Is there any more damaging fishing method than bottom-trawling - dragging a heavy net along the seabed? Well, probably dynamiting and poisoning reefs are worse, but at least those methods have been banned.
Even in the 1800s trawlers were aware that they were causing huge fish declines. Bottom-trawling spread around Britain from the 1820s, and as fish declined in numbers the inshore trawlers had to travel greater distances and increase their gear size to maintain their catch. By the 1880s they were calling for closing territorial waters to protect nursery and spawning grounds. However, the Royal Commission reports of 1866 and 1887 either disbelieved the fishermen, or simply failed to recommend restrictions. A model for the future.
Bottom trawling of course spread around the world, leaving no suitable coast untouched. As inshore fisheries declined and EEZ limits extended to 200 miles, off-shore and deeper-water trawling continued to grow. When sea mounts were discovered and mapped, trawlers extended their reach to depths of 1500 meters. Such deep-water trawling continues, with an impact that is surely devastating though largely unknown.
And yet everyone knows the problems associated with bottom-trawling, whether inshore or deep-water. It ploughs the bottom, removing its sediment, smoothing, radically changing the bottom seascape. It destroys ecosystems through the direct damage of the net, otter-boards and rock-hopper gear. It destroys ecosystems though its destruction and capture of non-target species. It decimates populations of target species through non-selective capture.
What can be done? Well, enter the Marine Stewardship Council. You are probably familiar with it, or at least with its blue logo indicating a fishery it has certified as sustainable. MSC was created in London in 1997, a joint effort of WWF and Unilever. In 1999 it became an independent non-profit organization.
Its rules for certification include the following: For a fisheries to be certified, fishing must continue indefinitely without over-exploiting resources. Productivity of the ecosystem must be preserved. All local, national and international laws must be upheld. And every company in the chain from boat to plate must be certified.
Between 2000 and 2004, MSC certified six fisheries, and the commercial benefits of certification began to be recognized. In 2006 WalMart announced that all fish it sold would be MSC certified by 2010. Whole Foods Market has gone the same route. So has Sainsbury’s, and Costco.
What better way to control, restrict, even prohibit bottom-trawling, which in no way meets the essential criteria required for certification? This looked very promising.
Instead, MSC began to certify bottom-trawled fisheries, mostly since 2011. Now certified are the fisheries for North Sea plaice, cod, haddock, and sole; New Zealand Blue whiting; Alaskan pollock in the Eastern Bering Sea (the largest single trawled fishery); and South African Hake, Barents Sea cod and haddock, Baltic cod, Iceland cod, North-west Atlantic shrimp and haddock. Others are in the pipeline.
In 2011 National WWFs furiously denounced placing any bottom-trawled fish on the MSC list. Remember WWF helped found MSC in the first place. Greenpeace has also denounced it, as has the Pew environmental Group. And so have some of the very fisheries scientists who helped create the MSC.
MSC disagrees, as it proceeds to certify its 200th fisheries. But clearly it has radically loosened its rules for certification. One might be forgiven for thinking that once again the market place sets the rules instead of conservation.
We have not come very far from those disappointing Royal Commissions of 150 and 130 years ago.
There simply is no acceptable justification for bottom trawling. And MSC has failed us.