In what has already been branded a highly controversial move, Western Australia’s Fisheries Minister Norman Moore has announced he is seeking ‘sustainable’ certification for shark fins which regional fishermen wish to export to Asia. The high demand for the prized fins in countries like China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea is pushing shark species towards the brink of extinction as ever increasing numbers of sharks are primarly killed for their fins. Since a recent visit to China by an official Australian trade delegation, the Fisheries Minister and his department have commissioned the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) to analyse the possibilities of giving the Western Australia’s shark finning practices a ‘green’ stamp of approval.
The situation raises the question why MSC would even choose to consider the option and in turn, why it would even be a possibility to seek this type of certification for the killing of species that are known around the world for being so heavily threatened. However, given the recent certification by MSC for other damaging fishing operations, this new controversy only adds to concerns that the very initiative founded to ensure increased sustainablity in the fishing industry is in fact working to ‘greenwash’ damaging fishing practices. Going from recent developments, one could sensibly argue that MSC is increasingly giving legitimacy to types of destructive fishing that most conservation organisations are still campaigning to have banned completely.
Let’s look back at the history of MSC. It was the first initiative to issue sustainable fishing certification when it was set up in 1996 by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Unilever, the largest food processor in the world. The idea was noble: fishermen would be given incentives to improve aspects of their fishing practices by acquiring sustainability labels for their catches. As consumers would be offered a ‘better’ choice, soon fishermen started realising that more money could be made from investing in the good fish labels, as consumers demanded it. Over the last 15 years over 100 different fisheries in the world have been accredited with MSC labels as well as by other new certification projects, most notably Friend of the Sea and FishWise.
The increase in demand for sustainable fish has meant an increase in the operations for various certification bodies as well as an obvious rise in the amount of ‘good’ fish products in supermarkets and food stores. The rapid success of ‘sustainable’ fish has come at a disastrous price. Fish species labeled as ‘sustainable’ have experienced a sharp rise in popularity with increased quotas and fishing efforts to secure increasingly bigger catches. As a result of this various fisheries have been able to obtain MSC labels in recent years while their sustainability has been questionable.
A couple of examples. MSC allowed the Antarctic krill fishery to obtain a label. Krill is such a major part of the ecosystem in the region that any industrial fishing for the species is in itself damaging. Conservationists slammed MSC for ignoring vital evidence that suggested that any taking of krill is threatening the Antarctic eco-system. Another example of controversial certification is that of the Ross Sea Antarctic toothfish fishery. There is still so little known among scientists about this species, such as where it spawns or migrates to and from, that any certification calling it ‘sustainable’ can only be classed as fraud. If fact without even basic facts on the species being known to science, any continued industrial exploitation, especially in the fragile biodiversity of the Antarctic, let alone certification for being ‘sustainable’, is totally irresponsible.
The list of controversy surrounding MSC goes on and can be accredited to the fact that it is a business initiative set up to sustain the status quo: that business as usual must continue and if we can do so while making some slight improvements then this is a step in the right direction. Good for business, good for consumers. The fact is that consumers are being duped into believing that what they are eating is really truly sustainable, when in fact it might only mean it is a fishery that has shown some initiative in improving the efficiency of their catches, reducing bycatch or being involved in initiating more responsible practices.
However it can still mean they use destructive fishing methods, for example bottom trawling, in which chains and a net are dragged along the ocean floor, killing and destroying everything in their path. This is where the true problem lies. MSC and other labels are happy to label certain practices as ‘sustainable’ while other organisations are still campaigning to get these same practices outlawed for the ecological destruction they leave behind. In that sense MSC and other similar certification organisations are working to legitimise bad practices and directly undermine the work that real conservation organisations are involved in.
We simply cannot settle for a feel-good option when it comes to protecting our oceans. The problem is the over-consumption of fish, the fact that too many people eat too much fish, which ultimately are wild animals that once caught can not come back so easily. It is no wonder that increasing number of fish species are under threat from overfishing, we are simply catching too much. A group of the world’s top marine management scientists concluded two years ago that “the main consumer-targeted certification scheme for sustainable fisheries is failing to protect the environment and needs radical reform.”
We believe the real focus in fisheries management should be conservation driven: enforcement of existing regulations, establishment of marine protected areas, prohibition to catch species in trouble and the banning of the types of fishing techniques that are so damaging they leave unrepairable damage to the marine eco-systems. The saddest thing is that it is exactly these types of bad fishing practices that so-called ‘sustainable’ fishing certifiers continue to allow within their programs. That in itself shows that their priorities are a world away from the true conservation of marine life.