WASHINGTON — Consumers who buy one company's swordfish caught off eastern Florida will be seeing a blue and white label at the store that assures them the fish was caught with utmost care for life in the Atlantic Ocean.
The company awarded the eco label, Day Boat Seafood of Lake Park, Fla., says it's a reward for years of working to take only fish from a healthy population. Conservationists, however, are concerned because most of the company's swordfish are caught on surface longlines, which sometimes stretch for 30 miles with hundreds of hooks dangling down.
"Long-line fisheries catch whatever is swimming by," said Teri Shore of SeaTurtles.org, an advocacy group that objected to the certification by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). "It's not sustainable for the oceans."
The MSC's certification for Day Boat Seafood, granted in December, was the first for any fish in the world caught on ocean-surface longlines.
The eastern Canadian longline swordfish industry, which is five times larger and sells mainly to the United States, is waiting for a decision, expected soon, about whether it will get the MSC's label, too. An assessor reviewed the case of the Canadian fishery and recommended certification. An independent judge is reviewing objections.
The label is a marketing tool. Some consumers make purchase decisions based on it. Stores such as Wal-Mart, Target and Whole Foods say they intend to carry MSC-certified fish.
The MSC website says its vision is "the world's oceans teeming with life, and seafood supplies safeguarded for this and future generations." The MSC sets standards and grants its certification once an independent assessor determines they're met.
Shore said that one of her biggest concerns is that the MSC doesn't consider how the impacts in different places add up.
"They look at each fishery as if no other fishery existed. That is not a sustainable perspective. That's the problem," she said.
Turtles and swordfish migrate between Canada and Florida. Shore said her group argued that there's not enough information to know whether or not longlines harm sea-turtle populations.
Leatherbacks are listed as being in danger of extinction. Loggerheads are listed as threatened, which is defined as likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.
"The bottom line from our point of view for sea-turtle protection is, after 40 years on the endangered species list, no U.S. population of sea turtles has recovered, and longline fishing remains one of the primary reasons," Shore said.
Scott Taylor, a co-founder of Day Boat Seafood, disagreed.
"The fact of the matter is, this is really a non-issue," he said. "It makes my blood boil."
He said that the real problems for turtles were from loss of habitat and collisions with ships and pleasure boats.
Taylor said that his vessels have had no observed turtle deaths in the past five years.
"We do interact occasionally. A turtle will get either hooked or entangled in a line. I think there were something like 40 or 50 documented interactions over a five-year period, all of which were live releases."
Longlines also catch swordfish that are too small to keep, as well as sharks, diving sea birds, bluefin tuna and game fish such as blue marlins. Taylor said the amount of bycatch (unintended and unwanted catch) is low. U.S. law requires each boat to keep a bycatch log and send the reports to the National Marine Fisheries Service. NMFS observers go along on about 10 percent of the trips, he said.
Taylor said his company agreed to take extra measures, such as increasing the number of independent observers to verify the accuracy of its bycatch reports, in order to counter critics. In five years, he plans to have observers on all vessels.
About 25 percent of Day Boat's swordfish catch is from buoy gear instead of longlines. One or two hooks are attached to each buoy. They're watched from the boat, and each line is hauled up quickly when it has a fish on it. Longlines, by contrast, generally aren't hauled in for eight hours or more.
Buoy gear produces less bycatch, but fishermen don't use it exclusively because they can't get enough fish, Taylor said.
NMFS requires fishermen to get trained in how to release sea turtles. They also must use a type of hook that turtles are less likely to swallow. The vessels' location must be monitored. Observers join some fishing trips to check bycatch amounts. Lines must be long enough so that if turtles are snagged they can swim to the surface to breathe. NMFS also closes some areas for protection.
"We think it has worked," said Margo Schulze-Haugen, chief the agency's highly migratory species management division. Turtle losses have declined to what scientists have determined are acceptable limits, she said.
"There are many longline fisheries in the world that do not take anywhere near the care of the ecosystem that the U.S. does," Schulze-Haugen said.
SeaTurtles.org, however, argued that not enough is known about sea turtles to certify longlines like the ones Day Boat Seafood uses as sustainable.
"While this is a small fishery, there isn't enough observer coverage or scientific data to determine whether or not on its own it harms the sea turtle populations or not," Shore said. One area of uncertainty, she said, is how many turtles are released alive but die as a result of being hooked.
One recent study by NMFS scientists and others, published Dec. 31 in a scientific journal, found that fewer female loggerheads nesting at Juno Beach in Florida were surviving in the ocean than previously thought. The scientists used satellite tagging to follow female loggerheads. They concluded that more studies were needed, but that if additional work verifies their findings, stronger conservation measures may be needed.
Kerry Coughlin, regional director for the Americas with the Marine Stewardship Council, said the experts involved in the certification looked closely at the issue of endangered and threatened turtles. Conservation groups made suggestions, and the company agreed to implement some of them, Coughlin said. The end result is a gain for turtles, she said.
Lee Crockett, who oversees federal fisheries policy at the Pew Environment Group, said that just because Day Boat Seafood got the eco label doesn't mean that all longline fishing is sustainable.
"I think Day Boat is unique in the way they approach their fishing and their business practices and their commitment to do a better job," he said.
Jennifer Jacquet of the Sea Around Us Project at the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre and colleagues criticized the MSC in an article in the journal Nature in 2010, saying that its standards aren't stringent enough. The article also said that the certifiers have a financial conflict of interest, arguing that those who are lenient get more work.
In Canada, the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia, said the MSC shouldn't certify the Canadian swordfish industry because the improvements it has promised to make aren't in place yet. The center and the Canadian conservation group David Suzuki Foundation have been calling for alternatives to longline fishing, arguing that too many sharks and sea turtles end up on the lines.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2012