will prevail. The IUCN is out of date."
The award of the MSC’s sustainability label means there is now a source of Atlantic halibut from the wild that can be considered a sustainable choice on menus.
Most will be sold fresh in the US and Canada in competition with Pacific halibut but some is frozen and some is exported to Europe. It is thought unlikely, however, any fresh supplies will be air freighted to the UK, where farmed Atlantic habilut is still considered the most sustainable option.
Independent assessors, SCS Global Services, investigated the sustainability of the fishery for the MSC and concluded: “The Atlantic halibut stock is not considered to be depleted at this time.”
They attributed the recovery of the fishery to the strong management put in place following the population slump in the 1980s and 1990s, with the low point reach in 1996.
“Canadian management has undertaken the task of re-building many of the groundfish stocks and bases current harvest policies on eco-system based management and the Precautionary Approach,” they noted.
All the data that contributed to the assessment of the fishery for the certification will be available for the IUCN when it reconsiders its classification of Atlantic Halibut, the MSC assured Fish2fork.
Mr Chapman said certification was a reward for the "strict management" regime and "our great efforts to rebuild this resource over the past 10-15 years".
Kerry Coughlin, the Americas regional director for the MSC congratulated the AHC and said: “Halibut is prime whitefish with high demand in North American east coast and global markets.
“This certification demonstrates to retail and restaurant customers that halibut landed by the Canadian Atlantic halibut fishery are harvested in a well-managed and sustainable manner to preserve the stock for this and future generations."
Atlantic halibut can grow to lengths of 250 cm and weigh more than 300kg. They are usually located close to the sea floor at depths of 200 to 500m and all those caught in the fishery that are less than 81cm long must be released to ensure only mature specimens are sold.
The fishery covers Canadian waters out to 200 miles from the coasts of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and applies to the fish caught by fishermen and organisations belonging to the Atlantic Halibut Council, an umbrella group representing fishermen and processors.
Long line fishing accounts for 87 per cent of the catch but fish taken as bycatch by bottom trawls and gillnets can also qualify for the eco-label. The total allowable catch for 2012-13 was 2,200 tonnes and 450 boats operate in the fishery.
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