Will Dogfish Actually be Sustainable?

A little while ago the story broke that the spiny dogfish fishery is petitioning the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) for sustainability certification.  This came less than two months after NMFS declared the US Atlantic spiny dogfish stock officially recovered.  This struck me as very premature, but I remained cautiously optimistic.  However, a recent opinion paper by several prominent fisheries scientists published in Nature casts the legitimacy of MSC certification in doubt. The original article can be found here, though it’s behind a paywall (come on Nature, help a brother out).  If you don’t have a subscription or aren’t on a school network right now, Underwater Times has a rundown of the article.  Of course I wouldn’t be writing about this if I wasn’t full of opinions about it, so read on below the jump.

The paper’s six authors assert that the MSC’s certification process is more influenced by bureaucracy and politics than scientific data.  Among the problems cited are the certification of fisheries using high-impact, high-bycatch methods such as bottom trawls and longlines, and fisheries not used for human consumption (think livestock feed and fishmeal).  Also noted are the certification of the Bering Sea pollock fishery despite documented declines in the stock and the pending certification of Antarctic fisheries such as krill and toothfish.  As far as the process itself goes, the use of for-profit companies to conduct the assessments is a disconcerting sticking point.

Several of the authors, including Daniel Pauly and Jennifer Jaquet (who blogs at Guilty Planet) have reputations as anti-fishing activists, and this would certainly come up in any attempt to refute the article.  Because I try to be reasonably balanced here, I decided to look up an example fishery myself.  The MSC helpfully supplies a list of certified fisheries broken down by region, so I decided I’d look for Atlantic cod, since the sad sate of them both in Georges Bank and the North Sea has received decades of press.  There wasn’t anything as egregious as a certified fishery off of New England, but I did spot that the Norway Northeast Arctic offshore cod fishery is in fact certified.  Among the methods included in the certification are gillnets, longlines, and bottom trawls (hook and line is also included, and widely considered the most sustainable way to fish).  Because cod stocks (like dogfish) can be highly localized, I looked up what the IUCN Red List had to say about the relevant stock.  The species is listed as “Vulnerable” in general, though the specifics are sparse and definitely in need of updating.  So as far as the health of the specific stock, my cursory search is inconclusive, but what is conclusive is that a fishery using methods with high environmental impact and high bycatch has been certified for sustainability.  And that’s just from me spending about five minutes looking stuff up.

For those who are curious, here’s the full Red List article on the spiny dogfish (much more detailed than the one for cod).

Fisheries management is always a balancing act between the needs of the species and the needs of the people eating it, and often involves having to make decisions that are not in the best interest of the long-term health of the fish.  Apparently this situation doesn’t get any better in the world of sustainability certification, where the pressure to help out the industry certainly affects the decision-making.  No system is perfect, and I firmly believe that having some sort of marketable “reward system” for making fisheries sustainable is a worthwhile cause.  That said, the certification of the spiny dogfish fishery would be historic as the first shark fishery to be considered sustainable.  The certification of a long-lived, slow-growing, slow-maturing species will have ramifications reaching from sharks to other species with similar life histories such as sturgeons various deep sea species, and needs to be done responsibly.  Fishermen, managers, and scientists should all be paying close attention to this story as it develops.