Saving Seafood
Boston Seafood Show Science Forum Suggests ENGOs are Misleading Public on Sustainability

March 12, 2013 -- The dominant view expressed by leading fisheries scientists at the Boston meeting was that the NGOs have a profound misunderstanding about the scientific basis of sustainability.

A link to the official press release from the American Institute of Fisheries Research Biologists and the Ocean Trust Foundation appears beneath this news analysis from News.


NEWS ANALYSIS by John Sackton (SEAFOOD.COM NEWS) March 12, 2013  -- Just prior to the Boston Seafood show, some of the world's leading fisheries scientists gathered for a Science and Sustainability Forum organized by the American Institute of Fisheries Research Biologists and the Ocean Trust Foundation.

The contrast between the scientific message about sustainability and the actions of the three most powerful environmental organizations in fisheries (World Wildlife Foundation, the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, and the Marine Stewardship Council) could not have been made more clear.
The World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP), and the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) all do important work contributing to major improvements in the seafood industry. They have highlighted poor practices, they have supported rigorous science, and they have contributed money and established valuable partnerships with many companies, including producers, processors and retail and foodservice operators.
Virtually the entire industry can agree on the benefits of improving fisheries management, research, and operations.
Yet this partnership breaks down under the surface, as both WWF and SFP firmly believe that the end result of their work is "MSC" certification of fisheries as sustainable. They are not willing to adopt scientifically determined sustainability as their goal, but insist that MSC imprimatur is somehow more critical than scientific data.
Where they mislead the industry is that their definition of 'sustainable' does not pass scientific muster.
The dominant view expressed by leading fisheries scientists at the Boston meeting was that the NGOs have a profound misunderstanding about the scientific basis of sustainability.
Participants in the forum included:
- Svein Sundby, Norway Institute of Marine Research;
- Ray Hilborn, University of Washington;
- Bill Fox WWF and ISSF;
- Steve Cadrin, University of Massachusetts;
- Indroyono Soesilo, Director FAO Fisheries & Aquaculture Use & Conservation;
- Grimur Valdimarsson, Iceland;
- Stephen Hall, World Fish Center UK;
- Michael Sissenwine, former chief scientist NOAA;
- Kevin Sullivan, New Zealand Ministry of Fisheries;
- Randall Brummett, World Bank, Sustainable Aquaculture;
  and many others.
Here are some of the conclusions, adopted at the end of the scientific forum. The actual consensus statements are italicized here.
Fisheries in developed nations are steadily rebuilding and further improvements in stock status is expected to continue. For these fisheries in aggregate, 'sustainability' is being achieved through successful application of good fishery management practices.
Information from assessed or surveyed stocks shows that fisheries for those stocks have been sustainability managed for the last few decades. Data shows that overfishing has been reduced in most developed countries and some developing countries. There have been considerable successes in rebuilding, and current fishing rates are expected to lead to further improvements in stock status over time. In comparison to other sources of nutrition, seafood is relatively environmentally- friendly.
There is a significant misunderstanding of terms like overfishing, overfished, and over-exploited. These terms refer to a rate of fishing that is not optimal, but do not refer to whether a fishery is sustainable. A sustainable fishery may experience periods of non-optimal rates of fishing but can still be sustainable under all commonly accepted definitions of that term. The key is that any overfishing is quickly corrected.
Effective management systems will include adequate responsive action to end overfishing and avoid irreversible harm.
Sustainability is the result of a process of a well-designed and implemented fishery management system. The performance of management systems is more meaningful than the status of any single stock. Fishery products from well-managed systems (e.g., many US marine fisheries) should be considered to be sustainably harvested. Fishery resources are subject to environmental change, and not all stocks respond to fishery management as expected, often because of a lack of understanding about environmental factors. Advances are needed to incorporate environmental variability, consider mixed-stock fisheries and develop an ecosystem basis for fisheries management.
Given the progress in reducing overfishing and rebuilding stocks in well established management systems where the fishery resources are adequately assessed, further improvements should be promoted for unassessed stocks to achieve management objectives. Current management challenges involve modifying static single species models of fish stocks to how fisheries ecosystems behave in a changing climate.
The cumulative impact of WWF, SFP, and MSC has been a concerted campaign to convince buyers and the public that unless a fishery actually is assessed against the MSC standard it is not 'sustainable'. This is a great falsehood. Numerous fisheries are being sustainably managed today, regardless of whether they have entered into an MSC assessment process or not. These fisheries meet every scientific criteria for sustainability yet the WWF, SFP and the MSC urge their partners not to accept products from these fisheries. And some fisheries in the MSC are lumped together with others that have vastly superior management and practices.
The net result is that any approach that attempts to equate the MSC standard with "sustainability" and conflate the two does real harm to the seafood industry. It makes buyers and the public suspicious of fisheries that are fully sustainable and managed for long term ecosystem health, but which may not have an MSC logo.

Within the retail community itself, this approach promotes radically different standards for seafood products than for any other food group. It is a given that human food production modifies the environment, even at the hunter gatherer stage.
Agriculture, on the whole, is far more destructive of the original ecosystem than marine fisheries, which are the result of a managed wild ecosystem, not the wholesale replacement of a natural ecosystem with a new man-made ecosystem.
Yet the seafood industry is called an environmental villain while terrestrial agriculture is accepted as productive land use.
The environmental groups have promoted this double standard, and they have been abetted by retailers who are less interested in the science of sustainability than in not being picketed outside their store.
At the Science conference, and on the show floor, there is a sense that the battle to apply scientific understanding to fisheries sustainability has been lost, because retailers will not accept scientific arguments on their merits, but only if they meet the ideological tests of the NGOs. Bowing to greenmail and avoiding controversy trumps science every time.
This is a battle that hurts the seafood industry, and the global food industry. It totally fails to address problems such as food security for a growing population, and the role that sustainable marine protein has to play. It focuses huge time and effort in a battle over whether salmon in Alaska, which virtually all NGOs and fisheries scientists recognize as extremely well managed, is best represented by having an MSC label or not.
Meanwhile, the real issues in fisheries conservation are ignored. A true agenda for the SFP, WWF and the MSC might include advocating strongly for fisheries habitat protections. The Pebble mine is a perfect example. That mine is a true threat to sustainable salmon - yet what mileage do the NGOs get out of spending money to oppose it and educate the public. The MSC and others should be crying alarm about the potential impact of the Pebble mine to every salmon buyer on the globe.
They might also focus on improving fisheries assessment and research in Africa and Asia. There is a widespread recognition that in many less developed countries, catch reporting is little more than guess work, yet accurate understanding of catch and stock status is essential for sustainable management.
The ISSF (International Seafood Sustainability Foundation), fully supported by the WWF, has been an outstanding example of focusing resources where they are needed - in providing science to better support tuna fisheries decision making, and in lobbying managers to adopt scientifically determined management strategies.
If the NGO movement were to follow the scientists advice about fisheries sustainability, we would see more international NGO efforts like the ISSF, and less effort whose goals are simply to increase the use of the MSC label.
But instead we are caught up in a false battle over what constitute true sustainability, and until the WWF and SFP are willing to broaden their goals beyond MSC certification, this is where the sustainability movement will remain, and it will lose relevance over time. 
Google shows that public interest in "sustainable seafood" based on word searches peaked in 2005, and has been declining since then. Let's rekindle that interest with a new approach that celebrates our success in terms of true scientific achievements. These include much more than just the growth in the use of the MSC label.


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Read the press release about the forum from the American Institute of Fisheries Research Biologists and the Ocean Trust Foundation 


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