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Rebecca Dolson

Certified Sustainable Seafood, really?

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Through globalization consumers have become aware that the choices they make  in the grocery store matters. If you buy a certified organic, fair-trade, or sustainable product you may well pay more – but, you can rest easy knowing you are doing your best to spark a change in the way we manage our resources.

There are several seafood products on the shelves of our grocery stores that boast “sustainable” eco-labels. As consumers, we usually trust these eco-labels. We trust that there is a rigorous process in place and that this sustainable seafood product is something we can buy without a harsh rebuttal from our conservation conscience. But, is this true? What is the certification process behind these eco-labels: or is there one at all?

One well known example of an eco-label is the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). MSC is a non-profit organization whose eco-label is displayed on many seafood products in our grocery stores and offered as a choice in some restaurants. MSC‘s eco-label applies only to wild caught fish and fish products. It does not apply to farmed fish and fish products. Aquaculture products are assessed and labelled through the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC). MSC believes that through the eco-labelling process consumers will become aware of their sustainable seafood choices and support/reward those fisheries that are managing stocks sustainably by buying their products.  This could translate into more fisheries vying to become certified sustainable, and result in an overall improvement to our global fishery resources.

So how does a fishery become certified sustainable with MSC?


Becoming A Certified Fishery

The MSC does not certify a fishery itself. The MSC sets “sustainable” standards and an applicant fishery hires a trained, certified third-party assessor to compare the state of the fishery to the standards set by the MSC. If the fishery meets the standards it may use the MSC eco-label on its products. The cost to obtain an independent third-party certifier can be very high.  You might be wondering how rigorous the assessment of the fishery is; the MSC website states that the fishery must score at least 60% (80% aggregate for all Performance Indicators) for each performance indicator of the Core Principals (below).

The Core Principals of the MSC fisheries standard are:

1) Sustainable fish stocks  – fishing can continue indefinitely because the stock is harvested at a sustainable level

2) Minimizing environmental impact – fishing should maintain the structure, productivity, function, and diversity of the ecosystem

3) Effective management – the fishery must meet local, national, and international laws with management that is adaptable to changing situations to maintain sustainability


The Core Principals were developed by MSC in consultation with experts in many fields, and to be consistent with the best management practices of the world’s international organizations:

1) The Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing – (UN FAO)

2) Guidelines for the Eco-labelling of Fish and Fishery Products from Marine Capture – Fisheries (UN FAO)

3) The Code of Good Practice for Setting Social and Environmental Standards (ISEAL)

4) World Trade Organization Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement.

A fishery that meets the MSC standards of sustainable fishing may use (or purchase* the right to use) the MSC eco-label on their products. Audits are performed every five years on a certified fishery to ensure it still meets the standards.

(*Supply chain and restaurants using the MSC eco-label may pay a licensing fee)

Stakeholders play a key role in the assessment process and they and the public have ample opportunity to comment on the progress of the certification process and assessment.

It appears that MSC indeed has a very rigorous process to certify a fishery. So, when you see the MSC eco-label on your next fish food purchase you can rest easy…right?

Are Certified Fisheries More Sustainable?

A recent comprehensive assessment of MSC certified fisheries found that up to “ 74% of certified fisheries were above biomass levels that would produce maximum sustainable yield, compared with only 44% of uncertified fisheries.”In other words, fisheries that are certified by MSC are managing their fisheries well, so that the stock is considered healthy. It is important to note though, that the study also found that 44% – almost half!! – of the non-certified fisheries are doing OK too. See our blog on maximum sustainable yield (Over fishing: How can Scientist Tell?) to help understand this measurement.

That is a pretty big difference,  30% to be exact. That is great news. However, not everyone agrees.  Many conservation groups think that the MSC is too lenient; that far too many fisheries are certified despite their destructive nature to the environment and to non-target species.

Sea turtle advocates have fought against the certification of long-line fishery for swordfish because of the high turtle by-catch.

I am not suggesting, nor are many of the opponents to MSC, that the MSC program is of no value. Rather, the MSC certification process may be too lenient. One article found that up to 31% of MSC certified fisheries were not “sustainable”. The MSC responded by stating that the article used a different, and more stringent, definition of the term “overfishing” than what is used to define the MSC standards and if a fishery is “sustainable”.

Right now, there is not a lot of literature out there to say for sure, one way or the other, if certifying a fishery will result in an overall benefit to our global fisheries resources. The only thing we know for sure is that our management strategies over the last century have not always worked. It is our management system and how we value our fisheries resources that needs an overhaul.  Until then, I’ll be buying MSC products.

So, where do you stand on the MSC issue? I suggest, as with many green, sustainable, or eco-friendly labelled products out there, consumers still need to do their own research. Many of SUFB’s articles feature great apps and websites that can be used to help educate yourselves on the issue of sustainable fish products, and understanding the MSC eco-label is a great start.

Here are two great sources of information for more on fisheries ecolabelling and its potential effectiveness: – A presentation by the FAO – An Overview of Ecolabels and Sustainability Certifications in the Global Marketplace

Zoos and Aquariums: The Conservation Debate

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Sea Turtle in Aquarium

The Giant Pandas have returned to the Toronto Zoo for a visit that will last up to five years. The return of these cute and furry creatures, and the energetic response of the public, reminded me of the importance of zoos and aquariums. Zoos present endless opportunities for species conservation, research, and to raise public awareness. Zoos, said bluntly, are also enclosures: small replicas of the “wild” for the species confined within the zoo walls. I am sure many conservationists, like me, both appreciate the power of zoos and yet wonder why we can’t just appreciate these species from afar.

As an aquatic ecologist I sometimes find myself enjoying the diversity and richness of marine species I can see – in a few hours – in a large zoo or aquarium. But, I also experience a twinge of guilt when I see large majestic marine life confined to (what I assume are) unnaturally small enclosures. Surely Beluga whales, leatherback sea turtles, and even whale sharks are just too big and too transoceanic to be kept in an aquarium? But, are they? My first experience with a whale shark was not, as I had always imagined it would be, off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. Instead I first observed whale sharks in the Georgia Aquarium.


(Click the picture to see the Vancouver Aquariums Beluga Cam)

The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, USA, maintains 4 whale sharks in an aquarium of 6.3 million gallons. These whale sharks were captured from the wild in Taiwan; the whales were bought from fisherman who captured them (note: there is now a zero catch quota for whale sharks in Taiwan). In the Ocean Voyager exhibit I witnessed 4 juvenile whale sharks swim in the world’s largest aquarium with a host of other sharks, rays, and fish. I was blown away by their size and marveled at their feeding habits. I watched them and pondered the co-existence of so many large, and in some cases, predatory species. The Georgia Aquarium also offers the opportunity to enter the exhibit and swim with the gentle giants. I stopped short of enjoying this adventure believing, one day, I would have the immense luck to do that in the wild.


(Click the picture to see the Georgia Aquariums Whale Shark cam)

Did I enjoy seeing the whale sharks up close: absolutely! Did I also feel guilty that these large transoceanic animals swam in circles in a tank: again, absolutely. So, what good is coming from keeping whale sharks and other large marine animals in zoos and aquariums?

The Georgia Aquarium, like other zoos, provides an opportunity to raise public awareness and generate public support for the conservation of this species. Many zoos support or lead projects that are directly related to conservation of rare species, both in a zoo setting and in their native environment. Read up on the whale shark conservation projects the Georgia Aquarium supports or participates in here! The Toronto Zoo also participates in local and international outreach and education – read the full list here – such as the Crayfish Project and the Adopt a Pond program, to name a few.

When species become rare in the wild, zoos are often the last hope for those that are critically endangered. For example, rare and interesting species that were captured and sent to zoos all over the world provide a repository of genetic diversity from which we can rebuild wild populations.

Zoos and aquariums also provide arguably the best reproductive and captive breeding research in the world. The Toronto Zoo, for example, will be involved in attempts to promote breeding between the two recently arrived Giant Pandas.

In many instances, wild animals that have been injured are brought to the zoo or aquarium for rehabilitation before they are re-released back into the wild. The most famous rehabilitation-release event I can remember is, Free Willy. The Oregon Coast Aquarium assisted in the rehabilitation of the long-time captive Killer whale, Keiko, known to many as Free Willy. Many zoos around the world also offer rehabilitation programs to all kinds of animals such as dolphins and sea turtles.

In many countries zoos and aquariums are the first, or only, opportunity for youth to see and establish a connection with exotic environments and species. How many early childhood trips to the zoo or aquarium sparked a desire to pursue a career in science and conservation?

Zoos facilitate species conservation, species recovery programs, and public engagement and awareness. If we cannot experience the thrill of seeing an exotic species – how can we be expected to devote our time and resources for their conservation on a long-term basis? Some might say that in the a time of mobile technology, video, and social media we will be able to establish a connection with the people and animals of distant and exotic places in real-time, thereby negating the need for zoos and aquariums.

It is also true that all of the research, conservation, and outreach opportunities created by zoos and aquariums are based on a model of exploitation. Ticket sales provide the funds for the conservation and research. There is no other way to consider the zoo business. There are instances, especially in under-funded zoos, where captive animals die due to lack of proper care or inappropriate enclosures. Even in well funded aquariums animals will die; two male whale sharks brought to the Georgia Aquarium died in 2007.

Does this suggest that the benefits brought by zoos and aquariums are overshadowed the animal rights concerns of those animals trapped within the zoo walls? What do you think?

Food Web and Ocean Fishieries: Held Together By Forage Fish

By | Ocean Solutions | 2 Comments

The marine food web is a complicated beast; all organisms are connected in an intricate web of species feeding herring on each other. In the food web each group of species have a role to play. Plants create oxygen and form the base of most food webs; phytoplankton are the plants of the ocean. Zooplankton eat the phytoplankton who are themselves eaten by fish, who are eaten by larger fish, who are eaten by even larger fish etc., creating the marine food web.

We often hear that the stability of the marine food web is in jeopardy because top predators are declining. Recent studies have shown that the most notorious group of top predators, sharks, are declining – and no one is surprised to see cod or salmon in the news as examples of extreme population decline.

But what about all the species that make up the links between big predators (such as sharks, whales, tuna and salmon), and the wee phytoplankton? In fisheries science we call these species forage fish.

Forage fish are medium sized fish that provide a critical link in the food web; they consume plankton and are eaten by larger predators in the food web. Examples of forage fish include anchovies, herring, smelt and sardines. Forage fish often form dense groups, called schools, which attract a lot of predators. Schooling behaviour in fish is a very interesting topic and I could go on and on!!! Instead I’ll summarize the behaviour by saying it provides, “safety in numbers”.

Forage fish are prey to a large number of predators including seabirds, marine mammals, as well as recreationally and commercially important fish species like salmon, cod and tuna. (Not to mention sailfish!!)

As mentioned above, forage fish typically form large schools – making them easy prey for their natural predators. Commercial fisheries also exploit the schooling behaviour of forage fish. The Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force estimates that the direct capture of forage fish makes up more than one-third of the total annual marine harvest. For example, in 2006, the Peruvian anchovy was the top landed species in the world, bringing in 7 million tones! Forage fish, while often small, are a BIG DEAL for both the marine food web and commercial fisheries.

So, if there is a large commercial fishery, why don’t you see forage fish on your dinner plate? Well, most forage fish end up in animal feed. In 2006, 87% of the global forage fish harvest was consumed in the aquaculture sector.  In Australia, 2.5 million tones of forage fish were used to make cat food. You can think of it like corn. Up to 40% of the corn produced in the U.S. is used to feed cattle, and not people (another 40% is reduced to ethanol).

In economic terms, the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force estimates that the direct commercial catch of forage fish translates into $5.6 billion dollars. In contrast, left in the ocean the forage fish would provide a supportive value of $11.3 billion to the commercial catch of predator species like salmon or tuna.

As we can see, everyone wants a forage fish or two. As forage fish abundance declines there will be an increase in competition between users:  humans who directly consume forage fish, humans who use forage fish in many non-direct-food industries (like aquaculture), and all those marine predators in the food web who rely on them as a major source of food.

Monitoring and Managing Forage Fish

Historically, forage fish were ignored by fisheries managers like the lonely middle child in a large family*. Harvest quotas were set at high levels and by-catch tallies were ignored or not incorporated into estimates of maximum sustainable yield. To complicate matters further, forage fish exhibit what fisheries managers call “boom and bust” population dynamics.

The “boom and bust” trend means in some years there are a lot of forage fish, and in other years there are few – irrespective of harvest pressure by natural or human predators. Forage fish are also very sensitive to changes in environmental conditions, which can have a large impact on the success of a year class (how many baby fish hatch and survive in a given year). These factors make it very hard to manage forage fish populations. * Many exceptions exist and a great list can be found in the last section of this article

When fish populations have limited management, or are not managed at all, we often see a decline in their abundance: especially in economically important forage fish species.

The Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force completed the most comprehensive assessment of global forage fish populations to date, and recommends:

 “ …cutting catch rates in half in many ecosystems and doubling the minimum biomass of forage fish that must be left in the  water, compared to conventional management targets.”

The Task Force used model simulations based on real catch data to show that at a catch level of 0.3, 60% of harvested forage fish species would collapse. Many forage fish species are currently managed at a catch level of 1.0; an arguably unsustainable level.

Protecting Forage Fish

In response to reports such as those of the Lenfest Task Group and direct observations of forage fish decline, many fisheries managers, conservationists and the fishing industry are pushing for change.  For instance, a  95% decline in river herring abundance was observed along the Atlantic coast. This decline led to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) evaluating whether this species should be listed as a threatened species in the U.S. (See graph below – Pew Trust Herring Alliance River Herring Report).

herring decline

The Pew Charitable Trust supported monitoring of the Atlantic River Herring and produced a report outlining the potential causes of the population decline, conservation issues facing River Herring, and mitigation measures. Read the full report here!

What’s next?

Conservation organizations all over the world are pushing for an ecosystem based management approach to our natural resources. This framework would put forage fish in the spotlight and ensure that they are monitored, managed and conserved with the same vigor as the commercially important species they support. Here is a list of organizations mobilizing their efforts to save forage fish:

Pew Environmental Pacific Forage Fish Campaign

Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative

Blue Ocean Institute

What are the most important things YOU can do to help the neglected forage fish?

1)  Avoid pet foods with ‘fish meal’ as the main ingredient

2)  Join local fisheries stakeholder committees and become a voice for forage fish!

3)  Eat certified sustainable fish species

Forage fish are not typically talked about when organizations call on support from the public. How do you think we can make forage fish a focus of Ocean Conservation in the eyes of the public? Let us know in the comments below!

Sockeye salmon return to rivers using magnetic field during migration

By | Ocean News | 2 Comments

Scientists have found that sockeye eye salmon use cues from the Earth’s magnetic field (geomagnetic field) to help navigate from their ocean habitat back to the Fraser River to spawn.

magnetic field

The salmon spawning run is an amazing example of animal migration; each year millions of fish travel thousands of kilometers between feeding sites in the ocean and spawning sites in freshwater rivers.  Of the five Pacific salmon species in Canada, sockeye is the most commercially valuable and the second most abundant species. In B.C, sockeye salmon are known for their iconic spawning colours, a deep red body and green head, and the migration of millions of fish during the spawning run.

Sockeye salmon are an anadromous species; the adults live in the ocean while the young live in freshwater rivers and streams.  For example fraser river, in the headwater streams of the Fraser River, sockeye salmon hatch and grow.

For up to two years the salmon will grow and slowly migrate downstream to the river mouth, or estuary, where the Fraser River meets the Pacific Ocean. During this migration the fish undergo incredible physiological changes that allow them to transition from living in freshwater to surviving in salt water, this process is known as smoltification. Putman and colleagues hypothesize that during smoltification the magnetic field signature of the Fraser River mouth is ‘imprinted’ on the young salmon and that they use this magnetic signature to find their way back after spending up to three years in the Pacific Ocean. After the adult salmon have arrived at the mouth of the Fraser River, they rely on olfactory cues (chemical cues, like smell) to navigate to their original natal stream, where they were born.

Puttman and colleagues tested this hypothesis by monitoring how the salmon navigated around Vancouver Island on their way back to the Fraser River. The fish must either go north around the Island to the Queen Charlotte Strait, or south to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in order to reach the mouth of the Fraser River.

The Earth’s magnetic field varies in strength and position to a small degree over time and this variation influences the magnetic signature of the Fraser River mouth. Putman compared the magnetic signature of the north and south Vancouver Island passage and the Fraser River to fishery (catch statistics) and sea surface temperature data. From this comparison Putman found that the magnetic field explains about 16% of the variation in the salmon’s ability to navigate to the mouth of the Fraser River.

He showed that the sockeye salmon used the passage around Vancouver Island that had a magnetic signature most similar to that of the Fraser River mouth when the salmon first migrated to sea. In other words, a two year old salmon leaving the Fraser River in 2004 would ‘imprint’ on the 2004 magnetic signature. When the adult fish returned to spawn in 2006 (at 4 years old) it would use the passage around Vancouver Island that had a magnetic signature most similar to that of the Fraser River in 2004.  A diagram below explains the migration cycle.


Many animals, including sea turtles and seals, have been hypothesized to use the Earth’s magnetic field to aid in navigation. The authors in the study described above are the first to find empirical evidence to support magnetic navigation in fish.

Further evidence supporting the hypothesis that salmon utilize magnetic navigation comes from a laboratory study on the cellular response of rainbow trout cells to changes in the magnetic field. Click below to watch cells from a rainbow trout responding to magnetic field changes.

Putman and colleagues hope that by untangling the mystery of how salmon navigate back to their natal rivers they can assist fisheries managers in their efforts to conserve the Pacific sockeye salmon.

Pacific Salmon Threats

During the last two decades fewer sockeye salmon have returned to the Fraser River to spawn. Of those fish that did return, many died before spawning. Disease, increased sea surface temperature, changes in salinity, habitat destruction, decreased water quality, and barriers to migration (dams), may all be contributing to the observed decline in sockeye salmon. Over-harvesting of sockeye salmon continues to be a cause for concern as the number of fish that return to spawn each year dwindles. Trout Unlimited outlines some of the key issues regarding salmon harvesting on the West Coast, click here to read the full article. A thorough assessment of the challenges facing salmon, and particularly sockeye salmon, in one watershed of Northern British Columbia can be found here.

Pacific salmon are often considered the flagship species for conservation efforts along the entire North Pacific Rim. In case you were wondering “why salmon??”check out this article by the Wild Salmon Centre. Click here to read the full essay.

How do you think this new discovery will help conservation efforts of sockeye salmon in the Pacific Ocean?