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.