This piece was published in International Aquafeed Magazine, January 2021
Management of fish stocks is critical to ensure sustainability of the fishing industry and the feed and food industries which rely on it.
This is a discussion where collaboration between scientific bodies and political authorities is required. As migratory species travel within national boundaries and beyond, it is crucial that these discussions do not happen at a state-level only, but also involve transnational talks as well.
Procedures for stock management are in place
If we take the example of European fisheries, all fish stocks sourced for fishmeal and fish oil in European countries have catch limitations, also known as total allowable catches (TACs). Biological advice on fish stocks is given by the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) and agreements on TAC/quotas shall be decided between the coastal states when it comes to blue whiting, atlanto-scandian herring and mackerel. Quotas for capelin, sprat, sand-eel, boarfish, Norway pout and herring stocks are decided nationally and at the European Union level. Bilateral agreements and international agreements within the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) also take place.
With this process in place, sustainability of all fisheries as well as healthy stocks at global scales should be ensured.
Suspension of MSC certificates
However, it is obvious that this process is highly dependent on political goodwill. In the case of European fisheries, quota sharing for 2021 still has to be agreed upon by coastal states with regards to blue whiting, atlanto-scandian herring and mackerel. This has led to announcements by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) that certificates for mackerel (as of 2019), blue whiting and atlanto scandian herring (as of 2021) would be suspended across eight fisheries from the European Union, Norway, Iceland, Russia, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and the United Kingdom.
What happened is that individual states set TACs for themselves following the lack of agreement between the other coastal states, which resulted in global catches exceeding the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) advice. The implication is that, while none of the fisheries can be blamed for illegal, unreported or unregulated (IUU) fishing, there is a biomass issue at a global level.
Certification labels send a clear message to the consumers that the products they buy are responsibly sourced and produced. It is not for the customers to understand the specifics that are behind the label, although more and more efforts are rightly delivered to help them navigate through the complex certification landscape.
Implications for the marine ingredients industry
Blue whiting is predominantly used for fishmeal production. Consequently, some feed producers have already announced that they would stick to their commitments and keep on using a high share of certified-only raw materials.
Now, what is needed to regain the MSC label and restore customers’ confidence?
The fishing industry, which is the certificate holders, has already put a lot of efforts into this dispute, as have the marine ingredients industry and the feed producers. The North Atlantic Pelagic Advocacy group (NAPA) was created in 2019 with the aim to improve North Atlantic pelagic fisheries management, aware as all stakeholders were that a market-driven approach had to be taken. Entering fishery improvement projects (FIP) is under review. Given the marine ingredient component of blue whiting landings, these are to enter the MarinTrust Improver Programme later in 2021.
However, this cannot be considered as the silver bullet. Fishery improvement projects are based on a multi-stakeholder approach and can trigger dialogue at different levels. They also demonstrate a willingness to move forward.
Coastal states are key to unlock the deadlock
The bottom line is for governments to take their responsibility and ensure that discussions at an international level will resume. Only a transboundary cooperation and agreement will bring a solution. It cannot be expected that a market-driven approach only will be efficient. Indeed, certification labels send a strong signal to customers in certain countries, but it is not the case everywhere. Therefore, the pressure from MSC will not suffice to unlock the deadlock. If sustainability is to be ensured in the long term, it is for each state to be responsible, both at an individual and a collective level.