Seafood News Reporting Draws Pushback from Oregon Trawl Leader

On June 16th, the Marine Stewardship Council issued a release published here that shed a favorable light on the progress made in the West Coast groundfish fishery.

The turnaround of the U.S. West Coast groundfish trawl, which received a disaster declaration by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce in 2000, is a true American success story. Between the 1980s and 2000s, landings dropped by 70 percent. Fishing communities suffered as revenues fell from US$47.3 million in 1997 to US$22.2 million in 2007. In 2011, under the advice of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Pacific Fishery Management Council took the then-controversial decision to introduce an individual fishery quota system….

On June 20th, Seafood News published an analysis of the topic critical of MSC, titled MSC Could be Kiss of Death for West Coast Groundfish.

That piece in turn was was followed almost immediately by a pointed response from Brad Pettinger of the Oregon Trawl Commission. We republish them both below so readers can evaluate for themselves some of the challenges involved in managing complex fisheries, rebuilding them, evaluating them for sustainability and assessing their viability over time. As always, we appreciate Seafood News’ liberal and generous reprint policy.

MSC Could be Kiss of Death for West Coast Groundfish

SEAFOODNEWS.COM [News Analysis] by John Sackton and Susan Chambers June 19, 2017

The new Marine Stewardship Council 20th anniversary global impacts report is an impressive statement of MSC accomplishments.But the report contains a fatal flaw; highlighted by the way the MSC holds up the West Coast groundfish fishery as a mighty example of success.The rot at the heart of the MSC system is that they have no concern for maximum sustainable yield, the key driver of fisheries sustainability and economic viability.

The ‘Kiss of Death’ metaphor is because MSC continues to drive the sustainability conversation.  We don’t need more precaution and tighter oversight, as the MSC claims.  We need a rethinking about the harvest of sustainable species that recognizes the success in biological recovery, and that focuses on how to follow that with economic recovery. The MSC approach won’t let that happen.

While focusing on West Coast Groundfish, the MSC fails to mention that actual harvests of these species have not increased in five years, and in 2016 were only 500 tons higher than in 2011, despite the fact that between 2014 and 2016, sustainable allowable catches increased by 45%. In short, the MSC is rushing to praise a fishery that is unable to land more than just 19% of its allowable harvest.

Many NGOs have solutions for overfishing. In most cases, this involves simply shutting down the fishery, either through creating a marine reserve, or through restrictive gear closures, in a way that leads to little or no fishing.

The MSC, however, has always claimed to be market-based, meaning that they mobilized retailers who want a supply of sustainable seafood to sell, so the original MSC program did not call for closures but called for utilizing fisheries in a sustainable manner.

This is also an industry priority and so a firm alliance developed between the MSC and the industry on ending overfishing, with the hope that the MSC could help improve the marketability of fish and convince retailers that the seafood industry was serious about conservation and longevity.

Yet, after 20 years, the MSC has taken on a life of its own. It continues to get major grants from foundations such as the Walton Family Foundation, and it competes in the NGO ecosystem for money and attention. This means that no problem can ever be solved, because once a problem is solved, the money and attention turn elsewhere.

This now is the paradoxical case for fisheries in developed countries, like the US, EU, Canada, and New Zealand. As these countries have adopted laws and fishery management policies that have demonstrated huge success in ending overfishing, the MSC has ratcheted up its standards to preserve its own role — not to make seafood harvesting in the developed countries more sustainable.

A group of International scientists who founded the International Fisheries Information Network makes exactly this case: where fishing is controlled, science is funded, and enforcement is real, overfishing is not a problem.

What is a problem for both food security and the long term viability of the seafood industry is consistently harvesting fish well below the maximum sustainable yield.

The current pressing problem in US fisheries management, outside of Alaska, is to achieve maximum sustainable yields in mixed fisheries on the West coast and East Coast, so that instead of fishing 30% of the sustainable allowable catch, these fisheries can take 70% or 80% of the allowable catch.

In the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska, healthy fisheries management has consistently meant that around 85% to 90% of the TAC is caught, and the 2 million ton cap in the Bering sea has meant that some fisheries are deliberately underharvested. This innovation, which may be the single greatest factor in the long term health of the Alaskan Bering Sea Fisheries, had nothing to do with the MSC and was put in place long before the MSC ever existed.

Now how is the MSC the kiss of death for West Coast Groundfish?

In both the MSC’s global impact report and in a press release highlighting the fact that West Coast Groundfish is a model for MSC impacts, the organization makes a number of false claims.

The first falsehood is that MSC was responsible for the improvements in West Coast groundfish stocks, as described in the press release around the global impact report.

“The MSC Global Impacts Report 2017 spotlights the U.S. West Coast groundfish trawl among more than a thousand examples of positive change made by certified fisheries to safeguard fish stocks and marine habitats.”

The changes in the trawl fishery came about when NOAA and the Pacific Fishery Management Council transitioned to a catch shares/individual quota program in 2011. The industry — not just trawl, but sport and commercial fixed gear fisheries as well — had operated under tightly restrictive ACLs since the early 2000s, when several species were declared overfished.

Groundfish stocks had been rebuilding for a decade before the trawl IFQ program was intstituted in 2011. The MSC then certified the West Coast groundfish fisheries 3 years later, after the industry has implemented changes.

“The MSC report provides governments, industry and NGOs with evidence for credible certification as a powerful tool to catalyze and secure improvements in marine fisheries.”

The report itself, highlighting again West Coast groundfish, says MSC will work closely with NOAA, and says the MSC is closely involved. “To meet conditions on stock status, it has completed a management strategy evaluation of its flatfish harvest control rules, and will be updating the stock assessments for groundfish species including arrowtooth flounder and lingcod to ensure that catch rates are appropriate and take a precautionary approach.”


What is the actual state of West Coast groundfish? Taking the complex that is listed for MSC certification, we have analyzed the catch data compared to Annual Catch Limits (ACLs) since 2011, when the fishery became part of the IFQ system.

Chart:  Actual Landings vs. Allowable Catch for Groundfish IFQ Holders (Data Pacfin and NMFS, Chart by Seafood Datasearch)

In 2011, the total ACL for the complex was 141,000 metric tons. Between 2011 and 2014 it fell to 64,449 tons, with major drops in the ACL for Arrowtooth and English sole, but an increase in Dover sole. Since 2014, the total ACL for the West Coast groundfish complex has risen 45%, to 93,842 tons in 2016.  The species included are flounders (arrowtooth, dover sole, English sole, Petrale Sole), major species of rockfish including splitnose, widow, yellowtail, chilipepper, Thornyheads and Canary, and lingcod, sablefish and skates that are caught by trawl gear.

Yet the harvest share of the ACL has not budged at all. Total landings of Allowable Catch was 17,019 tons in 2011, and 17,552 tons in 2016.

In fact, in recent years the percent of sustainable fish landed has fallen while the overall stock has been increasing. While ACL increased 45% between 2014 and 2016, landings fell from 26% of the ACL to 19% of the ACL.

Chart: Percentages of Allowable Harvest that are actually landed are declining.

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, as Shakespeare would say.

Currently the West Coast IFQ program is undergoing a five-year review, and the council is looking at the problems created when harvesters make sacrifices for sustainability and then are not allowed to catch the fish that can be sustainably harvested.

This is the same issue as exists on the East Coast.

The MSC response, as typified in its press release and its Global Impacts study, is to call for more of the same MSC prescriptions: a more precautionary approach, new restrictions implemented via standards, and a possible expansion of MSC ratings to cover such things as labor contracts and crew.

If the MSC continues in this direction, its involvement and influence in West Coast fisheries will be a rolling disaster.

The key issue today is not the sustainability of West Coast stocks. We know they are sustainable, and a strong recovery program is in place. The key issue is that harvesters on the West Coast are hampered by an IFQ management system that fails to allow for a sustainable harvest.

This puts the entire industry at economic risk. With so little of the fish being landed, it is harder for processors to stay in business. It is harder for consumers to get West Coast fish, and it is harder for fishermen to run viable businesses to pay for their boats and gear.
An economic crisis is unfolding over groundfish, and the MSC is choosing to exacerbate the problem, rather than work to improve harvesting volumes.

Unfortunately, the MSC defines retailers’ perceptions of West Coast groundfish.

That is why we feel the MSC’s embrace of the West Coast fishery is potentially a kiss of death, as they become an impediment to the desperate reforms needed to keep a healthy and sustainable fishery economically viable.

Original article on Seafood News

Oregon Trawl Commission Strongly Disptutes Our Criticism of MSC’s Approach to West Coast Groundfish

SEAFOODNEWS.COM  by Brad Pettinger, Executive Director of the Oregon Trawl Commission  June 20, 2017

OTC Rebuttal to Seafoodnews.com

As the director of the Oregon Trawl Commission (OTC), the client for the MSC certification of the US West Coast Groundfish Trawl Fishery, I feel that I need to respond to Monday’s article about the MSC and the West Coast groundfish trawl fishery.  First off all, I think that the title is so far removed from reality, that it’s almost laughable.  With that, I’ll address my rebuttal point by point, ending with my thoughts on the article’s title.

The rot at the heart of the MSC system is that they have no concern for maximum sustainable yield, the key driver of fisheries sustainability and economic viability.

  • I don’t know where this rationale comes from. A fishery is scored against the MSC standard, taking into consideration the management system that a fishery operates in.  In their infinite wisdom, the Pacific Council opted for an overfished threshold of 25% B◦, whereas the rest of the US fishery councils have a 20% B◦  The higher overfished threshold and the additional precautionary rules that the Pacific Council put in place are not the fault of the MSC.  A fishery is scored against the MSC standard based on the existing management rules.

In short, the MSC is rushing to praise a fishery that is unable to land more than 19% of its allowable harvest.

  • The praise from the MSC is for a fishery that has largely rebuilt itself after it was declared a disaster by the Secretary of Commerce in 2000. At that time the fishery was in a horrible place, with 6 species declared overfished with rebuilding timelines estimated to be in the neighborhood of 70-80 years.  Regulatory discards were a big issue and many groups were calling for the closure of the fishery and even the end of bottom trawling.  The MSC credits the industry’s response to this crisis and their willingness to work within the management system in getting these stocks rebuilt.

One of the main reasons that the fishery is landing so little of the quotas is because it is not fully rationalized.  Outside of 100% accountability with IFQs, the fleet is still under the same gear and area limitations that existed prior to 2011.  Unfortunately, NMFS has failed miserably in getting any trailing amendments into regulation that the Pacific Council has approved and that has hampered the fleet tremendously.  New leadership in the NW Region has made significant personnel changes in the agency and has promised us that the log jam will open up, but we’re going to have to wait and see if that occurs.

The first falsehood is that MSC was responsible for the improvements in West Coast groundfish stocks, as described in the press release around the global impact report.

“The MSC Global Impacts Report 2017 spotlights the U.S. West Coast groundfish trawl among more than a thousand examples of positive change made by certified fisheries to safeguard fish stocks and marine habitats.”

  • The MSC certification places conditions on a fishery when it is deficient in a certain area(s), where a condition needs to be satisfied in a given time frame. Many would call the closing of a condition a positive change.  The MSC certificationalso recognizes fisheries that are well managed prior to the certification process.  I should point out that the pre-assessment (2009) highlighted the deficiencies that were in place prior to IFQs and those improvements in the fishery were identified during the full assessment process.

The report itself, highlighting again West Coast groundfish, says MSC will work closely with NOAA, and says the MSC is closely involved. “To meet conditions on stock status, it has completed a management strategy evaluation of its flatfish harvest control rules, and will …….

  • As for the condition to do a Management Strategy Evaluation (MSE) for flatfish, the assessment team was only highlighting a recommendation that the Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee had made in an earlier report that a MSE should be done, since the Council had decided to go with a lower target proxy of 25 B◦, from the old target of 40% B◦.

The key issue today is not the sustainability of West Coast stocks. We know they are sustainable, and a strong recovery program is in place. The key issue is that harvesters on the West Coast are hampered by an IFQ management system that fails to allow for a sustainable harvest.

  • Principle 1 of the MSC is focused on stock health, so it’s ridiculous to say that that the sustainability of West Coast stocks isn’t a key issue. As for the Principle 3 component (management) of the fishery, it should be noted that the certification team scored this fishery in 2012, in the middle of the second year of the IFQ fishery.  All of the conditions on the fishery and the annual audits are based on the original assessment (and associated timeframe) and not what has happened since then.  When the fishery is recertified (next year), the assessment team will be looking at the IFQ management system with a number of years under its belt on which to determine how well it is performing.

An economic crisis is unfolding over groundfish, and the MSC is choosing to exacerbate the problem, rather than work to improve harvesting volumes.

  • When the industry saw the amount of rockfish that could be harvested in 2017 and 2018 after a number of rockfish species had been declared rebuilt, a meeting was held in Newport Oregon in August of last year to discuss what could be done to bring an additional 60 million pounds of fish across the dock. From the outset, the MSC was on board and at the table to discuss ways to make that happen, which blows a hole in the story’s overall premise.  Since then, we’ve formed a Groundfish Markets Development Initiative, with Bornstein Seafood, Pacific Seafood, Environmental Defense Fund, OR Dept. of Agriculture, Oregon Trawl Commission and the MSC.  The goals of the GMDI are: to harmonize supply and demand through business planning and coordination; increase utilization of the available resource; secure buyers serving various scales and geographies; oversee marketing and promotional campaigns; and increase economic stability for groundfish harvesters in all three states.

MSC Could be Kiss of Death for West Coast Groundfish

  • Prior to the fishery being certified in 2014, the West Coast Groundfish Trawl Fishery had made significant environmental improvements, but had really never been given credit for it. The fleet over the previous decade plus, had made numerous changes to improve the fishery which included gear and area restrictions to protect overfished species and sensitive habitats.  Then in 2011, the fleet went to an IFQ system which made 100% accountability a central tenant of the program and bycatch rates plummeted, but the fishery still received little recognition.  Then in June of 2014, the fishery was certified by the MSC as a sustainable and well managed fishery and that forced people to take notice.  A few months later, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program removed the trawl designated species from their red list.  Then in October, Whole Foods debuted their first national ad campaign during the first game of the World Series with their Values Matter commercial featuring an Oregon based groundfish trawler as the example for sustainable fishing in the United States. If that kiss of death is the foreplay, I can hardly wait for what’s next.

Brad Pettinger

Director, Oregon Trawl Commission

Besides being the client for the US West Coast Groundfish Trawl Fishery, the OTC is also the client for the Oregon Pink Shrimp Fishery and a Co-Client for the US/Canada Pacific Hake Fishery.

Original article on Seafood News