Marine Stewardship Council: Living in fisheries fantasy land

Photo: Island Conservation Society (ICS)

Imagine if you’re sick or injured and your doctor gives you the ‘all clear’ while still developing your treatment plan. You’d get a new doctor, right?

Well, the latest tuna fishery recommended for Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification could be given the blue fish tick based on the same faulty logic. There are plans being developed to improve the fishery, but, so far, little evidence of action or results.

The certification covers five purse seine vessels currently fishing for skipjack, yellowfin and bigeye tuna in the Indian Ocean, all owned by Spanish company Pesquera Echebastar. Reviewers found numerous problems with the certification report. I won’t bore you with all of them (read all 477 pages here), but there are two key themes: Indian Ocean tuna fisheries are poorly managed, and, Echebastar should not be certified on the basis of just 20% of its catch, particularly when the assessment for the other 80% has not been published.

Purse Seiner Fishing in the Indian Ocean. 04/15/2013 © Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace

There is no way you can describe the fishery as ‘sustainable’ when the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) is failing to develop and implement effective management measures for tunas and billfish, let alone for all the sharks, turtles and seabirds accidently caught there! The problems discussed at the IOTC’s Scientific Committee meetings, such as lack of compliance, poor catch reporting, and illegal fishing, prove that no tuna fisheries in the Indian Ocean can be considered well-managed. There are fisheries working to deliver sustainable tuna, but they struggle against a tide of those who don’t and won’t.

The MSC standards require fisheries to have a Harvest Strategy and Harvest Control Rules in place. These are pre-agreed catch levels that are designed to maintain healthy stocks, with a set of actions to apply quickly and effectively if any of the stocks decline. The IOTC does not yet have these measures in place, a fact the assessors admit on the 2nd page of their report!

Maybe the assessors think there’s no hurry because the stocks aren’t ‘overfished.’ If so, they’re forgetting that when stocks declined in the past, the IOTC took no action. They are also ignoring the fact that poor data creates poor assessments. If the doctor doesn’t know all your symptoms, how can you trust their diagnosis?

Photo: Island Conservation Society (ICS)

Scientists believe the main reason tuna stocks aren’t already in trouble is thanks to piracy. For four years (2008–11), boats were chased out of the main tropical tuna fishing grounds by Somalian pirates, into less productive areas of the Indian Ocean. Faced with lower catches, some boats headed for other oceans, while others went south to cooler waters looking for albacore. Tuna stocks bounced back, except albacore, which declined with the sudden increase in fishing. With piracy declining in 2012, the boats began to return and with them the fishing patterns of the pre-piracy period. If the next round of stock assessments shows increasing fishing rates and declining stocks (like scientists are predicting for yellowfin tuna) it will be interesting to see if the MSC continues to justify piracy as a model for sustainable fisheries management.

FAD tracking device from Echebastar vessel Demiku, found on Desroches Island, June 2014. Photo: Island Conservation Society (ICS).The second problem is that the certification only covers the small amount of catch taken by Echebastar vessels when they set nets on free-swimming tuna schools. This is patently misleading when more than 80% of the fleet’s catch comes from setting nets around Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs).

You could almost justify certifying part of a fleet’s catch if they were committed to reducing FADs and there were agreed FAD rules that minimised their impacts. Unfortunately, neither the Echebastar fleet nor the IOTC support any reduction. In fact, the IOTC recently accepted a proposal to ‘limit’ FADs to 550 per vessel per year. 550 is well above the current number used by most vessels and will actually allow a massive increase in FAD numbers.

So why do FADs drive me crazy?

FADs make a mockery of fishing vessel limits. They’re a sneaky way to get around an agreement to limit fishing vessels. Who needs more vessels, when you can put out hundreds of FADs to gather the tuna for you? Many FAD tracking devices now come with eco-sounders so you can check how many fish are under the FAD before you head out to sea.

A scientist removes entangled FAD netting from a damaged coral reef. Photo: Island Conservation Society (ICS)FADs wreck the marine environment. Sharks and turtles get tangled in the old nets and ropes hanging below FADs. Setting nets on FADs catches and kills 2.8 to 6.7 times more non-target species, sharks, trigger fish, rays, and even turtles, than fishing on free schools, and the majority of tuna caught are juveniles. FADs frequently wash up on beaches or coral reefs. Last month, scientists at the Island Conservation Society in the Seychelles found 45 FADs that had become entangled on just one coral atoll. Four of them belonged to the Echebastar vessels – three to Alakrana and two to Demiku.

FAD use is out of control. We can only guess how many thousands are floating out there. IOTC scientists estimated there were around 10,000 in 2013 from the EU and Seychelles purse seine fleets alone, but this now looks like a gross underestimation. Without accurate numbers, scientists can’t estimate the impact FADs have on tuna and other species, so their stock assessments are compromised.

In light of these serious problems, you have to ask what happened to the assessment report for the other 80% of Echebastar’s catch. It’s not hard to imagine it failed even this shoddy assessment and they don’t want anyone to know about it.

WWF and the International Pole and Line Foundation have submitted official objections, which we support, to the certification proposal, but the MSC has chosen not to submit one. Doesn’t it care about its credibility?

Maybe that’s the point. If the MSC wants a piece of the tuna pie, it has to lower its standards. If this certification goes ahead, it will be a hole below the waterline for the credibility of the MSC.

Dr. Cat DoreyDr. Cat Dorey spends a lot of time at tuna science meetings and reading science reports to provide strategic advice for Greenpeace’s Tuna campaign.

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