/ 23 March 2021

Hake fishing gets eco-label for fourth time

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The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has re-certified South Africa’s hake trawl fishing industry as, but a conservation group says this is “cold comfort” for imperilled sharks and rays that are being inadvertently killed by its deep-sea vessels. (Photo by Hugh Hastings/Getty Images)

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has re-certified South Africa’s hake trawl fishing industry as sustainable, but a conservation group says this is “cold comfort” for imperilled sharks and rays that are being inadvertently killed by its deep-sea vessels.

Sharks and rays are among the most threatened species on earth, with many South African species listed on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

In November, the Wildlands Conservation Trust (Wildtrust) submitted a formal objection to the MSC’s certification of the industry, citing, among others, its concerns about the industry’s impact on endangered sharks and rays and insufficient measures to reduce significant risks to these species. 

MSC certification is an eco-label on seafood packaging, which informs consumers that products are sourced from sustainable fisheries. 

“We just don’t want the wool to be pulled over consumers’ eyes,” says Jennifer Olbers, a marine biologist at WildOceans, a programme of the Wildtrust. 

“Unfortunately, although the fishery did make an effort to address our concerns … endangered species remain at risk from the fishery and there is work to be done to fix this,” says Wildtrust’s Dr Jean Harris.

Dr Harris says consumers cannot feel reassured that they are “not actively contributing to the demise of some of our most endangered sharks and rays” when they buy MSC eco-certified South African hake.

A recent global analysis found that across the world’s oceans and seas, the global abundance of oceanic sharks and rays has plunged by 71% owing to an 18-fold increase in relative fishing pressure. “This depletion has increased the global extinction risk to the point at which three-quarters of the species are threatened with extinction,” the study warned.

In South Africa, a paper found how demersal trawl fisheries are considered one of the biggest threats to deep-water sharks and rays in local waters because they are caught as bycatch and suffer high mortality, at about 1 500 tonnes a year.

“There are major holes in the MSC process in that there are hundreds of endangered species of sharks and rays in South African waters that are in real trouble that are not recognised as part of the MSC process as endangered, threatened and protected (ETP) species,” explains Olbers. 

These “invisible” species include all endemic (found nowhere else) species within the trawled areas and those not already protected in South Africa’s legislation, regardless of their IUCN red-listing as critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable. 

This toll, says Wildtrust, includes the critically endangered soupfin shark, the endemic and endangered twin-eye skate, endemic yellow-spot skate, various endemic catsharks “and significant numbers of skates we know very little about”.

Olbers says species are being “lumped together. Without knowing exactly what species are being caught – the different rays and the different skates – we can’t manage them properly and can’t do proper stock assessments”.

Wildtrust cites how soupfin sharks have fallen through the cracks because of the way they are defined in the MSC process. They are predicted to become commercially extinct before 2055 at the current catch rates across fisheries. 

“The industry says soupfins only constitute 2% of their bycatch but if you think about the tonnage that a massive fishery like the hake fishery is catching on a daily basis, 2% is 1 500-odd tonnes,” says Wildtrust communications director Lauren van Nijkerk.

For Wildtrust, the biggest problem lies with the MSC criteria for ETP species and scoring rules, and it says it intends to take this shortcoming up directly with MSC to ensure that species in trouble are not “ignored” in future.

In 2004, the South African hake fishery became the first hake fishery in the world, and the second groundfish fishery, to meet the MSC standard.

Michael Marriott, MSC’s programme manager for Africa, Middle East and South Asia, says prior to WildOceans’ engagement, the independent assessor that carried out the

reassessment of the fishery had already identified some improvements, which the fishery must make as a condition of its recertification.

“These conditions, including one that requires the fishery to reduce its interactions with sharks and rays, must be met within the next five years. While the objection did not lead to further conditions or a change in scoring, the points raised by Wildoceans did result in the fishery agreeing to some additional actions to strengthen their efforts in mitigating accidental shark interaction or catch.”

To ensure consistent categorisation of ETP across different fisheries in all parts of the world, the global MSC standard refers to national legislations and listings in binding international agreements. “IUCN listings are currently only partially applied in MSC assessments to determine the health of fish stocks and are considered in the assessment of non-target species such as mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds, which may be caught incidentally. This limitation is because the IUCN red list is designed primarily for terrestrial (land-based) organisms.” 

The IUCN red list is updated infrequently, after long intervals when new stock assessment data are available, and “may quickly become outdated, particularly for dynamic populations like fish stocks,” he says.

Fisheries’ interactions with ETP species is one area of focus of its current fisheries standard review, “in which we aim to clarify and, if needed, strengthen our requirements.

Importantly, all MSC-certified fisheries are required to investigate and minimise bycatch.”

Felix Ratheb, the chairperson of the South African Deep-Sea Trawling Industry Association, says the action required to address WildOcean’s concerns about the bycatch of sharks and rays is clearly documented in the conditions that underlie the recertification of the South African hake trawl fishery by the MSC.

“We need more and better scientific data to understand the nature and extent of the fishery’s interactions with the species of concern. Thereafter, where required, we can develop management strategies to better manage the fishery’s interactions with these species.”

Olbers adds: “One of the main things we’re hoping to get out of all of this in the long term is that the department of environment, forestry and fisheries will convene a task team specifically for this fishery for bycatch so the various issues for shark and ray bycatch can be improved. Historically, sharks and rays were focused on in this fishery but they seem to have fallen off the radar.”