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Some of New Zealand's most lucrative export fisheries have been certified as sustainably managed. So why have they been blacklisted from critical overseas markets? And, asks Dave Hansford, what's to be done about it? 

Stephen Collier's dad is a longline fisherman. So was his grandad, so when he buys fish, he says: "I won't buy any netted stuff. There's a lot of waste from netting."

Next up to the fish counter at Wellington's Chaffers New World, is Carla Wild, who says she thinks hard about fisheries sustainability, and that: "If there were notices here, telling me what I needed to know, that would influence my choices."

Foodstuffs Wellington Co-op runs the Chaffers store, and seafood merchandise manager George Kosmadakis says Wild may soon get her wish. A national Foodstuffs steering group has formed to "look at issues such as country of origin and eco-labelling. If it's proven to be unsustainable, we won't touch it. For instance, we want to know which fishery our orange roughy comes from."

Overseas, however, shoppers have been demanding – and getting – information about their fish for years. Across the big western consumer markets – Britain, northern Europe, the US – environmental groups have mounted highly effective campaigns against fisheries they've denounced as unsustainable. By targeting eco-conscious consumers, they've driven a crowbar between the fishing industry and its markets, bringing the leverage firmly down on big retail chains in the middle.

Since the mid-2000s, some green NGOs have published annual fish-buying guides, based on a 'shop-by-colour' system. Species are ranked on a traffic-light scale of acceptability, where 'sustainably-caught' species get the green, while others are graded through amber, down to the eco-opprobrium of the forbidden red zone.

It was supposed to make sustainable shopping easy, but nothing is that simple in a global market worth more than US$400 billion. Retailers quickly read the play, announcing they would no longer sell blacklisted species.

A scramble for market supremacy saw Tescos, Asda, M&S and Sainsbury rush to promote their own 'sustainable and traceable' procurement policies.

Apart from the traffic-light guide in their wallet, customers also had to interpret each retailer's own sustainability rating system, over which was superimposed further ecocertification ratings against standards set by independent organisations such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Friend of the Sea.

Furthermore, industry commentators say the methodology behind various consumer guides is opaque and nebulous, produced with little or no consultation with the industry itself.

Fish sales turned into a retail war, and the facts took some stray bullets. Jeremy Langley, specialist seafood buyer at the Queen's own grocer, Waitrose, told a reporter in 2009: "There are some MSC fisheries that we don't stock, such as the MSC New Zealand hoki fishery, which conducts bottom trawling, because it doesn't meet our four-point policy." Green groups were quick to cite the snub as a portentous omen, not just for New Zealand hoki, but for orange roughy and other bottom-trawled fisheries.

But in fact Waitrose never stocked hoki, which is exported frozen. The upmarket chain has only ever sold fresh, unfrozen, fish over its counters. Just the same, its market share jumped to 10 per cent practically overnight.

Bob Zuur is a marine biologist with WWF-New Zealand. He says the proliferation of eco-labelling systems could be counter-productive, "because, quite frankly, some aren't worth the ink used to print them." It simply confuses shoppers, he says, and reduces a noble intent to a cynical ploy, open to exploitation by some producers "who figure that, as long as they can get a label, that's all that's going to matter."

"It becomes a marketing badge," agrees NIWA fisheries scientist Dr Matt Dunn, "rather than a scheme to encourage responsible behaviour."

He suspects instead that eco-labelling "is more about gaining an advantage over the competition, and making consumers feel a little better about shopping at that particular store."

Nevertheless, it's forever changed the way fish is traded and marketed.

Last year, in separate TV documentaries, celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall condemned certain fisheries practices and products. UK sales of their recommended alternatives promptly skyrocketed: Sainbury's reported that revenues from pollack leapt by 167 per cent. Sales of mackerel at Asda jumped by 115 per cent.

Eco-labelling, then, can be a jackpot, but it can also be a Jezebel. In the US, Greenpeace has strenuously pressured retailers to repudiate Patagonian toothfish – marketed as Chilean sea bass – and its close relative, the Antarctic toothfish, which is caught by New Zealand vessels in the Ross Sea.

In 2011, they landed 730 tonnes – a catch worth $20 million in export revenues. The Antarctic toothfishery is subject to stringent rules on bycatch, environmental best practice, reporting requirements, tracking and monitoring. Every legally caught fish is documented under a Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) certification scheme.

Earlier this year, NIWA, with industry assistance, surveyed the Ross Sea population for the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), and found healthy numbers. The results will feed into population projections and management strategies, and the institute is also investigating the fish's place in the Ross Sea ecosystem, and any consequences of its removal for other creatures.

"The Ross Sea toothfish is one of the best and most conservatively managed fisheries in the world," says Dunn. It also has the endorsement of the MSC, which, after giving it a score of 89.7 out of a possible 100, certified it as sustainable in 2010 after two years of peer review and analysis, and independent adjudication.

To no avail. In 2010, US chain Ahold announced it would not buy or sell toothfish. It was later joined by Harris Tweeter, Wegmans and Safeway – which alone runs more than 1800 stores in the US, Canada and Mexico.

MSC certification wasn't enough to legitimise toothfish in the opinion of Greenpeace, which, in its Carting Away the Oceans report this year, said: "If human beings are to find a way to truly live sustainably, we will need to accept the fact that going to Antarctica to procure food is simply untenable – certified or otherwise."

"That, to me," says Dunn, "is more about ethics than how you manage a fishery." But the finer points of any such arguments are not especially well-illuminated by a traffic-light wallet card. For instance, Dunn happily buys New Zealand hoki, comfortable in the belief that the fishery is "an example of us doing extremely well," but the fish has nevertheless been banished to the red zone of consumer fish guides published by both Greenpeace and Forest and Bird. "It's difficult," he says, "to understand why that should be."

Among other things, Forest and Bird cites hoki's yo-yoing Total Allowable Catch (TAC). Thirteen years ago, it was close to 250,000 tonnes a year: throughout the 1990s, annual catches averaged 220,000 tonnes. But it seemed hoki couldn't sustain that rate of loss – by 2007–08, the TAC had dropped to 90,000 tonnes.

What followed is either a triumph of sustainable management, or a damning indictment of it, depending on whom you talk to. The fishing industry claims kudos for cooperating with the then Ministry of Fisheries on a series of TAC reductions that it maintains led to the recovery of the hoki stock (last year, Minister Phil Heatley upped the Total Allowable Commercial Catch (TACC) by 10,000 tonnes to 130,000 tonnes). Some environment groups instead cite the fishery as another example of overfishing, and regard the early quota slashes as a desperate attempt to claw the hoki fishery back from total collapse.

"People often point to that drop in biomass and cite it as a failure of fisheries management," says Dunn. "That doesn't mean it failed: it declined below the target level, so they modified the management, and it came back. That's good management. That's responsive management."

Minding a fish stock that closely, he says, needs intensive monitoring. "If you're going to fish a stock hard, as they're doing with hoki, then you need plenty of tools to give you a very good idea of where you are. You need to be accurate and precise." NIWA has gone out to the Chatham Rise and surveyed hoki stocks every year for the last 20 years for the Ministry of Fisheries, now MPI. "The consequence of that is that we have first-rate scientific information about the status of the hoki stocks," says Dunn.

The MSC certified hoki in 2001, and re-certified it in 2007. Both times, it was challenged by Forest and Bird, leaving the Seafood Industry Council's Trade and Information Manager, Alastair Macfarlane, wondering just what he has to do to satisfy NGOs and shoppers.

"The public faith issue is challenging. The MSC is hailed internationally as the gold standard for testing well-managed, sustainable fisheries. But it continues to be criticised by some NGOs. Greenpeace is on the record as saying that, while it likes the idea of third-party certification, it hasn't found one that it likes yet."

Environment groups have become de facto gatekeepers to some important markets, he says. "So you pass the sniff test with supermarkets and processors, but you're still not necessarily out of the woods."

The Deepwater Group Ltd manages the interests of hoki, squid and orange roughy quota holders in New Zealand. It's spent millions getting hoki certified by MSC, and more recently, southern blue whiting. Hake and ling are currently under evaluation. But in the case of hoki at least, the costs and benefits would seem estranged. "On the face of it," reflects Macfarlane, "it doesn't look like we've got that much out of it, but the experiences have been salutary."

In Canada, he says, "the Greenpeace red list has been adopted by a number of supermarkets. They've said they'll stop selling MSC-certified fish – notwithstanding that they stated in the same breath that they support MSC certification. Now they've gone ahead and 'de-listed' seafood like hoki – which they never sold anyway."

Bob Zuur says some markets are no longer convinced by government assurances that New Zealand's are some of the best-managed fisheries in the world – that we can no longer rest on the laurels of a 26-year-old fisheries regime. "Along with the Icelanders, we literally led the world during the 1980s with the Quota Management System (QMS). What have we done since then?

Find out more about the Quota Management System 

"I've heard it repeatedly said that New Zealand has the QMS and fisheries legislation, so what more could we possibly need? And that's the problem right there: that's an example of some of the thinking that still persists." Critics of the QMS point to the fact that fully a third of landed catch comes from stocks about which we know little, even though they've had quota allocated. But it's one of the hard realities of the business that, while industry is prepared to fund research on lucrative species like hoki, other species simply don't return enough to warrant the investment. "In terms of protecting the value of New Zealand stocks," says Dunn, "the science and the management are correctly aligned with the value. But if you do that exercise against species and stocks, it's not. For two-thirds or more of the stocks – even though they're mostly minor fisheries – we have little information."

Eco-labelling concerns itself, too, with issues the QMS was never designed, nor intended, to deal with: the non-target impacts of fishing – bycatch of seabirds, marine mammals and other, unwanted fish, and the destruction or modification of habitat.

"From the point of view of eco-labelling schemes," says Dunn, "which are concerned with all those things, the QMS is not well-aligned."

"Our problem in New Zealand," says Macfarlane, "is that we have a large number of small fisheries, which don't have the revenue stream to support the scientific effort. The moment you have to account for that spending against the value of the fishery ... that fishery may well turn out to be bankrupt. Which isn't to say that it's not a biologically-sustainable fishery."

That's another reason why MSC certification is problematic. It's an exhaustive, costly process, and only top-shelf fisheries can afford it. Now, says Macfarlane, Australian supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths are about to pull off the gloves and go to war, each wielding sustainable seafood policies as a brand proposition. New Zealand inshore fisheries – snapper, tarakihi and the like – rely heavily on Australian sales, but the vast majority are uncertified. "If that's the name of the game, then we have a challenge to meet that demand. We have to find another solution. Technically, MSC is extremely robust, but from a commercial viewpoint, it can't be applied across the board."

His hopes, and those of the industry, increasingly rest instead with Global Trust. A supply chain and management certification company, it tests fisheries largely against the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. It's already certified some Icelandic, Canadian, Alaskan and Western Australian fisheries.

"We're interested to see whether it might form the basis of a standard for the New Zealand fisheries system at large," says Macfarlane.

The industry's expectation, he says, is that "the risk management settings from MPI will pass (Global Trust) muster." The same management settings; the policies, the controls, in force over hoki, he argues, also apply to "a whole lot of other fishing activity in the EEZ. In principle, it's the same management system right across the inshore fisheries. So why can't we make it work there?"

But it's still at what he calls a "bench test stage". The industry first has to closely examine the Global Trust regime, "and see how it will fit into the legal and institutional framework we have here. Then, the case for individual fisheries within that needs to be examined."

However, Global Trust also has its detractors in the environment sector. Internationally, WWF has conspicuously backed MSC, and Katherine Short continues to do so. A colleague of Zuur's at WWF-NZ, she's worked on sustainable fisheries since 1996. "In terms of the definition – the understanding – of fisheries management, MSC remains the standout." In her view, "the culture change that is necessary; the improvement in the science, the relationships, the policy, the technology, the legal framework [demand] that full third-party independent procedure. MSC is the only one that does it that way."

New Zealand deep and middle water fisheries are managed jointly under a memorandum of understanding between industry quota holders, under the umbrella of The Deepwater Group Limited, and MPI. Collectively, says Geoff Tingley, a principal scientist at MPI, they've "decided that [Global Trust] is a good thing to do. Fishing industries seek certification to get certain benefits: usually to either obtain market access, or retain it, or to get a preferential price arrangement." That, he says, will support the export drive the country needs, "and the Ministry's interest is in supporting the industry to do that within a sustainable fisheries framework. It's a good thing for New Zealand. Also, it gives us a check on how well we're managing our fisheries."

It's unlikely all New Zealand fisheries will simply get the Global Trust tick at one stroke. More research, more validation will almost certainly be needed, but where the science spotlight might fall, says Macfarlane, "at this point, frankly, we don't know." But, he says, the exercise "may help us fine-tune just where the effort should be best focused."

A lead contender will likely be data-deficient fisheries, and what Macfarlane calls "barriers to making a complete assessment of a particular stock. We know we have a lack of data already – the likelihood is that this exercise will simply confirm that."

Dunn agrees that something needs to be done about what he calls "data-poor" fisheries. "I think we could do a much better job of assessing stocks of species about which we know comparatively little. There are opportunities to bring in – or find ways to bring in – information by inference, either from other, similar species, or the same species elsewhere.

"For instance, if we're missing some element of data about one population, then we'll use data from the next nearest one. We've done that with orange roughy many times. But I think there's a better way to do that. I'd like to see more development of the understanding and the tools to actually bring stock assessments across these other species.

Adds Macfarlane: "We have a lot of secondary indicators about the status of fisheries. We now have decades of catchper- unit-effort data. That's an awful lot of information being collected that we don't always make full use of."

Yes, says Tingley: "The QMS gives you quite a good idea of what's caught, and that's a really important parameter, but it's not the only one. You need to know other things as well: about stock status, distribution, whether it can be regarded as a single or a multiple stock. That's hard enough to do in a major fishery, without getting into bycatch."

Whether it's MSC or Global Trust, both demand that consideration be given – and all efforts made – to minimise fishing's impact on associated ecosystems and habitats. And that's where things get really tricky. "That's interpreted in different ways by different people," says Dunn. "Some people interpret that as 'don't kill seabirds and dolphins'. New Zealand has been quite effective at doing some of that: seabird mitigation measures here are world-leading."

Maybe, but, asks Bob Zuur, "What about the associated dependent ecosystems? How well are they being managed? That's the real question. If we're talking about a more environmentally focused fishery, then we really need to start thinking about ecosystem-based fisheries management.

"At the moment, we're treating non-stock impacts as externalities – something you attend to after the fact, once you've focused on managing your commercial stocks. That's actually quite different to ecosystem-based management, in which all of these elements are considered at the same time.

"Some of NIWA's research is quite multidisciplinary – their work on the Chatham Rise is a good example of that, and in the Southern Ocean, which has been much more ecosystem-focused – but the problem is applying that science in what is largely a policy vacuum."

"The endgame," according to Matt Dunn, "is to better understand what's there, and whether we're screwing up any connections in the food web." Dunn points out that, to some extent, research on high-value stocks like hoki and orange roughy also sheds light on associated species, but a closer look is needed outside commercial fisheries, "where the industry itself is unlikely to go."

To that end, NIWA has looked for any connection between the number of hoki caught, and the fortunes of their prey, "and fundamentally," says Dunn, "nothing seems to have changed – they seem to be operating in the same way. They're eating the same stuff, which implies that the links to their prey are still intact. It's not like anything dramatic has happened."

As far as some green NGOs are concerned, however, New Zealand fisheries start from the back of the grid, because most of our important stocks are caught with nets, either close to, or on, the seabed. Such bottom trawling is anathema to them, and bottom-trawled fish like hoki and orange roughy get the red light by default.

"So whatever you do," says Geoff Tingley, "whatever certification you get, however much you manage or protect the seabed, Greenpeace are not going to support any fishery that puts mobile gear on the bottom. There has to be some rational approach. If the industry stopped bottom trawling, the amount of fish available to put on peoples' plates would be dramatically reduced. It's a technique fundamental to catching wild fish."

Nevertheless, he points out that there's still "room for improvement and change throughout the world, there's room for better management of impacts, and for more science to demonstrate the thresholds between acceptable and unacceptable impacts."

"It's important to remember," says Dunn, "that inshore fisheries are naturally highly disturbed environments anyway. And the animals that live there have evolved to live in highly disturbed systems. Bottom trawling, in that sense, simply constitutes another disturbance."

However, he says: "We do need to better understand whether fishing gear has a truly damaging impact on the ecosystem or the sustainability of the fish stocks, but that's a big research question. In the meantime, it's sensible to continue to develop fishing methods that increasingly minimise impact on the environment." He admits that, in some instances, a solution may not be forthcoming: "Clearly, in other environments, bottom trawling is devastating: if you're going to trawl through centuries-old coral forest with big heavy nets and steel bobbins, you're going to flatten everything. It's not resilient in that way."

If biodiversity is your concern, he says, by all means protect it. "But don't confuse that with the process of fishing – if you fish it, it will be modified. The question is how you deal with that. Food security is going to become a big issue. A hundred and thirty thousand tonnes of hoki provides a lot of protein every year: where else would you get that from, if not from hoki? The priority here is sustainable fisheries. If you want to specifically manage biodiversity, maybe you do that through a separate process. But you have to accept that, where you are fishing, things are going to change."

Unfortunately, some of those changes include the deaths of protected species caught by accident. An estimated 100 New Zealand sea lions – with a threat listing of 'nationally critical' – drown each year in squid and southern blue whiting trawl fisheries. Pup production at the Auckland Islands, their main breeding area, has declined by 50 per cent in the last 13 years. Forest and Bird lobbies strongly for "zero mortality" of sea lions, but, says Macfarlane, "If the standard being promoted will not tolerate a single mortality, then it is fundamentally an unattainable standard. It creates a dispute that simply cannot be resolved."

So the risk remains that, even should the industry attain Global Trust certification, it may still be vilified. Does that mean that hoki and orange roughy might never gain acceptance in US and European markets?

"History would suggest that it does," concedes Macfarlane.

That's because, says Katherine Short, "It's not just about certification. It's about culture change. We can no longer claim to have the best-managed fisheries in the world. The world has shifted, and we know much more about marine ecosystems now.

"Consumers have changed the game massively. It's no longer about mitigating the environmental effects of fishing – that's an old paradigm. We've got to turn this issue on its head: it's about deciding what you actually want as a nation responsible for 95 per cent of the country that's underwater. Then it's a case of working backwards from that: maybe, we only fish here, and leave this bit alone.

"In our minds [at WWF-NZ], that doesn't mean restricting, or shutting down, or minimising the value of the fishing industry: it just means thinking about it from a different perspective."

"Taking a more balanced, ecosystem-based approach to fisheries is becoming a management goal. But it isn't easy. For example, closing areas to fishing was once put forward as a silver bullet for combined fisheries and ecosystem management. But leaving one half un-fished won't necessarily keep the other half intact," says Dunn. "I think that misses the point. It all needs to be intact, because we rely on ecosystem services to keep it going. You've got to get it right, because we rely on that system to provide fish."

Whichever approach we take, says Zuur, it will need good science, and more: "it's about making sure that science is articulated and disseminated – placed in the public domain in a robust and credible manner. Ideally, against clearly defined performance standards, so we can assess how fisheries are performing, even if they're not MSC-certified. And I think NIWA has a critical role to play in that.

"Do we aspire to lead the world? I think we can, and we should. We've got it all set up in New Zealand to take the next leap forward, to ecosystem-based fisheries." 


Carla Wild scans for her supper at Chaffers New World fish counter: "If there were notices here, telling me what I needed to know, that would influence my choices.”. Credit: Dave Allen
A haul of hoki. A fast-growing fish, hoki is found at depths between 200 and 800 metres, living for up to 25 years. Young hoki reach adulthood in around four years. Credit: Neil Bagley
Some environmental groups continue to oppose hoki's MSC certification, citing the drowning of an estimated 714 fur seals in offshore trawl nets between 2002 and 2008. Credit: Dave Hansford