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Is the menhaden fishery certifiably “sustainable”?
Not yet it isn’t.
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is recommending that the Atlantic menhaden purse seine fishery, the largest commercial fishery on the east coast, be certified as “sustainable”. We don’t believe it is, for the simple reason that the fishery does not meet the MSC’s own standard for protecting the ecological role of key low trophic level fish, or forage fish, of which menhaden is arguably the most important.
For menhaden, going by the MSC’s guidelines, “the default target reference point (TRP) shall be 75% of the spawning stock level that would be expected in the absence of fishing, i.e., 75%B0”. The stock is currently well below that level, at 46.7% B0, according to the most recent assessment.
So how does menhaden pass the MSC’s sustainability test? Unfortunately the performance indicator for evaluating key forage species like menhaden is only one of many indicators considered in an assessment (others include monitoring, available data, management measures, enforcement, etc.). The TRP cited above is the minimum standard for achieving a passing score of 80 for ecologically-based reference points. The fishery can achieve certification by scoring less than 80 on some performance indicators and more than 80 on others as long as the average score for all components of the assessment is 80 or above.
In other words, menhaden passes because it is managed well as a single species, even though its role as prey in the ecosystem is unaccounted for in the setting of management goals. Isn’t this precisely what we’re all trying to get beyond?
Wild Oceans worked with the MSC from 2007-10 through numerous meetings and workshops convincing them to strengthen their fisheries assessment guidance on low trophic level fisheries, which they did in 2011. However, we pointed out throughout this process that because of the way the Council set up its scoring system, the biggest shortcoming is that fisheries targeting forage fish could still, in theory, be awarded the MSC label without any management practices in place to specifically protect their unique and critical role in the ecosystem. Theory is now practice.
Finally, it’s noteworthy that in amending its Atlantic Menhaden Fishery Management Plan in 2017, ostensibly to incorporate ecological reference points, the ASMFC considered reference points that mirror those recommended by the MSC (target 75%B0, limit 40%B0) but rejected them in favor of developing its own ecosystem models to apply to the next assessment in 2020. Ironically, the menhaden industry dismissed the MSC’s standards for conserving forage species as inapplicable to menhaden.
A formal objection to menhaden certification has been filed by several fishing and environmental groups. Regardless of the outcome, what the MSC does or doesn’t do regarding menhaden should have no bearing on the ASMFC’s commitment to implement an ecosystem-based fishery management plan in 2020.