Are U.S. Fish Really "Sustainable"?

May 22, 2014
TO: NOAA Fisheries
FROM: Ken Hinman, President
This letter is in response to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) request for public input on a
Wild Oceans Comments on Sustainable Seafood Certification
proposal to certify United States seafood as “sustainable.” The impetus for this initiative, according to NOAA, 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,” but are generally unhappy with the proliferation of sustainable seafood guides and eco-labels, each with its own assessment process and criteria.
The proposal, which is based on the recommendations of the Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee (MAFAC), suggests that the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which sets the standards for federally-managed fisheries, should provide the baseline criteria for certification. Evidently MAFAC agrees with 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.”
Not everyone would agree with that statement and 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, although the panel also suggests that overfished stocks under rebuilding plans might quality as well – what about the goal of minimizing bycatch of non-target fish and other wildlife? It’s one of the MSA’s National Standards (#9), and yet it’s not often not adequately enforced. Battles over bycatch continue in a number of fisheries, e.g., Gulf of Mexico longline, northeast trawl and west coast drift gill net, to name just a few. And what about “ecosystem overfishing,”
which is gaining increased and well-deserved attention as the nation moves into an ecosystems approach to fisheries management? There may not be any federally-managed forage species on the Secretary’s overfished list, but neither do they satisfy
emerging standards for “sustainability” from an ecological standpoint.
We have to wonder what message a government-sponsored stamp of “sustainability” will send to federal fishery managers, i.e., will there be an inference that, because these fisheries are certified “sustainable,” additional regulation would be superfluous? The proposal does not acknowledge that a possible outcome of such a program would be a shifting of the burden of proof away from precaution for certified fisheries, a serious concern if the certification bar is set too low, as it is in this proposal.
The MSA does not contain a definition of “sustainable.” 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, an example that underscores how difficult it is to achieve consensus on what is “sustainable.” The MSC arguably 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.”
As for leaving it up to NOAA to define sustainability as a matter of policy, we believe it is one thing for a private entity to rate fisheries or seafood products. It’s something else entirely when the government gets into the business. It seems to us a conflict of interest for NOAA to decide what is “sustainable” and what is not, since it is ultimately making a judgment on its own performance. NOAA Fisheries could be completely objective, given the proper 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.
Finally, we question the timing of the proposal, when the MSA itself is being re-authorized by Congress. Some of its provisions will likely be re-written, possibly even the National Standards. The law’s requirements to end overfishing and rebuild overfished fisheries, the absolute baseline for defining any kind of “sustainability”, are under review, with proposals to either weaken them or make them stronger, for example with new requirements regarding ecosystem planning and new standards for forage species.
NOAA asks for alternative approaches or changes that we could support. What we would recommend instead is focusing our collective attention and resources on a national discussion of what our “sustainability” goals are; a discussion that is now getting underway with the upcoming reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
Thank you for considering our views.