Beneath the bright blue Bahamian coastal waters, there are fishermen collecting spiny lobster sustainably, and they’ve got the MSC certification to prove it. When this lobster arrives on dinner plates in the United States and Europe, seafood lovers will be pleased to know the delicious dish is not only a good meal, but good for the ocean too.
Since 2009, the Bahamas Marine Exporters Association, which most spiny lobster product flows through, has been working with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), The Bahamas Department of Marine Resources, and The Nature Conservancy to make improvements to the fishery in a country where the government’s capacity to address illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing has struggled to maintain its footing. By adopting a Fishery Improvement Project (FIP) to address governance, fishing practices, and environmental impacts, the fishery has determined what long-term sustainability looks like and how best to achieve it. As it joins the ranks of MSC certified fisheries, it becomes the first certified fishery in the Caribbean within the entire MSC program.
Fishers dive down to harvest spiny lobsters from casitas (“little houses”) which look like small tables set on the ocean floor. Lobsters are attracted to the relative protection offered by the casita but are free to move in and out without becoming trapped. This unobtrusive fishing method has little impact on the surrounding habitat, and allows some lucky lobsters to escape capture if they happen to be out. A smaller portion of lobsters in The Bahamas are also caught with wooden traps.
Locally, spiny lobster is an extremely important commodity. The industry employs around 9,000 fishermen who cover an area of more than 45,000 square miles of ocean. With more than 4 million pounds of spiny lobster exported each year, the fishery earns $90 million annually. Maintaining sustainable levels of the lobster populations is crucial to also sustaining livelihoods.
Wendy Goyert of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), who has been working with the Bahamian lobster fishery for years, recognizes the extensive value of FIPs. "The Fishery Improvement Project has made myriad accomplishments – adoption of a harvest control rule, lobster trap fishery bycatch studies, a stock assessment, and the establishment of a data collection and management system – all of which put Bahamian spiny lobster in good position for MSC certification.”
Bill Mardon, seafood buyer for Costco, agrees. “FIPs are a really good tool to get fisheries to MSC certification. It lays out a series of steps with definable goals and a timetable. And there is a reward at the end of the line: fisheries that can produce for many years to come.” Costco has supported the spiny lobster FIP for over five years, sourcing from the fishery to serve in their stores throughout the United States.
Entering into MSC assessment is voluntary for fisheries and companies interested in achieving certification. The assessment period, typically lasting anywhere from 12-18 months, consists of rigorous audits and review by an accredited, third party known as a conformity assessment body, or CAB. When the CAB has determined that a fishery meets the MSC Standard, it means the fishery is meeting the core principles of MSC sustainability: leaving enough fish stocks in the ocean to reproduce indefinitely, creating minimal impact on the environment, and maintaining good management practices.
"In The Bahamas, a growing share of the seafood sector recognizes the economic benefits of MSC certification,” said Mia Isaacs, president of BMEA. “Keeping stocks healthy can open new markets, satisfy eco-minded consumers, and ensure that there will be lobsters to catch in the future."
That future of Bahamian spiny lobster is directly tied to future generations of Bahamian fishermen, processors, and buyers. Local fisherman Gregory Brown has seen firsthand what happens when fishermen self-regulate and catch as much as they can every day. The supply can run out, jobs will be lost, and families will go hungry. “We have to preserve it for generations to come,” he said.
As the sun sparkles on Bahamian waters, the spiny lobster fishery serves as an example of the impact of sustainability on local communities, the Caribbean, and all of our oceans.
You can watch a short video about this fishery here.