NOAA Ponders Seafood Certification

“SHOULD THE GOVERNMENT GET INTO THE BUSINESS OF CERTIFYING FISHERIES?”

By Ken Hinman

The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is seeking public input on a proposal to certify United States seafood as “sustainable.”  The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which sets the standards for federally-managed fisheries, would provide the basis for the certification criteria, according to the proposal.

The impetus for this initiative comes from some (but not all) in the U.S. fishing industry, who like the idea of labeling their products to show wholesalers and retailers they are “green.”  They are generally unhappy, however, with the proliferation of sustainable seafood guides and eco-labels, each with its own assessment process and criteria.  Unquestionably, the industry prefers the position taken by NOAA on its consumer-targeted Fish Watch web site, which claims that “(i)f it’s harvested in the United States, it is inherently sustainable as a result of the rigorous U.S. management process that ensures fisheries are continuously monitored, improved, and sustainable.”

Of course, not everyone would agree with that statement, so we can expect that identifying specific criteria for certification will be difficult and contentious.  The purpose of this first-round of public outreach, which ends May 28, 2014, is to float recommendations made by the Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee (MAFAC is a stakeholder panel appointed to advise the Secretary of Commerce) while seeking alternative suggestions.  Wild Oceans will submit written comments to NOAA during the month of May.

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Giving a national seal-of-approval to domestic seafood products (imports are not eligible) would have two possible effects.  The first is at the business-to-business level, with the “sustainability” brand potentially influencing choices made by seafood buyers (it wouldn’t be aimed at consumers, says MAFAC, to avoid conflicts with existing seafood guides).  This outcome is openly desired by the seafood industry.  A second possible outcome, however, is unacknowledged.  What message will a government stamp of “sustainability” send to fishery managers, i.e., will there be an inference that, because these fisheries are “sustainable,” additional regulation would be superfluous?  If it shifts the burden of proof, and that’s certainly a possibility, it’s critical that the certification bar be set as high as possible.

Using the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) as the standard for certification is not as straightforward as it might seem.  The only clear-cut designations that can be made under the Act are:  1) whether or not a fishery is the object of a management plan and is in compliance with that plan; 2) whether or not a stock assessment has been performed recently; and 3) whether or not overfishing is occurring or the stock is overfished.  If these become the criteria – and that’s what MAFAC seems to be suggesting – what about the goal of minimizing bycatch of non-target fish and other wildlife?  It’s one of the MSA’s National Standards (#9), yet it’s not always adequately enforced.  Battles over bycatch continue in a number of fisheries, e.g., Gulf of Mexico longline, northeast trawl, and west coast gill net.  And what about “ecosystem overfishing,” which is getting a lot of attention as we move into an ecosystems approach to fisheries management?  There may not be any federally-managed forage species on the overfished list, but neither do they satisfy emerging standards for “sustainability” from an ecological standpoint.

There is also the matter of developing criteria now, when the MSA itself is being re-authorized by Congress.  Some of its provisions may be re-written, possibly the National Standards.  Amendments to some of the existing standards are being proposed, as is the addition of new ones.  The law’s requirements to end overfishing and rebuild overfished fisheries, the absolute baseline for defining any kind of “sustainability”, could be weakened during reauthorization, if some have their way.

Throughout this discussion I have purposefully written the word “sustainable” in quotation marks, for the simple reason that there is no agreed-upon definition, not in the MSA.  (MAFAC notes that Congress could add a definition to the Act, but until it does, it’s a “policy choice” for NOAA.)  As one example of what “sustainability” means, the MAFAC report cites the definition used by the Marine Stewardship Council, an international certifying body.  The MSC inarguably has the most elaborate criteria for assessing fisheries and a very rigorous scoring system.  And yet it still ends up certifying fisheries that many conservation groups view as “unsustainable,” for a variety of reasons, which just shows how difficult this whole enterprise can be.

Finally, it’s one thing for a private entity to rate fisheries or seafood products.  It’s something else when the government gets into the business.  What are we to make of giving NOAA the last word on what is “sustainable” and what is not, when that is ultimately making a judgment on its own performance?  NOAA Fisheries could be completely objective, given the right criteria; or it could, as MAFAC unadvisedly suggests, use certification to “proudly promote and defend the decades of fishery management accomplishments that have made U.S. fisheries some of the most well-managed and sustainable in the world.”

Absolutely, we should be promoting our collective achievements in fisheries conservation and management, which are many.  But we must be very careful not to do so in a way that will make it difficult to do better.  There is much work yet to be done, even within so-called “sustainable” fisheries.

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