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Environmental impact

Fishing has an impact on our marine environment, and it's not just fish stocks that are affected. Sensitive habitats, endangered species and the marine food chain need to be maintained to keep the oceans healthy and productive. The impacts are complex, hard to measure and vary from one fishery to the next.

Find out how MSC-certified fisheries are pioneering new ways to conserve the marine environment for future generations:  

Promoting good fisheries management

If fisheries are poorly managed, environmental impacts go unchecked. Unsustainable fishing practices put seafood resources and fishing livelihoods at risk – the United Nations FAO estimates that 11 of the world's 15 major fishing areas, and 69 percent of the world's major fish species, are in decline and in need of urgent management. This is why the MSC certification program places a strong emphasis on effective management.

Fisher with netTake this example: Managers of the MSC certified New Zealand hoki fishery require all members of the group to sign a legally-binding agreement to ensure all vessels stick to an agreed Code of Practice. The Code sets out how every vessel needs to minimise impacts on seabed habitats, seals and seabirds, and imposes strict compliance and reporting systems so the fishery can be closely monitored and managed.

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Getting technology on our side

Fishing is happening on a larger scale than ever before, helped by technological advances, including electronic fish-locators, powerful engines, on-board freezers, at-sea refuelling, scientific mapping of the seabed. These improvements make fishing faster, safer and more efficient, but without controls can increase impacts on marine habitats, fish stocks, and endangered species. There has been a five-fold increase in the fish taken out of the oceans over the last fifty years, from 19 million tonnes in 1950 to about 90-100 million tonnes in 2000 (UN FAO). Depleted, unproductive oceans are bad news for everyone, but technology can be used responsibly and to benefit the conservation of marine resources and habitats.

MSC certified sustainable Alaska pollock fisheryTake this example: Quotas in the MSC certified Alaska pollock fishery are set based on fish stock estimates compiled using state of the art data collection and modelling. Observers on boats relay real-time catch and bycatch data to ensure that these quotas are not exceeded. In addition, this information is shared among vessels in the Alaska pollock fleet so that vessel captains can act to avoid bycatch hotspots.  

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Combating illegal fishing

Illegal fishing is a major global problem. It damages marine environments, undermines legal fisheries, threatens livelihoods and erodes food security around the world. Controls to protect our oceans, such as no-fishing zones or closed seasons, are not respected by everyone and illegal fishing is widespread. The value of illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing is estimated to be between US$10-23 billion, representing between 11.06 and 25.91 million tonnes (source: MRAG 2008, The Global Extent of Illegal Fishing).

The MSC certification program helps to combat illegal fishing. We require all fisheries taking part in our certification program to demonstrate that they meet all relevant local, national and international laws. Even legally-operating fisheries cannot be certified if other vessels are operating illegally in the same fishery and causing the fish stock to be overfished.

In addition, all companies packaging or processing MSC-labelled seafood are audited to make sure the fish can be traced back to an MSC certified fishery. The MSC Chain of Custody standard for seafood traceability helps to keep illegally caught fish out of the seafood supply chain .

MSC certified sustainable South Georgia Patagonian toothfish fisheryTake this example: The MSC-certified South Georgia Patagonian toothfish fishery uses cutting-edge technology to exclude illegal vessels from its waters. All vessels have an independent observer on board who monitors catches and reports back to local authorities. A strict vessel licensing system is rigorously enforced and no trans-shipment is allowed. Landing points are limited and are closely controlled. Every pound of fish landed is recorded through tamper-proof satellite surveillance using on-board weighing scales and GPS location of vessels. On landing, boxes of fish are given a barcode label to ensure illegal fish cannot enter the supply chain. This fishery is an example of how good fisheries management can reverse the trend of illegal fishing and replace it with a sustainable and well managed fishery.

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Protecting the seas' diversity

'Bycatch' is the term used to describe any species that is accidentally caught up in fishing gear, ie species that are not targeted by the fishers. This can include other fish, juveniles and species such as birds, turtles, corals and marine mammals. To encourage fisheries to reduce bycatch, regulators in some parts of the world have made it illegal to land bycatch and fishers must throw it back at sea, often dead or dying. In other fisheries, bycatch is landed but cannot be sold.

Levels of bycatch vary greatly from one fishery to the next. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that nearly 7 million tonnes of fish bycatch is discarded globally by commercial fishermen every year, equivalent to about 8% of the global catch from marine fisheries. On top of this, there may be a much greater volume of bycatch that isn't discarded. In some fisheries it is much higher, sometimes equivalent to 20 times the weight of the target catch. It is difficult to completely eliminate bycatch from most fisheries, but there are simple, inexpensive actions that fishers can take to reduce the effect of bycatch on marine ecosystems.

SeabirdsTake this example: In the MSC certified South Georgia Patagonia toothfish fishery seabird bycatch was reduced to almost zero when fishers added bright streamers to their vessels, and started to discard fish heads away from dangerous fishing lines. In the Crangon brown shrimp fishery – which is not yet certified to the MSC standard – the fishers are trying new nets with a bigger mesh size to reduce their bycatch of plaice.

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Cutting out destructive fishing practices

Some of the worst environmental problems are caused by destructive fishing practices. Two particularly destructive methods are cyanide fishing, where cyanide solution is used to stun fish making them easier to catch and the use of explosives, for example dynamite, to kill fish so they float to the surface and can be easily ‘scooped up’ by nets. These are indiscriminate fishing methods that can have devastating impacts on marine species and habitats. The MSC excludes both of these fishing methods from its certification program as they are incapable of being controlled or managed on a sustainable basis.

All fishing methods have an impact on the marine environment but fisheries that have been certified to the MSC standard for sustainable fishing must demonstrate that their impact is minimal and they are well managed. For example, bottom trawling is often cited as an example of a damaging fishing method, but bottom-trawl fisheries are not excluded from the MSC program. Instead, the MSC certification program is open to all fisheries that are sustainable, well managed and have effective controls and enforcement.

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You can support MSC-certified sustainable fisheries by looking for the blue MSC ecolabel when buying seafood or dining out - find out Where To Buy.

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