Whether or not you eat fish, you will probably have seen the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) logo on some fish products at your local supermarket. We are encouraged to trust this mark as evidence that the fish is sustainably caught. But what about whether any dolphins, porpoises or whales have been harmed or killed to bring us this fish? Accidental entanglement in fishing gear (or ‘bycatch’) is the single biggest killer of dolphins, porpoises and whales and it’s a horrific way to die. Our colleagues at Birdlife have reviewed how MSC considers bycatch measures in its certification, and WDC contributed to this important piece of work.
This bycatch review considered ‘protected species’ (dolphins, porpoises, seals, seabirds, sea turtles, sharks, skates and rays) in 23 fisheries (or groups of fisheries) which have been certified by the MSC (with the exception of one fishery, which withdrew before completing the process) to assess the effectiveness of the MSC criteria and standard in ensuring that the impacts of certified fisheries on these non-target species are minimised, or at least reduced.
In short, MSC fisheries don’t monitor or mitigate adequately to understand or prevent levels of protected species bycatch. Only three of the fisheries reviewed achieved an overall green score, alongside 12 amber and eight red.
And specifically for dolphins, porpoises and whales, generally, we lack data and where data does exist, it is very worrying in a number of cases. This is the situation in the six categories of fisheries that were reviewed:
- Northwest Atlantic snow crab and lobster trap fisheries are contributing to a decline in North Atlantic Right Whales.
- North Atlantic gillnet fisheries are likely to be having population level effects on harbour porpoises.
- North Sea mixed fisheries are a mixed bag with an unknown level of impact on bottlenose and white-beaked dolphins.
- North Atlantic longline fisheries have a population level impact on short-finned pilot whales and may be having a population level impact on northern bottlenose whales.
- Southern hemisphere trawl fisheries are contributing to a population decline in Māui dolphins.
Tuna purse seine fisheries are a mixed bag too, with reductions in dolphin bycatch from historical times in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, but still no recovery of populations since previously very high levels of bycatch.
MSC is beginning a Fisheries Standard Review that will take two years to complete, and will include consideration of protected species bycatch. The study concludes that MSC must strengthen the bycatch elements of the MSC standard, to prevent fisheries with unacceptably high impacts from being certified and to ensure that mortality of non-target species in certified fisheries is monitored and prevented, as standard.
Until that happens, you simply cannot eat fish, unless it is caught by pole and line, with any kind of certainty that dolphins, porpoises, whales and other protected species have not died in the fishing process - even if it does carry an MSC stamp of approval.