The controversy around catching toothfish in the Antarctic's Ross Sea is outside the scope of sustainable fishing certifier the Marine Stewardship Council, its chief executive said in Nelson yesterday.
The British-based MSC has certified the toothfish catch as sustainable, along with New Zealand-caught hoki, albacore tuna and southern blue whiting, prompting criticism from those fighting to have the entire Ross Sea declared a Marine Protected Area, with all fishing banned.
But Rupert Howes said each fishery stood or fell on the science and the evidence when it was put forward for assessment.
The independent certifiers pulled together teams of independent scientists to look at each fishery and assess it against the MSC's standard for environmental responsibility and sustainable fishing.
"We follow all the UN rules on what constitutes a credible certification and labelling programme and one of those rules stipulates you cannot be prescriptive and exclude any fishery coming forward on its gear type, its geography or its species."
The Ross Sea toothfish fishery had been found to meet the standard and was therefore certified, meaning the fish can be labelled as sustainably caught - an increasingly sought-after distinction as consumers become more concerned about the effects of their food choices.
"The controversy relates to the fact that some people want to close the Ross Sea down to fishing, and they see a contradiction between the two. It's beyond the MSC, because that's a separate issue on the whole MPA area," Mr Howes said.
The MSC, founded by the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever in 1997, became an independent not-for-profit organisation in 1999 and is a registered charity in Britain, with a similar status in the United States.
It draws about half its funding from trusts and foundations and the other half from those who use the MSC labelling - mainly retailers and processors.
Mr Howes said the programme had about 300 fisheries "at one stage or other in the assessment process, landing about 12 per cent of the global harvest". New Zealand, hake, ling and scallops are currently being assessed.
The MSC has come under recent criticism from some environmentalists, who say that it has certified species that should not be described as sustainably caught, but Mr Howes said the scientific research underpinning every assessment gave the certification its credibility.
"We now have academically peer-reviewed literature that demonstrates fisheries around the world, where they need to, are changing the way the fish the oceans to meet the MSC standard.
"That's good for the industry - their livelihoods depend on that resource being managed sustainably - good for the marine environment, and good for consumers, because we can carry on eating fish and enjoying it into the future, knowing our children will be able to as well."
Certification was withdrawn if the fishery no longer met the required standard.
This had recently been done for six European mackerel certificates because of concerns about the stock, while the Portuguese sardine, "a very iconic fishery fished since Roman times" had its certification withdrawn and then reinstated when the standard was once again met.
"Yes, there is controversy. People will have different ideas where that bar for sustainability is set. We are adamant ours is a science-based programme and it's an ecological sustainability standard, and we stand by that."
Mr Howes was in Nelson to meet seafood industry representatives. His visit to New Zealand includes meetings with conservation organisations and government officials. There is also a cocktail reception in Auckland tomorrow night jointly hosted by the quota-owning Deepwater Group, the NZ Tuna Management Association, the Ministry for Primary Industries and the MSC to celebrate the hoki, albacore tuna and southern blue whiting certification - in hoki's case for the third time.
"This is a real achievement," Mr Howes said.
"We estimate perhaps only 10 or 15 per cent of global fisheries could achieve the MSC standard, and many of them are in New Zealand.
"This is a celebration of well-managed and sustainable fisheries."
He said it was in the interests of all people to see global fisheries managed sustainability.
"You do need advocacy - environmental NGOs have an important part to play in management of the issues - and then you need market-based programmes like the MSC to create the incentives for sustainable fishing.
"There's no silver bullet."
In 2001 New Zealand hoki was the first major whitefish fishery to earn MSC certification. It was re-certified in 2007 and again in August last year. The total allowable commercial catch is 130,000 tonnes for the 2012-13 year. Southern blue whiting, which has a TACC of 43,408 tonnes, was certified in August last year. Albacore tuna are migratory fish and sit outside the New Zealand quota management system. The New Zealand fishery is managed under the Western and Central Pacific Fishery Commission. The New Zealand tuna troll fishery gained MSC certification in June 2011. The Ross Sea toothfish fishery was certified in 2010. This year's combined catch limit for all 25 nations linked to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), is 3812 tonnes. Independent certifiers grade each applicant fishery on maintenance of the target fish stock, maintenance of the ecosystem and effectiveness of the fishery management system to determine if it meets the MSC sustainability standard. The fish is then able to carry the blue MSC eco-label. Certification is for five years, audited annually.
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