Sustainability for Atlantic Spiny Dogfish?

Sustainable practice? From (photo by Sara Miribilio)

This week the U.S. Atlantic spiny dogfish fishery took another step towards becoming the second shark or ray fishery ever to earn a sustainability certification from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).  The first was the Pacific spiny dogfish fishery, which turned out to be a decent call due to the fact that it would have very tightly controlled quotas and consist purely of hook-and-line vessels.  The Atlantic fishery, in contrast, encompasses all three fishing methods typically used to target groundfish on the U.S. East Coast.  Since my Master’s thesis focused on this population, the Northwest Atlantic spiny dogfish stock is near and dear to my heart, and I’ve been following this story as it’s progressed.  Earlier this week, MSC released the public comment draft report (available for your perusal here) of their assessment of the fishery.  I’ll spoil the ending for you: at this stage, MSC concludes that the U.S. Atlantic dogfishery meets the criteria to be certified as sustainable.  This is an interesting and somewhat surprising result for reasons involving both the dogfish themselves and the potential for bycatch.

First, a brief summary of how MSC goes about conducting its assessments.  Fisheries are judged based on three principles: 1 – sustainability of the fish stock, 2 – minimizing environmental impact, and 3 – effective management.  Broadly, principle 1 looks at the health of the target stock and how well it can handle fishing pressure.  Principle 2 is where issues like bycatch and other environmental impacts come into play, and the standards here probably receive the most criticism of any part of the MSC certification process.  Finally, principle 3 looks at the local management and whether it’s equipped to effectively set and enforce policies encouraging sustainable harvest.  Each of these principles is graded on a 0-100 scale, and if a fishery has an overall average of 80 or greater, it gets the coveted blue sticker.  Note that this means a fishery can score under 80 on one of those principles and still be certified if the overall average is high enough.  Because MSC can only be in so many places at once, it usually uses third party companies to conduct assessments.  For more detail on MSC’s standards and how they apply to spiny dogfish, check the interview with Moody Marine, Ltd’s Ian Scott, who headed up this particular assessment and was gracious enough to answer a few questions earlier in the process.

The spiny dogfish fishery, as assessed by MSC and Moody, is made up of gillnetters, longliners, and trawlers.  Each of these fisheries were assessed individually for both state and federal waters, but scored above 80 overall in all cases.  The breakdown of the scores is interesting, if not surprising.  Let’s look at it from each principle.

Principle 1 – Stock Health:  Since all methods involve the same species and stock, the scores for Principle 1 were universally 84.4.  This is a bit on the low end, which is not surprising for a long-lived, slow-growing, late-maturing species like spiny dogfish.  MSC acknowledges that the population is due for another dip from 2012-2017, as dogfish from the overfished years in the late 90s start hitting reproductive age.  However, they cite the generally cheery outlook for the stock provided by NMFS assessments and other scientific sources.  Effective management seems to have prevented a true stock collapse and set it well on the road to recover (more on that with Principle 3).  “Cautious optimism” is the tone for Atlantic dogfish management.

Principle 2 – Environmental Impacts: It shouldn’t be surprising that this is where the fishery gets its lowest marks, because all three fishing methods are problematic for environmental impact.  Gillnets scored the worst, barely passing at 80.3 in both state and federal waters.  Longlines scored the best in this category with 81.7 in both fishing areas, while trawls were the only method to differ between state and federal waters, earning 81.0 in federal waters and 80.7 in state waters.  All of these fishing methods have a long history of bycatch problems due to their indiscriminate nature.  Longlining, the best performer in Principle 2, is the focus of a protest movement against the MSC certification of Canadian swordfish.  In the case of trawling, habitat destruction from dragging the net across the bottom is just as much a concern as bycatch.  One of the big issues facing a sustianable dogfish fishery in this region is that dogfish tend to co-occur with other fish stocks that are in much worse shape, particularly Atlantic cod.  Hell, dogfish are still best-known as a pest bycatch species that keeps fishermen from catching cod.  Add in the issues with endangered species entanglement and it’s actually surprising that the scores weren’t lower for this category.

Principle 3 – Management Effectiveness: Fishermen may gripe about NOAA/NMFS and the Magnusen-Stevens Act, but the United States has one of the best-organized and equipped fisheries management systems in the world.  While far from perfect, at least our local management agencies put serious effort into keeping track of landings, assessing populations, and putting in place those conservation measures that make them so popular with fishermen.  Where European management bodies seem to need the international community to force them to do anything effective, the U.S. has a reputation for taking the initiative on fisheries issues.  With regard to spiny dogfish, the U.S. is currently the only country with an actual management plan in place.  Depending on your opinion of NOAA and the regional councils, the high grade (92.8) given to the management portion of this assessment is either a pat on the back for the U.S. or a commentary on just how screwed fish stock are in general.

Because of the barely-passing scores in the environmental impact principle, the U.S. Atlantic spiny dogfish fishery has passed the standards for MSC certification, but with conditions.  The MSC team states that annual audits will be conducted to determine if the fishery is still holding up its end of the sustainability bargain, and that the participants must put together an Action Plan for meeting the standards of sustainability.  Whether the MSC has much in the way of teeth in enforcing these standards is uncertain.

This is still just the first draft of the eventual certification, so the status of the fishery could change, but right now it looks like U.S. Atlantic spiny dogfish are on the way to sustainable status.  Fishermen hope this will lead to a higher market price and more of a local market for the species, and it will certainly be a great bargaining chip if dogfish come up for CITES listing again (U.S. fishermen stand to win out even if dogfish end up listed, and sustainability certification would really help.  More on that on a later date…).  However, there are still issues with stock health and serious issues with the environmental impact of the fishing methods.  The problems with environmental impact may be insurmountable.

In my opinion, certifying Atlantic dogfish is just a little premature, and I’d prefer the MSC wait and see what happens with the latest hiccup in the dogfish population that should be starting this year.  I also think the attempt to list all three main gear types is a bit of an overreach: the MSC’s case is probably best made for longlines.  I just don’t see all the issues with gillnets and trawls being addressed in time for the complete assessment.  I do think the certification of the dogfish fishery is a worthy goal and if done right could serve as a motivator to fish the species responsibly.

But I’m just one blogger.  What do you think?



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