Rethinking MSC and West Coast Fisheries: Brad Pettinger Makes an Important Point

SEAFOODNEWS.COM [News Analysis]   By John Sackton  June 29, 2017

Last week we published an article attacking the role MSC plays in West Coast Groundfish, and many people told us we went too far.  Susan Chambers and I agree.

When we saw the MSC press release highlighting the strides made in West Coast groundfish conservation, it came at the same time we were wrestling with a story about the problem of low catch rates and the general difficulty of harvesters catching a substantial share of their allocations under current NMFS rules.

Unfortunately, I hastily conflated this problem with the MSC, and that was wrong.  The MSC has been a very positive factor in West Coast Groundfish.

In his rightly angry response, Brad Pettinger, head of the Oregon Trawl Commission, made an important point:

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. 

His point, that MSC support has been very positive in getting market recognition for West Coast Groundfish, has been echoed by many other people in the industry.  Most of them are proud their fishery has got the recognition it deserves.

They consider the problems that remain as separate and distinct from the MSC system, and in fact, the MSC is participating and is supportive of the industry and stakeholder group working on solutions for harvesting more rockfish, now that many of these species have recovered.

In fact one of the biggest roadblocks to better harvests on the West Coast has been NMFS.  The Pacific Council has passed several amendments that would create more flexibility and increase harvest levels, but NMFS has not yet promulgated any of them as final rules, published in the federal register.  As a result, the industry is left in limbo.  This problem obviously is not the fault of the MSC.

On a broader level, for years I have argued that the market-based approach of the MSC was a temporary solution, and that once governments enacted proper management, the role of the MSC in enforcing a 3rd party standard should diminish.

As a result, I had been critical of the use of MSC resources and their involvement in improving already well-managed fisheries such as those in Alaska, Canada, and most of the US.

But my faith in governments may have been misplaced.  Yes, government regulations are the bedrock of fisheries management.  Yet like any collective decision, these decisions can be subject to political interference, and no matter how much we claim they are always based on science.  In some cases, the political realities win out over long-term sustainability goals.

Also 3rd party compliance certification has become embedded in our food supply chains, whether it is ‘non-gmo verified’, ‘USDA organic’, ‘No BGH’ or MSC Certified.  Retailers and consumers are not likely to give up on these tools.

There are several cases where the market power of the MSC brand, in fact, acts as a brake on irresponsible government action.  For example, the cutbacks in Canada’s northern shrimp quotas were implemented partly due to the fact the market had embraced MSC-labeled shrimp, and a failure to live up to the standards would have a market cost.  Same thing with cod in Newfoundland, as the MSC role has led to preemptive action, i.e. voluntary suspension of the certificate when survey results suggested the fishery may fall out of compliance.

Finally, while certainly not agreeing with some of the certification decisions made within the MSC system, such as the recognition of Russian pollock as sustainable in the same manner as Alaskan pollock, or the suspension of PWS pink salmon, the MSC does have an industry stakeholder council, which is playing an important role.

Recently the MSC held a roundtable discussion on how to respond to a letter from many NGO’s that challenged the way in which MSC accounted for bycatch impacts on a species by species basis, and failed to account for the overall impact of bycatch across an entire ecosystem.

The industry stakeholder council is fully engaged in this issue, and whatever decision the MSC makes to revise its bycatch impact requirements, it does appear that the major industry users of MSC will be heard in the process.

So I will take responsibility for wrongly using inflammatory rhetoric.  I got called on it, and I apologize and agree with the criticism.

John Sackton, Editor and Publisher
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