It’s hard to tell how much of the criticism is justified and how much is inevitable simply because the MSC is so huge. Last September, in a blistering op-ed in the journal Nature, six scientists, including marine ecologists from the University of California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and researchers from the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Centre, dressed down the MSC for what they consider unjustifiable certifications. Lead author, the Centre’s Jennifer Jacquet, has also issued the following complaint in the online publication TheTyee.ca: “We were dismayed when we heard that the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) announced recently that the process has begun which could lead to the certification of Peruvian anchovies—a fish which contributes to about a third of the world’s fishmeal production [largely for animal feed]. The MSC is making a mistake. This issue is not whether the fishery is ‘well-managed’ but what we do with the fish.”
The point Jacquet and others miss is that if there’s a mistake, it hasn’t happened yet. The Peruvian anchovy fishery came to the MSC seeking certification, but first it will have to complete third-party pre-assessment. It may well be that the independent auditor will agree with Jacquet and deny certification. Something like a third of all applicants never make it past pre-assessment on their first try. But when they flunk they don’t just give up and go away; they study the reasons they flunked, make improvements, then reapply. As Coughlin correctly observes, “MSC acts as a change agent.”
Maybe the most justifiable criticism of the MSC comes from Pam Lyons Gromen, fisheries project director of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation. “MSC has three principles they score fisheries by, the second of which deals with ecosystem-based management. It’s very soft and has no concrete standards. We’ve been trying to work with MSC on safeguarding forage fish [that sustain larger fish, birds, and mammals], but they haven’t remedied the problem.” On the other hand, it’s asking an awful lot of any private organization to figure out ecosystem management, a science so new and so complicated that even fisheries managers have yet to implement it. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Council’s McMurray told me this: “I’m on the ecosystems ocean planning committee, and every meeting I go to we get a presentation about how to do ecosystem management. We all nod and say, ‘Great presentation.’ And the council usually doesn’t lift a finger to move in that direction. The staff doesn’t have the resources or the science. It’s just an incredibly complex and difficult thing to do.”
McMurray stresses that good fisheries management does not happen without public involvement and that that can’t happen unless people understand management issues. Council members don’t get more atypical than McMurray. He’s an environmental activist, an accomplished outdoor writer specializing in marine conservation, an avid angler, a saltwater fishing guide, and director of grant making for the Norcross Wildlife Foundation.
McMurray is also one of the few anglers who understands that badly regulated sport fishing can be just as devastating as badly regulated commercial fishing. For example, an NMFS-sanctioned angler free-for-all in the South Atlantic has played a major role in nearly wiping out red snapper, and something like 80 percent of all Atlantic striped bass mortality is caused by sport fishing. Because Atlantic striped bass are mostly found within three miles of shore, they’re managed by a multi-state commission. But for offshore species, commercial and recreational overkill is the result of a federal law predicated on the mistaken belief that “stakeholders” will do what’s best for the resource and the public good even when it means resisting their immediate appetites.
In 1976 Congress tried to end two centuries of unsustainable fishing by passing the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which set up eight regional management councils comprised of “user groups”—mostly commercial fishing interests. Giving an industry a “stake in its own future” sounded very progressive (except to anyone who understood human nature). On all three coasts the scheme worked about as well as telling children to make their Halloween candy last all year.
Magnuson allowed fishery plans to be modified by short-term, shortsighted “economic considerations,” and such considerations almost always “justified” overfishing. So for three decades commercial fishermen, assisted by the recreational party-boat fleet and individual anglers, continued to strip-mine federal waters.
Finally, in 2006, Congress amended Magnuson so that, for the first time ever, the councils could not set catch limits that killed fish faster than they could reproduce. For overfished stocks it required that those limits be in place by 2010. The deadline for other stocks was 2011.