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Ocean Solutions

Ocean Optimism on the Future of Seagrass Meadows

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When you’ve spent 14 years studying the ecology of seagrass meadows around the world then there’s only a handful of author names that come up repeatedly across the sub-disciplines of this field at global scales. The work of such authors have inspired me. To then work with them and introduce them as a plenary speaker at a conference is an honour. At the recent International Seagrass Biology Workshop in North Wales (UK) I welcomed Prof Carlos Duarte to provide an opening plenary on the topic of #oceanoptimism for seagrass. This was a talk that I’m happy to hear inspired many people, most in a positive manner some negatively, but such a response is the sign of a good talk.

Yes, we know that seagrasses are globally under threat, we know that large areas of seagrass meadows have been lost around the world, and we know the problems are complex. But this is not the whole story, far from it. The world is full of inspirational stories and evidence that seagrass conservation is moving forward in a big way. Duarte started his talk by proclaiming the aim of persuading the audience that seagrass meadows are no longer the ‘ugly duckling’ of conservation and asked us all to consider the evidence he was presenting.

He described how in the last decade seagrass conservation has progressed beyond recognition. He provided quantitative evidence how the amount of academic literature on the subject was now beginning to rival other key marine ecosystems, mentioning the much praised paper in Nature on the Zostera marina genome.

A fantastic inclusion in the talk by Duarte was the reference to a study from Denmark illustrating how many decades of hard work to improve water quality had resulted in real recovery of seagrass. This story was linked to discussion of the EU Water Framework Directive and how it was helping push an agenda to protect seagrass meadows and focus efforts on their monitoring. The discussion on Blue Carbon was of great interest as this really is taking the story of seagrass conservation to a truly new audience and bring much needed finance into seagrass conservation. Interestingly he neatly criticised the actions of the UK government related to the conservation status of seagrass in the Humber estuary but used this to really highlight the importance of the rapidly growing seagrass monitoring efforts around the world.

The talk was a great moment for us at Project Seagrass, a charity new to the marine conservation world. Carlos praised the impact of our social media work globally, and the expanding interest in this critical new front in the fight for conservation messages, including the recent media coverage of the statement from the global seagrass scientific community.

It was certainly interesting to talk to people after the plenary, with many people also inspired by the concept of finding #oceanoptimism for seagrass. Ben Jones said “The world needs stories of hope as well as stories of ‘doom and gloom’ to inspire and motivate a new generation of conservation scientists and practitioners. No marine habitat is more needing of those stories of hope than seagrass meadows, a globally expansive habitat of fundamental importance.”

I found it interesting to hear measured responses from some senior and very experienced scientists stating that the ‘elephant in the room’ remains sea level rise. They questioned whether seagrasses can withstand such changes. My personal view is that without action now that engages and inspires people we won’t have any seagrasses left to protect from sea level rise. So I feel we have to learn from and build on the successes of people around the world where positive change is happening.

By the end of the lecture by Prof Duarte, not only had I enjoyed a great discussion on seagrass conservation, but I too felt that seagrass was no longer the Ugly duckling of marine conservation. Whether seagrass has fully matured yet into the Swan remains up for debate, but I felt the talk made some very important points about how the narrative of doom and gloom can’t be the only one. The world needs to see the success of seagrass conservation as well as the problems.

Sea Turtles: Conserving an Iconic Species

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Sea Turtles are no doubt an iconic species. A Sea Turtle encounter is life changing…just ask Michael J. Fox, who says he decided to change the way he viewed his illness after he was first diagnosed (he has Parkinson’s disease) after following a sea turtle for hours in shallow water. They are such an iconic species that people dedicate the entire lives to protect them.

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From the BBC

Oil Companies Delaying Offshore Drilling in Arctic

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This isn’t a directly ocean related topic but given the huge impacts that big oil has on the ocean, ranging from acidification to oil spills to climate change, I think its close enough. A recent documentary, The Secret of the Seven Sisters, on Aljazeera looked at the geopolitical forces that resulted in the big oil companies we have today. Personally I suggest everyone watch this fantastically well done documentary because it really does give you an insight into the powers maintaining the status quo.

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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?

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

MSC_standards

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:

http://aquaticcommons.org/1551/1/EcolabelsSmallScaleBarcelonaFINAL.pdf – A presentation by the FAO

http://center.sustainability.duke.edu/sites/default/files/documents/ecolabelsreport.pdf – An Overview of Ecolabels and Sustainability Certifications in the Global Marketplace

Tuna meet Fish Aggregating Device

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One of the mainstays of commercial fishing of pelagic fish species (think tuna, marlin, mahi-mahi, etc.) is the use of Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs).

From safmc.net

Fish gathering under a Sargassum mat

Basically what this involves is throwing overboard something that floats with a GPS transmitter and then leaving it in the ocean for a while before coming back and catching everything that’s hanging out by the device. Pretty much anything can act as a FAD, from natural things like floating sargassum mats to discarded fishing nets, to off-shore aquaculture nets. Some of the FADs used in commercial fishing are moored to the bottom while others are allowed to float around on the ocean currents.

For reasons that vary by species up to 300 different species gather around these FADs. Generally speaking they provide some protection for juvenile fish species by providing structure in the open ocean, these juveniles in turn attract predators (like tuna) which then attract bigger predators, and so on.

Fish gathering around aquaculture pen

Fish gathering around aquaculture pen

There are three main results of the increased use of FADs in commercial fishing. First, there has been an increase in the number of fish caught by pelagic fishing vessels, second the overall size of the fish caught has gone down, and finally the amount of bycatch has gone up significantly. All of these results prove problematic to say the least in terms of ocean conservation.

Looking at the first two results together indicates that smaller fish, possibly juveniles which have not had a chance to reproduce are being caught in record numbers. This leads to a decline in adults, which in turn produce fewer juveniles, which in turn are caught in ever increasing numbers. Obviously this is problematic when looking at a fish like tuna, of which most species are already over-exploited and have dwindling numbers.

Whale Shark as bycatch from FAD fishing

Whale Shark as bycatch from FAD fishing

Increasing bycatch is another issue altogether. Basically bycatch is when the wrong animal comes up in a fisherman’s net/line/trawl/trap etc. All different kinds of fishing gear have different rates of bycatch, from spearfishing where it is virtually nonexistent to deep-ocean trawling and FAD fishing where it is very high. This means that using FADs to catch tuna leads to catching far more non-target species than using a hook and line does. This video really drives home what can and does get caught using FAD fishing techniques.

So when you’re next off to the market to buy fish it really is important to not only pay attention to what kind of fish you’re eating but also how it was caught because some methods are much worse than others!