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MSC’s Certification of Turtle-Deadly Swordfish Generates News Coverage

Over the official objection by SeaTurtles.org and major ocean conservation groups, the Marine Stewardship Council certified the turtle-deadly Florida swordfish fishery. The bad news generated media coverage by McClatchy News,  Mother Jones and On Earth. Read the stories below.

 

Read the McClatchy News story here.

The Spoils of Sustainable Seafood


Mother Jones – The Spoils of Sustainable Seafood
—By Julia Whitty
| Fri Dec. 9, 2011 11:54 AM PST
Leatherback turtle on the nest. Credit: Hybrid Vigour / David Knight via Flickr.
The Florida longline swordfish fishery held onto its coveted received certification by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) as a “sustainable” seafood yesterday. CORRECTION: The Florida swordfish fishery is the first US longline fishery to get an MSC certification.
This despite the efforts of SeaTurtles.org* to challenge the designation.
The concern of conservationists is that:
•    The Florida swordfish fishery captured ~147 endangered leatherbacks and loggerheads from 2005 to 2009—a capture rate higher than the much larger Gulf of Mexico or Hawaii longline fleets.
•    The Florida longline swordfish fishery captures and dumps dead and dying billfish, bluefin tuna, and sharks overboard, an unsustainable practice.
This isn’t the first trouble the Marine Stewardship Council has generated. The self-appointed watchdog group was slapped down last year by a top-shelf collection of scientists for ignoring science in favor of bureaucracy. (I wrote about that here.)
This isn’t the first trouble the Marine Stewardship Council has generated. The self-appointed watchdog group was roughed up by reports its “sustainable” Chilean sea bass was neither sustainable nor sea bass.
Last August the MSC “sustainable” label was roughed up again when a paper in Current Biology reported that genetical sampling showed nearly 1 of every 5 fillets of Chilean sea bass certified as “sustainably caught” was neither Chilean sea bass, nor from an area deemed to have a sustainable fishery. (I wrote about that here.)
The concern of SeaTurtles.org is that the Florida swordfish certification was based on a piecemeal assessment and ignored the cumulative impacts of the fishery along the US Atlantic Seaboard.
Conservationists are also concerned that next in line for certification is the Canadian longline swordfish fishery, which captures at least 1,200 turtles a year.
Same turtles, travelling the same water highways. So when is the Marine Stewardship Council going to look at the big picture, you know, the sustainable one?
A better safe seafood guide: the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.
* In the interest of full disclosure: MoJo publisher Steve Katz is on the board of SeaTurtles.org’s parent organization, Turtle Island Restoration Network.

On Earth magazine
Off the Hook? Good News for Swordfish Fans Leaves Turtles in a Bind
BY BARRY ESTABROOK
December 16, 2011
Several years ago, I spent a few days on a boat with a University of Florida sea turtle research team off the Azorean island of Faial. Using a long-handled dip net, the biologists scooped juvenile loggerheads out of the ocean. Once aboard the ship, the turtles, about the size of dinner plates, were measured, weighed, biopsied, tagged with IDs, and, within minutes, released.
At least that’s what happened to all but two of the three dozen loggerheads we caught that day. The exceptions had strands of monofilament fishing line protruding from their mouths. They had become hooked after taking the bait of a surface longline set for swordfish. While one of the turtles was reasonably lively, flapping its flippers and snapping at any fingers that came near its beaklike jaws, the other was listless, barely able to move.
I thought of those young loggerheads, a species that the United States government considers threatened, when I learned that the Marine Stewardship Council, the premier eco-certification organization for seafood, had bestowed its official blessing on the southeast North Atlantic longline swordfish fishery.
For swordfish, certification is an indication of good news. After more than a decade of conservation efforts and strict catch limits, populations of the resilient species have been rebuilt. Seafood Watch now rates longline-caught swordfish brought to North American ports as a “good alternative” for consumers.
But conservationists working to save the loggerhead greeted the MSC announcement with dismay. The tagging effort that the students were undertaking that day in the Azores, along with other research, showed that those juveniles would someday swim across the Atlantic to spend their mature years off the coast of the United States and the Caribbean, near the beaches where they had hatched. In order to get there, they would have to run a gauntlet of longline hooks. But in part because of turtles being unintentionally caught, loggerhead populations remain stubbornly in decline despite decades of conservation efforts.
“There has not been enough observation of the fishery to determine the number of turtles killed,” said Teri Shore, the program director of SeaTurtles.org, a California-based conservation group, in a phone interview.
SeaTurtles.org filed an official objection to the MSC’s decision, which Shore described as a “travesty of economic power over scientific data.” She said that much more observation and study of turtle bycatch (the term for unwanted species caught by commercial fishermen) is needed before the Florida swordfish fishery can be described as sustainable. “Now, it’s basically false advertising. Consumers are going to think there’s nothing wrong with swordfish.”
Kerry Coughlin, the MSC’s regional director for the Americas, told me that the Florida swordfish fishery had made significant improvements to lessen turtle bycatch, including changing the size of hooks and avoiding fishing at night, when turtles are more likely to be feeding. She also said that the fishermen have agreed to increase independent monitoring of bycatch on their boats. Currently, only 8 percent of boats have at-sea observers aboard to keep track of bycatch. Over the next five years, that will rise to 100 percent. “At the current level, turtle bycatch on longlines set for swordfish off the southeast U. S. will not impede the recovery of turtle populations,” Coughlin said.
SeaTurtles.org’s Shore said that certification should have been withheld until 100-percent monitoring had proven that bycatch was not a cause of loggerheads’ continued decline. “The point is that these turtles are facing extinction.” She worries that certification of the southeastern fishery is but one step in a slippery slope. The MSC is currently auditing the Canadian swordfish fishery, which, Shore says, catches more than 1,200 turtles per year.
For me, there’s a personal issue here. By the time that research boat got back to port in the Azores, the weaker of the two hooked loggerheads had died. A subsequent necropsy revealed that the fishing line had become ensnarled with strands of seaweed to form a tight, tangled ball in the turtle’s esophagus, causing the animal to starve.
With the other turtle weakening, the researchers called in a local vet, who normally dealt with small animals and livestock, but had added loggerheads to his list of specialties after the researchers began bringing him hooked specimens. After a 45-minute procedure, he extracted a three-inch-long hook from the turtle’s throat. The next morning, when we went out to tag another day’s quota of loggerheads, the survivor was released. For a few minutes it floated listlessly beside the boat, but then gave a thrust of its flippers and disappeared into the blue depths.
Within a year or so, instinct would drive the maturing turtle toward its natal beach, very possibly somewhere along the eastern coast of Florida. For now, it was free, but far from being completely off the hook.
Photo: Oceana/MarMas