Protest as swordfish closes in on eco-label
October 18 2011 Lewis Smith
Hector the blue shark protests at MSC's London office
Up to five sharks are killed or injured for every swordfish taken off Canada’s coast, campaigners estimate, yet the fishery is on the verge of being declared sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.
Environmentalists have staged a protest at the MSC offices in London and demanded to know how the organisation could seriously consider awarding the fishery its prestigious eco-label.
The application for the Canadian longline swordfish fishery was recommended for eco-label certification by an independent assessor following MSC rules. The award was put on hold after an official objection was lodged by conservation groups.
The fishery catches 20,000 swordfish annually, 90 per cent of which are sold in the US, but also snares as bycatch up to 100,000 sharks and 1,400 turtles. Campaigners estimate 35,000 of the sharks are discarded dead or dying each year and many others suffer injuries, including blue, shortfin mako and porbeagle sharks.
“This is one of the worst fisheries in Canada,” said Shannon Arnold, of the Ecology Action Centre (EAC). “If this fishery gets certification there’s obviously something wrong with the system and will undermine the work groups have been doing on sustainable sea food.”
She and other conservationists are deeply concerned about the application not just because of the levels of bycatch within the Canadian fishery but because they believe the fishing industry is using a loophole in the rules to win MSC status for the whole Atlantic.
Because the MSC only considers individual fisheries it fails to address the overall impact of bycatch across the whole of the Atlantic. The cumulative effect on sharks, turtles and other creature that travel long distances goes unchecked because each fishery is responsible for only a small proportion of the total.
“The whole Atlantic fishery is getting carved into little bits and getting certified. Bit by bit they are going to be certifying the whole Atlantic,” she said, pointing out that both the Canadian and Florida longline swordfish fisheries are on the verge of being certified.
The MSC was set up in the 1990s out of a desire to bring about better management of fisheries but Ms Arnold said it now risks simply “rubber stamping the status quo” unless it reconsiders its rules.
The objection to the Canadian fishery’s certification was led by the EAC, Oceana, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Sea Turtle Conservancy.
In a statement the EAC, based in Halifax, Canada, said: “For the MSC to stay credible it must make sure that its standard isn’t so loose that a fishery like this can pass. It is the MSC’s responsibility to make sure that its standard is rigorous – and to fix it when fisheries try to slip through the cracks.”
However, the swordfish industry strongly disputes the level of shark mortality in the fishery. Troy Atkinson, president of the Nova Scotia Swordfishermen's Association, said only one study has pointed to blue sharks suffering a 35 per cent mortality rate.
Figures based on monitoring, he said, suggested the figure was much closer to 15 per cent, and that that more than 70 per cent of sharks are released alive and uninjured. He said the claim that up to five sharks are killed or injured for every swordfish caught is misleading.
He maintained that about 400 to 500 tonnes of blue sharks are killed by the fishery annually while across the Atlantic the total catch, intentional or not, is 60,000 tonnes, only 15 per cent of what is considered to be the maximum sustainable figure.
Mr Atkinson added that the industry has taken voluntary measures to improve its sustainability, including the use of circle hooks since the mid 1990s. These will become compulsory in Canadian long line fisheries in December and are designed to prevent turtles and fish from injesting hooks - they get snagged in the corner of the mouth instead, reducing the level of injury and increasing the chances of the animal being released alive.
Senior MSC executives met with the EAC after the protest in London to listen to the organisation's concerns but that that as the objection process is still underway they could not comment publicly on the fishery.
In a statement, however, the MSC said: “We have confidence that our third-party certification process is highly transparent and capable of yielding a scientifically rigorous determination on every fishery’s sustainability; that process is still underway in the case of the Canadian swordfish fishery and we won’t undermine the objectivity of that process by commenting, at this point, on the specific findings of the report or the objecting organisations’ views.”
The EAC's estimates of shark bycatch are based on observations by monitors who accompany from five to 20 per cent of fishing expeditions. Blue sharks, which have suffered a 60 per cent population decline since the 1960s, are the most commonly caught. Porbeagles, which are classified as vulnerable, are also caught.
« Return to the news index
Be the first to comment on this story using the form below