The ongoing saga of whether spiny dogfish can truly be considered a “sustainable” fishery continues (tip o’ the hat to David). North Pacific spiny dogfish (Squalus suckleyi) were in consideration for Marine Stewardship Council sustainability certification a little less than a year ago, and now it seems that the British Columbia dogfishery has officially been certified. You can download the full report and all the other supporting documents here. This marks the first elasmobranch fishery ever to be certified as sustainable and will likely draw plenty of criticism from conservationists. However, there are some interesting details involved that are worth looking at.
The MSC’s eco-labeling strategy garnered early praise for attempting to provide a market-based incentive program to fish sustainably. The idea is that fish caught by fishermen making an effort to avoid overharvesting, bycatch, habitat destruction, and other environmental harm should carry a label to let consumers know that this is a relatively guilt-free product. However, the certification or consideration of some fisheries that have definite issues with sustainability has caused many to become skeptical of how the MSC judges which fisheries get the sticker. In fact, this is such a concern that an entire blog has been devoted to it. Add to this the recent revelation that some MSC-certified fish have been caught being mislabeled as other species, and you can see how it may be prudent to keep an eye on the process.
I became interested in the potential eco-labeling of spiny dogfish when the Atlantic fishery began seeking sustainability certification within months of the spiny dogfish stock being declared rebuilt by National Marine Fisheries Service researchers. Further digging showed that the spiny dogfish fishery in British Columbia had beat them to the starting line. Ian Scott from Moody Marine Ltd., a contractor hired to perform the sustainability assessments for the MSC, was kind enough to answer some questions I had about the process of certifying a fishery. I certainly have to give them props for transparency, at least after the fact; all the fisheries listed on their website have sections where you can download the pertinent reports.
Pacific spiny dogfish are an especially interesting case because not only are they the first elasmobranch species to be certified, they are also one of the slowest-growing, longest-lived, and latest-maturing sharks on the planet. There are concerns that the spiny dogfish Squalus acanthias is easily overfished because females don’t mature until age 12, but then the newly-reclassified Squalus suckleyi doesn’t reach reproductive maturity until 29 years old. Spiny dogfish on either side of North America are still recovering from previous overfishing. So how does a species that takes longer to reproduce than human beings get certified as sustainable?
Remember, fisheries are classified not just by what they catch, but how they catch it. Digging into the final report, I found that this certification is specific to the British Columbia hook and line fishery. Hook and line fisheries, essentially trolling or angling on a commercial scale, are noted for their low rate of bycatch (even Greenpeace gives this method kudos for low environmental impact). Also, the report notes that the quota for this stock is a relatively low 14,000 metric tons, slightly below the current U.S. Atlantic spiny dogfish quota of 15,000 mt. So this is a highly selective method targeting a species that is being managed fairly conservatively.
The life history characteristics and stock status of Pacific spiny dogfish are taken into account as well. The report lays out the three Performance Indicators used in the assessment; if a fishery scores less than 80 overall, then it loses out on certification. The British Columbia hook and line dogfish fishery’s lowest score was 80.1 in the Target Species PI, due to concerns about life history and recovery of the stock. The fishery passed on the condition that they demonstrate that their fishing methods allow for recovery of the stock.
What truly piqued my interest as soon as I looked at the final report was the name of one of the co-authors; John (Jack) Musick was involved as an Expert Advisor. Musick has been involved in shark research and conservation for almost as long as it’s been considered a legitimate discipline, and is highly unlikely to have attached his name to something he thought was sketchy from a conservation standpoint. Plus, the man has one of the coolest mustaches in marine biology.
The MSC has officially certified the first sustainable elasmobranch fishery, and seem to have put the right amount of thought into it. I’m cautiously optimistic about this fishery; the combination of low quota and low-impact methods just may give it a shot at being a “sustainable” elasmobranch fishery. However, as long as controversy continues over some of the MSC’s certification decisions, it’s worth keeping an eye on how this fishery proceeds. It will be interesting to see what happens with the Atlantic spiny dogfish fishery, which uses a variety of methods (some of them with bycatch and habitat destruction issues) and targets a stock that has only recently been considered rebuilt.