Sustainable fisheries can be undermined by other types of human exploitation of the natural environment

March 13, 2019

The Marine Stewardship Council’s standard for environmentally responsible and sustainable fishing provides a mechanism for sustainable fisheries to gain recognition in the international seafood market that is increasingly demanding sustainable and traceable seafood choices. Sustainable fisheries will have attributes that enable effective management and enforcement (e.g. data gathering, harvest control rules, a control and compliance regime), they will also take account of the wider ecosystem effects of fishing on non-target species and habitats and may use fishing technologies that have lower impacts compared with other comparable fishing gear types. The ability to implement data gathering, to engage with science, and to modify fishing behavior that promotes sustainable practices within a fishery, are all attributes that are within the control of fishers that participate in the fishery. Hence, by choosing to fish in a sustainable manner, fishers make a choice about how they choose to operate with regards to natural resource extraction.

However, there are other human activities, over which fishers have no control, that have potential negative consequences for the longer-term sustainability of marine natural resources and could therefore prevent impacted fisheries achieving certification or jeopardize the certificates of already certified fisheries. These activities include many other legitimate uses of geological resources in the marine environment, and legitimate land-based activities that impact upon water quality in water-sheds, leading to degraded water quality in rivers and thereafter the recipient marine coastal environment. There are many examples of human activities that have led to ecosystem changes in the marine environment including mining and aggregate extraction, hydrocarbon exploration and land clearance, that are linked to known negative impacts on the marine environment and the fisheries that it supports.

The Marine Stewardship Council’s goal of contributing to the attainment of ‘healthy seas, teaming with life’ is driven by the contribution that the program makes to reducing over-fishing and minimize impacts on the ecosystem in the world’s seas. The MSC recognizes and understands that the marine environment is becoming a crowded space and that ultimately it is a social decision whether one sector is given greater societal importance than another. However, there is clearly potential for these other activities to undermine efforts to promote, maintain and enhance sustainable fisheries.

Examples of known human impacts on the marine environment that impact negatively upon fisheries would include the following:

Catchment to coast issues:

Poor land-management practices that lead to run-off of sediment, pesticides and fertilizers that leads to coastal eutrophication, the proliferation of toxic algal blooms and an increasing likelihood of large-scale anoxia events.

Exploitation of geological resources (i.e. mining or hydrocarbon activities) in river catchments leading to increased sediment contamination and pollution from heavy metals in coastal zones leading to toxic effects or bioaccumulation of toxins in fish and shellfish.

Seabed disturbances:

Mining and aggregate extraction can lead to alteration of critical habitats, inshore and off shore, important for the recruitment of commercially harvested species.

Hydrocarbon exploration leading to localized contamination or wide-spread pollution from spillage, other associated activities such as cable and pipeline laying on the seabed.

The MSC’s vision – “For the world’s oceans to be teaming with life, and seafood supplies safeguarded for this and future generations” relies to a large degree on healthy global marine ecosystems.  These ecosystems are complex and subject to many factors beyond fisheries management.  Other environmental dynamics are of great concern to MSC but are out of our fisheries standard’s scope.  We support a precautionary and rigorous science-based approach to activities that that could compromise our regional and global marine ecosystems that are vital to fisheries and fishing community’s health as their affects can be far reaching.

For more information about this topic, please contact Jackie Marks at or (202) 689-5957.

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