MSC say sustainable fishing of North Sea cod could soon recommence, but can it?

The Guardian reports, 8th June 2012: “Cod could be in for a revival at the fish counter as stocks recover after being overfished for decades. Eating cod has been regarded as close to a crime by environmentalists, and consumers have been urged to opt for alternatives such as gurnard. But a survey by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and other fisheries organisations suggests that effective management means cod is increasing. The standards body, which certifies certain fisheries as sustainable as a guide for consumers, said that on current trends cod would soon qualify for its certification.


Cod stocks have improved in the North Sea, but are still below sustainable levels.
Photograph: Alamy

“Some green campaigners were cautious, saying a full recovery could still take many years. Paul de Zylva of Friends of the Earth said: “We would expect some recovery of cod stocks because of the closure of the North Sea cod fisheries. But this does not mean stocks have recovered to high enough levels. We’re in this near extinction mess – and the North Sea cod fisheries were closed – precisely because industrial commercial fishing has stripped fish stock to the bone. The UK used to be self-sufficient in fish for all 12 months of the year. Now we’re using our own fish stocks for just six months.”

He said taking species off the danger list too soon would just repeat the cycle of overfishing. “It’s pointless to declare that cod and other species are recovering if they are still far from being at safe levels where adult fish reproduce, their offspring survive and overall levels are sustained.”

The brighter prospect for cod comes in Project Inshore, a survey of 450 of the UK’s inshore fishing grounds carried out by the MSC and other fishing organisations, with government backing.

The organisation said: “Cod stocks in the North Sea – often perceived as a species to avoid – continue to show a strong recovery and are now close to a level where they could meet the MSC standard. The report shows that strong management measures have made a positive impact and that – once stocks have reached the required levels – all other areas of the fisheries are ready to enter an MSC full assessment.”

Source: The Guardian 8th June 2013. The full text of this story can be seen here.

Marinet observes: The key phrase in the Marine Stewardship Council’s report is “once stocks have reached required levels”. What exactly are the “required levels”?

The reality is that the North Sea cod stock has been on the brink of commercial extinction (the spawning stock has shrunk to a level where there were fears that the stock could no longer regenerate itself). Hence the fishery was closed.

Does “required level” mean that the stock is now back at a level where it can replenish itself but only to a stock level which is actually abysmally small in historical terms, and certainly unable to meet the UK’s food security needs? Or, does “required level” mean a level that is ecologically and historically referenced so as to rebuild the stock to the point that can once again meet the needs of food security, and thus assure the UK fishing industry that it has a genuinely sustainable stock to fish?

Marinet suspects that it is the former of these two definitions. This is certainly the experience documented by Charles Clover in his book The End of The Line where, time and again, fisheries which have been over-fished are allowed to recover then, when a point of “recovery” has been reached, fishing recommences only to once again create the downward spiral towards commercial extinction.

The Marine Stewardship Council needs to define its terms when making such statements. And the UK Government and the UK fishing industry need to ensure that the MSC does. Otherwise, we are in danger of being hoodwinked all over again.

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