Statement in response to Opitz et al analysis of fish stocks in the Northeast Atlantic

25 May 2016 - Recent analysis of European fish stocks demonstrates that certified fisheries are improving the health of fish populations and reducing fishing effort, where needed.

European fish stocks targeted by MSC certified fisheries are healthy

Reconfirming peer-reviewed research published in 2012, the data compares European fish stocks in 2000 and 2014. Overall, those fisheries which went on to become MSC certified are now targeting stocks with higher biomass and have decreased their fishing effort since before certification. 

These results, which consider both the health of the fish stock and fishing effort, are contrary to those published by Opitz et al.  

Dr David Agnew, Science and Standards Director at the MSC said: “There is strong evidence to show that MSC certified fisheries are delivering real and lasting improvements in the way our oceans are fished. The MSC Standard reflects international scientific consensus on best practice in sustainable fishing. We believe that Opitz’s analysis misrepresents the performance of MSC certified fisheries in European waters. Opitz et al have seriously misinterpreted ICES’ classification of stock status.” 


Misinterpretation of advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES)

Opitz et al have misunderstood ICES science. They incorrectly assume that the sustainable biomass (BMSY) is two times higher than the measures provided by ICES (Btrigger and Bpa) and therefore stocks at the lower bound of this range are below BMSY and at the upper are above BMSY. This is a serious misinterpretation of ICES’ classification of stock status. Some ICES stocks may have BMSY just above Btrigger, and some much higher than Btrigger. 

Dr Christopher Zimmermann, German ICES delegate and member of ICES’ advisory committee, pointed out: "The authors claim that they have used only official ICES data, but they haven’t. Instead, they have again made up reference points, wrongly claiming that MSC allows exploitation of overfished stocks. ICES neither uses BMSY nor endorses a calculation of how to derive BMSY, so this is a misinterpretation of the official ICES data." 


Analysis considers stocks outside the MSC program


Some of the stocks represented in Opitz et al’s analysis and reported as having particularly high fishing mortality are supporting fisheries that either have their MSC certification suspended or are not target stocks of MSC certified fisheries.   

The Dutch rod-and-line fishery for sea bass in the southern North Sea (bss-47), for example was suspended in early 2015 and has subsequently withdrawn from the program. Another, Norwegian coastal cod (cod-coas) does not support a certified fishery, although it is taken in small quantities by the certified Barents Sea cod fishery. At the time of writing the paper, North-east Atlantic Mackerel (mac-nea) was suspended. Therefore, Opitz et al’s representation of these stocks as supporting MSC certified fisheries is misleading.



International best practice in sustainable fishing

The MSC provides the most rigorous and credible standard for assessing the sustainability of wild fisheries. This standard reflects international scientific best practice on sustainable fishing, taking a robust, measured and comprehensive approach to ensure the health of our oceans. 

This approach recognises that the health of a fish stock is determined by a combination of fishing effort and the biomass of the fish stock. These need to be considered together with stock and effort trend data, recruitment variability and the performance of management, allowing for the dynamic nature of marine ecosystems. The balance of all these indicators helps identify whether a fishery is at risk.  

A comprehensive, robust and tested management plan takes these issues into account and will also often include constraints on the amount that quotas can vary between years, which allows fishermen and the fishing industry to adjust their activities in an appropriate way. Therefore, single stock status or catch values, as used by Opitz et al, should not be taken out of context, and without an in-depth examination of overall effectiveness of the management strategy, to determine that the management system is failing. The MSC requires that this comprehensive analysis is undertaken.  

Dr Agnew continued: "Opitz et al also accuse the MSC of certifying stocks for which catches are lower than quotas. A fishery that has a catch lower than its quota is doing nothing wrong – as the authors acknowledge there are many, often socio-economic, reasons that quotas are not met in fisheries, and usually lower catches benefit a stock. There would be no reason for MSC to suspend a fishery in these circumstances or require it to improve. Their call for MSC to do so defies logic." 


MSC certified fisheries delivering improvements

Where there is need for improvement, MSC certified fisheries are required to implement measures which ensure that fish stocks remain healthy. For example, the MSC certified North Sea Saithe fisheries saw their stocks fall below the ICES management trigger levels in 2012. In line with MSC requirements and the long-term management plan, fishing effort was subsequently reduced to below FMSY and the stock has recovered since. 

Since the start of the MSC program, over 260 MSC certified fisheries have been asked, as a condition of certification, to make at least one improvement to strengthen or further monitor the sustainability their practices. By the end of 2015, 52% of the requested actions had already been met, and the remainder were in progress, demonstrating the global commitment being made by certified fisheries to ensure the future health of marine environments. 

Dr Agnew concluded: "Analyses such as that published by Opitz et al are an important part of the external, independent scrutiny that MSC welcomes. We take all objective reviews of the MSC Standard and its application seriously, and will be putting additional scrutiny on assessments of ICES stocks in the coming years. Our standard is clear in its requirements, and these are consistent with international best practice that stocks should be fluctuating around levels that deliver maximum sustainable yield. However we believe that the paper contains misleading analyses and statements which we are seeking to correct here."  


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