Archive for April, 2010

Certified Fish

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

There’s a little more hope for the world’s declining fish populations.

The Marine Stewardship Council started up about 10 years ago. It has now grown into the single most important global organization responsible for certifying whether the fish you want to buy comes from a sustainable fishery. If it does, then it comes with the MSC certification label, and you can be sure it has met the global standard required for certification.

The MSC logo that you should look for (

This is ‘ecolabelling’ at its best. If the label is there, you can feel reasonably sure that you are not doing harm. If the label isn’t there, you probably shouldn’t buy it.

What’s changed recently is that major supermarkets across the US and Canada have declared that within several years, all the fish they sell will be MSC certified. Leading the pack is Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retail company. Wal-Mart is so full of contradictions. By emphasizing that all of its fish products will soon be certified by MSC, they force their many competitors to take similar action. Wal-Mart appears to be taking a leadership role in sustainable fisheries just as it is in some other ‘green’ issues. At the same time, it intends to sell its fish at the lowest price possible, raising all the familiar social justice issues its employees face.

Wal-Mart is everywhere (

Social corporate responsibility clearly has its limits, but it’s good to see that it exists at all.

Any success in improving the sustainabiilty of the world’s fish, shrimp and other marine species deserves our attention. The species and populations that MSC certifies as sustainable are the same ones that the Monterrey Seafood Guide recommends. If you go to the MSC website, you can see the details behind the decisions. How does the process of certification work? What are the criteria for receiving certification? How is the system protected from inclusion of illegal stocks and species? Even information on how you can become a certifier – it’s all there.

Map of some of the MSC certified fisheries. There are a lot of others currently under assessment. (

So look for the MSC label on what you buy. Look for it, and ask for it, at the restaurants where you eat your seafood. Congratulate a restaurant owner where you see the MSC ecolabelling in place. Trader Joe’s has recently become enlightened, and is worth a visit if you live near one.

We may have become a consumer society, with all the associated worrisome implications, but it also means that as consumers we have the power to make corporations and businesses more environmentally responsible.

Even Wal-Mart.

Harp Seals at Risk

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

We have had a warm winter and early spring in eastern Canada this year. That makes it a tough year for Harp Seals.

Harp seal hauled out on an ice floe (

Harp seals are named Pagophilus greenlandicus, which means ‘ice lover from Greenland’. Each year, late in the winter, they travel south to breed on the ice floes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and on the edge of the ice pack along the coast of eastern Newfoundland and Labrador. The pups are born on the ice, nursed on the ice, and then when they are couple weeks old, they molt their ‘white coats’ for a fur they can swim in, their mothers leave, exhausted by the very intense nursing, and the young lie around on the ice using up their fat reserves as they grow into something that can start to swim and feed independently. The ice provides safety from all predators except for humans..

Harp Seals migrate south to breed on the ice in the Gulf of St.Lawrence and at the edge of the Atlantic ice pack, called The Front (

The ice floes in the St.Lawrence usually grow in January and February to pretty well fill the Gulf, and the end of March has been a safe time for the seals to arrive and breed. Not this year, however. Never before, it seems, in the memories of old Gulf fishermen, has there been a year with so little ice. Why not this year? Too warm, and too windy.

In a normal year, the females haul out to breed in clusters, usually the harem of a single male (

This year, the females arrived on schedule in mid to late March, ready to give birth, and found no ice floes. They can delay the process of giving birth for a week perhaps, but not much longer. What options have they had? Many are believed to have given birth at sea: their pups will all have drowned. Many gave birth on the shingle beaches along the western coast of Newfoundland, but then appear to have abandoned their pups, and those pups died.

So the hunt/harvest/slaughter (choose your descriptor) in the Gulf this year is a bust. The harvest quota for the Gulf is 110,000 seals – but the females won’t breed successfully, and the hunters in the Gulf won’t get near any seals anyway, for they also rely on the ice floes.

But surely we shouldn’t leave it there. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, responsible for managing the hunt, should institute ‘adaptive management’ and cancel this year’s harvest. In fact a moratorium would be appropriate, providing the seals some time to recover. If the warm winters persist – and over time they are expected to occur increasingly frequently – then breeding in the Gulf of St. Lawrence will probably cease.

This reassuring image is from Canada's official Fisheries and oceans website (

Will the seals be able to adapt to the loss of their ice floes? Let’s at least give them the opportunity. Let’s call off the harvest. This is just sane management.

We don’t even need to raise the questions of the ethics of the harvest, though all the world would approve a moratorium. Except China, perhaps.