MSC certification coming for Canadian swordfish… but not just the good kind

Those of you that follow my musings on the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) know that I tend to waffle a bit on this subject and am quite vocal about not giving the organization my full support.  This is a great example of why.

A recent press release from the MSC states that “the Northwest Atlantic Canadian longline and harpoon swordfish (Xiphias gladius) fisheries have announced their entry into the full assessment process for MSC certification.”  Ordinarily, this would be something that I would see as a positive step.  MSC certification, while not a perfect system, tends to help identify fisheries that have stronger levels of scientific rigor in assessment and quote management, and are generally more sustainable overall.

MSC certification for North Atlantic Canadian swordfish, however, may not be cause for celebration.

It’s important to note that this certification is covering not one fishery per se, but rather two fisheries that are drawing on the same population.  What I mean is that the certification extends to encompass two distinct fleets — a flotilla of swordfish longliners, and a small navy of swordfish harpoon boats.

These two fisheries target the same swordfish populations but do so in radically different manners.  The longlines, which take the lion’s share of the overall quota (90%), use similar gear to that which has caused such problems in Pacific tuna fisheries.  In essence, these are sturdy ropes, often several miles in length, which consist  of countless hooks that can indiscriminately impact any number of other co-habiting species, such as sharks and whales.  Longlines are problematic by their very nature, as there is simply no easy way to prevent non-target species from biting at these hooks (and subsequently dying.)

The harpooners, by contrast, use what is potentially the most precise type of fishing gear on the planet.  Harpooners search for an appropriate target, scope it for size, and shoot to kill.  There is virtually no bycatch in a harpoon swordfish fishery as the fishermen have already identified and sized their quarry  before the harpoon is launched.  To top it off, there is a marked quality difference between harpooned and longlined swordfish — harpooned swordfish tends to be firmer and less “washed out” than longlined product.  Unfortunately, it is all mixed together before export, and consumers are never given enough point-of-sale information to identify the particularities of the swordfish at their local fish market.

Currently, the harpooners are in difficult straits.  The Cape Sable Harpoon Fisherman’s Association, which represents the few old salts that still fish in this time-honored fashion, is continually being squeezed out by the expanding longline fishery.  In fact, the Canadian government is moving to strip the harpooners of even more of their tiny share of the total quota.  This would effectively replace the few remaining harpoon boats with additional longline boats, and result in a higher level of bycatch overall.

The problem with this upcoming MSC certification is that, as it is applicable to both fisheries, it continues to downplay the important differences between them.  Harpooned swordfish needs to be set above what the longliners are bringing in, not mixed in with it and forgotten.  Not only that, but what does this say about the rigor of the MSC itself, knowing that these longliners are able to attain certification even though their bycatch levels are unacceptably high?

The bottom line: Consumers need to be able to differentiate the two products appropriately as well as understand the ramifications of the methods used by the two fisheries.  The MSC, which so loftily prides itself on transparency and traceability, isn’t going to help this time.  In fact, by giving a green light to the longliners, it’s just going to make things worse.

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Troy Atkinson
Mar 17, 2009 at 2:16 pm

I thought I would write to correct several instances of errors in the article pertaining to Canadian swordfish and MSC Certification. The “flotilla of swordfish longliners” is actually less than forty active vessels, most under 45 feet in length and the “small navy of harpoon boats” is over 100 of the same size vessels. While I am not familiar with by catch problems in the Pacific, there are virtually no whale interactions in the Atlantic Canadian fishery. In the Canadian fishery, there is little difference in fish quality between gear types as both fleet use similiar size vessels and stay at sea for similiar time periods. There is no Cape Sable Swordfishermen’s Association, there is a Swordfish Harpoon Association that represents all of the active harpoon license holders in Atlantic Canada. The Canadian government is making no move to take quota from either group, in fact there is a longstanding sharing arrangement that has been in place for most of the past decade, developed based on catch history, to provide stability for both fleets. Both the longline and harpoon licenses are limited entry and have been since the 1980′s so there is no means to expand the number of licenses in either group. Further, the actual number of active longline vessels has declined since the inception of the quota sharing arrangement by almost 50% while the number of active harpoon licenses has nearly doubled over this same time period. Upon completion of the MSC certification proccess longline and harpoon caught fish will be clearly seperated and marked as such respectively so that it will be clear to the consumer where the fish originated, this is a requirement of the MSC chain of custody proccess. With respect to either fleet completing certification, this is what the proccess is for, to determine if the respective fishery can measure up to the MSC’s rigorous standards. Check the facts first . . . need I say more.

Mar 17, 2009 at 6:42 pm

Great to get a response to that last post. I had hoped to hear from someone — and Troy Atkinson of the Nova Scotia Swordfishermen’s Association no less! I guess it helps to be slightly over-sensationalist to solicit a response.


Let me reply to your points one by one. First of all, the claim that there is no Cape Sable Swordfish Association is an interesting tidbit of information for me. I would be curious what the gentlemen representing this group at the Boston Seafood Show over the past few days would have to say about this. I actually interviewed two fishermen claiming to be a part of this group over the last couple of weeks. Maybe I misinterpreted them, and the association itself is not an actual entity. I will verify this with them.

Next point — number of vessels. It may be true that the number of longline vessels in the water has declined. This is not necessarily reflected in their percentage of catch. License acquisition can simply allow for the same boat, or perhaps a larger boat, to take more of the total quota. So there’s no absolute causality there. We can’t compare vessels just numerically, we have to take into account size, percentage of quota, and capacity, right?

The claim that MSC certification will separate and mark products — I certainly hope you’re correct, but this remains to be seen. There are any number of MSC products where the gear type is not clearly labeled on the packaging. It may be clear to the retailer or importer, and is certainly recorded somewhere along the chain of custody, but it is not necessarily clear to the consumer, and it’s the consumer that makes the final purchase.MSC certified hake -- gear type?

Where’s the gear type on this package, for instance? All it says is that it’s certified by the MSC.

Again, thanks for commenting. I hope to continue to hear your thoughts.

Troy Atkinson
Mar 18, 2009 at 8:03 am

To again clarify the MSC logo use, both fleets are proceeding to full certification at the same time but upon successful completion of the proccess, the two fleets, if certified, will receive seperate certificates, with seperate numbers so that the product can be identified and tracked back to the fleet of origin. Neither fleet would like to have their product misrepresented as someone elses, either MSC certified or not.

Regarding capacity, the domestic quota sharing arrangement was put in place to provide stability for both fleets, longline and harpoon. Capacity within each fleet then has to match available quota, if the Canadian quota changes, both fleets need to change harvest plans to match the available quota. There is simply not enough quota for all of the swordfish license holders, longline or harpoon, to participate in the fishery and earn a reasonable livelyhood. Fleet rationalization is a reality for both fleets here in Canada and self rationalization is what has been required as the Canadian tax payers are not about to pay to retire licenses as has been the case in other countries.

Both fleets are proceeding to full assessment to measure their respective fisheries against the rigorous MSC standards and make improvements as necessary to their respective fisheries. Those that participate in this fishery are committed to sustainability and improvement so that they can preserve their way of life in coastal communities of Atlantic Canada for generations to come.

I would not equate over-sensationalistic and mis-representation as the same thing.



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