Over sixty global organisations have singled out two major New Zealand fisheries in a letter to the Marine Stewardship Council, heavily criticising the agency for certifying fisheries as sustainable, despite their destructive environmental impacts.
The open letter states the MSC is “increasingly allowing fisheries with widely unacceptable impacts to be certified as sustainable,” and calls for “urgent implementation of critical improvements” to the certification process.
The Marine Stewardship Council’s sustainability certification is recognised globally by consumers as a trusted standard for the sustainability of fish products. The certification is highly valued by fishing industries around the world.
However, the MSC has been the focus of on ongoing criticism from environmental organisations for its controversial certification decisions.
Forest & Bird has previously criticised the MSC for certifying New Zealand’s orange roughy and hoki fishery, which are ranked as ‘worst choice’ in Forest & Bird’s Best Fish Guide app.
Karen Baird, Forest & Bird’s seabird advocate says “Despite passing three MSC certification assessments, New Zealand’s hoki fishery has ongoing and increasing levels of bycatch of critically endangered Salvin’s albatross.
“All seabird deaths in the hoki fishery have continued to increase over the last few years, when they should be declining if fishers were using sustainable fishing practices.
“It is ridiculous that the majority of New Zealand’s orange roughy stock are certified as sustainably fished. Their population has been decimated by years of over-fishing, and under reporting of landed catch. Orange roughy is caught by bottom trawling, probably the single worst fishing method, which effectively bulldozes sea floor species and destroys fragile ocean habitats.”
The 66 signatories to the letter, which include Forest & Bird and Greenpeace, have called on MSC “to ensure that the full ecological impacts of a certified fishery are assessed and improved and fisheries are not wasteful of marine lives and resources”.
Greenpeace Oceans Campaigner Oliver Knowles says “To have given the New Zealand Hoki and Orange Roughy fisheries an MSC blue tick for sustainability is simply to deceive the public. These fisheries continue to have serious problems associated with them including harm to other species, to fish stocks and to the sea bed. It’s little wonder that the growing coalition of voices calling for reform of the MSC use these two New Zealand fisheries as clear examples of the MSC’s current failings.’
“Calls for urgent reform of the MSC are growing louder all of the time. There are simply too many fisheries with serious environmental problems being certified as ‘sustainable’ and this is hugely misleading to consumers in New Zealand and around the world who want to buy seafood that doesn’t harm the ocean and the life in it.”
“For critically endangered species such as the Salvin’s albatross, this situation requires urgent action. One would expect for a fishery certified as sustainable, not once but three times, this would have been addressed as a matter of urgency. This is not the case," says Ms Baird.
“Until the impact of commercial fisheries on the whole ocean environment is addressed, MSC can’t be considered a credible agency. They need to change their assessment process so that fisheries which are responsible for killing endangered seabirds and other protected animals cannot claim to be sustainable.”
Further notes on the orange roughy and hoki fisheries
New Zealand’s orange roughy have suffered from years of over-fishing on the spawning grounds, which has decimated populations. Although quotas have been reduced in recent years, serious concerns remain as they may not be enough. Nothing is known about roughy recruitment and there is a mismatch between model projections and catch information. Most populations are now below 20% of their original unfished size with one reduced to just 3%.
As well as stock concerns, orange roughy is caught by bottom trawling, which destroys sea floor species assemblages and fragile seamount habitats. It effectively bulldozes the sea floor demolishing black corals, lace corals, coral trees, colourful sponge fields and long-lived bryozoans, some aged at over 500 years old. Deepwater sharks and other non-target fish species are also caught, which alters marine food web dynamics. As a prey species for sperm whales and giant squid, orange roughy depletion has a direct impact on these deepwater species. Some orange roughy fisheries have also caught seabirds and marine mammals.
Orange Roughy continues to decline in value but is still one of the top ten most valuable export fish species, worth $42 million in 2010-11. Previously this was $200 million. Most is exported to the USA and Australia, with some to the UK where it is reportedly used by some fast food chains as fish fillet burgers. Orange roughy is also sold in New Zealand, for example as frozen fish fillets.
The bycatch of hundreds of NZ fur seals, albatrosses and petrels each year, plus bycatch of globally threatened basking sharks. When bottom trawling, the fishery has significant impacts on the seafloor, altering seabed communities.
Also of concern is the management of two stocks as one quota management area, the slow response to past stock declines so that large quota cuts were needed and the failure to take precautionary action in the face of potential stock recovery. (Quotas this year are being increased back to 130,000 tonnes - just over the level set following initial cuts in 2004. This increase is based on estimated that the west coast hoki stock are just within target levels for the first time in many years. Additional concerns include illegal mis-reporting of catches, the significant catches of small fish (over 40%) on the Chatham Rise and on the West Coast, plus the lack of a management plan.
Most hoki is exported to the USA, Europe - including the UK and Belgium – Japan and Australia. Hoki exports were worth $188 million in 2010-11,which was still well down from $346 million in 2001. The Fillet ’o’ Fish sold at McDonalds in New Zealand is hoki.