I’ll confess that I was lukewarm on general seafood guides before I started researching this article. If most people followed the good ones, they’d force sustainable management and reduce bycatch. But the point is that most people don’t and won’t. This from John McMurray, New York State’s representative on the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, a regional body that writes regulations for commercial and recreational fisheries in federal waters under NMFS oversight: “Seafood guides educate people, but a minority. Personal conservation choices don’t mean much if public policy isn’t changed. I don’t think there’s a direct impact. If it’s on the menu, the general public is going to think it’s okay to eat.”
Lee Crockett, director of federal fisheries policy for the Pew Environment Group, agrees. “If you define effectiveness as raising public awareness and getting people to think about how fish are caught and what fish you should eat, I think guides have done a good job,” he says. “But I question the notion that the way people buy seafood is going to reduce demand for fish that are not caught sustainably.”
What I had not realized, however, is that seafood guides work in more subtle and indirect ways than simply influencing consumer demand. Here’s how: Safina gets an irate letter from the halibut fishermen’s association in British Columbia. How dare he endorse the halibut fishery in Alaska as sustainable and ecologically relatively benign and simultaneously reject B.C.’s when B.C. halibut are part of the same international stock, when they’re managed under the same plan, and when the B.C. halibut fleet uses the same fishing gear? Safina explains that Alaska halibut fishermen employ “albatross avoidance lines”—ropes festooned with brightly colored streamers. They’re towed from each side of the boat and scare away albatrosses and other seabirds so that, as the “longline” (from which dangle thousands of baited hooks) is paid out, it has time to sink out of the birds’ reach. Albatross avoidance lines are simple and cheap, and reduce avian mortality by about 97 percent. Safina gets this response: “Oh, is that all? Okay, we’ll start using them, too.” They did, and now the B.C. halibut fishery is endorsed.
So huge, influential, and controversial is the MSC that it merits special attention. MSC offices in London, Seattle, Tokyo, Sydney, The Hague, Edinburgh, Berlin, Cape Town, Stockholm, and Paris have labeled 103 fisheries and have 134 under “full assessment” and about 50 under “confidential pre-assessment” by third-party certifiers. Big grocery chains like Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, and Europe’s Waitrose carry fish packaged with MSC’s blue check-mark label.
But lately the MSC has come under intense fire from ocean advocates. “It often certifies part of a fishery,” remarks Crockett. “How does the consumer know that the fish is from the part of the fishery that’s certified? There’s no good tracking.” Other critics cite the MSC’s certification of the South Georgia Island toothfish fishery. “Welcome Back Chilean Seabass!” whooped Whole Foods in an ad that gave the impression that everything everywhere was fine and dandy. Largely lost on the public is the fact that the certification represents only about 10 percent of the fishery and that most of it is illegal, unreported, and dominated by pirate vessels that unload their catches in such countries as Namibia and Mauritius, getting as much as $1,000 per fish.
Those critics have a point, but here’s a side of the story that hasn’t been reported: The South Georgia fleet wanted to improve the black image of toothfish, so it started bootstrapping itself. It solved its seabird bycatch problem with the same kind of avoidance lines that won the B.C. halibut fishery endorsement by the Blue Ocean Institute, reducing mortality from tens of thousands of albatrosses and petrels a year to almost zero. It placed observers on all its vessels to ensure that these devices were deployed and that toothfish landings were legal and accurately reported. When the MSC finally certified the South Georgia fleet, the Ross Sea toothfish fleet became envious and implemented reforms that won it certification also.
“The fishing industry pays for MSC certification,” says Crockett. “The applicant hires a third-party certifier. That’s not independence. Then MSC gets a percentage [0.5 percent of the wholesale value] of the sale of the product from labeled companies.”
Kerry Coughlin, the MSC’s regional director for the Americas, counters with this: “The system can’t create a bias because certification is completely isolated from the MSC. It’s done by independent contracted auditors—a team of scientific experts. The process is open and transparent. Of course they get paid, just like auditors who audit businesses.” Still, the incentive is clearly there for the MSC to make its process more welcoming to marginal operations.