Crab and lobster have provided livelihoods to generations of fishermen in Baja California, the Yucatán, and Sonora, Mexico. But like all fisheries worldwide, these three risk depletion unless they are carefully managed. The conservation group World Wildlife Fund (WWF) plans to soon tag these tasty crustaceans with a seal of approval to assure conservation-minded consumers that they were carefully harvested from a sustainably managed fishery.
Jaime González, program officer in Mexico for WWF’s Caribbean Mesoamerican Reef project, reports that the certification process is already under way for spiny lobster (Panulirus interruptus) in Baja, California, where the annual catch of this species is about 1,200 tons. Scientific Certification Systems, an independent and accredited certifier, is evaluating the fishery to see if it complies with management standards set by the Marine Stewardship Council, a nonprofit organization based in London. The fishery, which is part of the Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, stretches off the Baja peninsula, the long finger of land south of California. Experts are also assessing the Banco Chinchorro fishery, off the southern coast of Quintano Roo state, where about 50 tons of the Caribbean spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) are caught each year.
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) established sustainable management standards for fisheries in 1998, after consulting with scores of experts worldwide. The group aims to reward anglers who are environmentally responsible by anointing the fisheries they use with a seal of approval and promoting the certificate among consumers, who theoretically will be willing to pay a bit more for eco-seafood.
The popularity of edible marine wildlife has pushed many species to the brink of extinction — swordfish, red snapper, and grouper are just three species that may disappear from dinnerplates worldwide without more careful management. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 10 percent of the world’s commercially important marine fish stocks are either depleted or slowly recovering, 15 percent are overexploited, and 47 percent are harvested to capacity. Meanwhile, the demand is unlikely to decrease — total seafood consumption in the U.S. was 4.3 billion pounds in 1999, up sharply from the previous year, while fish consumption in China has doubled over the past decade. Billions of people around the world depend on seafood for their principal source of protein, and more than 200 million depend on fishing and related activities as an income source.
Since launching WWF’s fisheries certification program in Mexico, with funds from the Summit Foundation, González notes that the group has learned how challenging it can be to monitor a resource that swims. “Fisheries certification is very complicated because the resources move around so much, and they are shared by various countries and regions,” he says. “How can you certify a resource that is captured in one site but originates thousands of miles away?”
To date, six fisheries carry the MSC eco-label: western Australia’s rock lobster fishery; the Hoki fishery in New Zealand; the Burry Inlet cockle fishery in South Wales; the southwest mackerel handline fishery and Thames herring fishery in England; and the Alaska salmon fishery in the United States.
Most of these are quite a bit larger than the fisheries being evaluated in Mexico. In fact, González explains that a goal of the WWF-Mexico initiative underway in Banco Chinchorro is to prove that environmentally friendly fishing could be done with small fishing cooperatives that “do not belong to large, private businesses, but are in communities where the resource is shared and provides livelihoods, where the certified seafood could be sold locally and nationally, as well as internationally.”
The crab fishery in Sonora is in shallow coastal waters off the Gulf of California. With support from WWF’s Endangered Seas Campaign and the Packard Foundation, a conservation group called Comunidad y Biodiversidad (“Community and Biodiversity,” or COBI) has been working with local fishermen to bring management of the fishery up to MSC standards. According to CoBi director Louis Bourillón, the group spent several months both assessing the crustaceans’ population stability and explaining the certification program to local fishermen.
A principal goal of the initiative is to channel more profits to fishermen by eliminating intermediaries. “In Mexico, fish usually pass through many hands before they reach their final destination,” says Bourillón. “So our message to the fishermen was that if you take the crab or lobster from the sea in a certain way, following certain regulations, the price you will receive will be stable, and you will have more security.”
The fishery has successfully passed a preliminary evaluation, one of the first steps in the lengthy certification process. COBI will need to show that since fishermen changed the way they harvest, the crab population crab has increased or remained stable. “We must also demonstrate that the fishery does not have significant negative environmental impacts on the marine environment,” he adds. A third MSC certification requirement is that the fishery has a concrete management plan, which outlines clearly where and when anglers can fish.
The fishery is now ready to be analyzed by a team of experienced, respected, and independent evaluators, who will decide if the MSC eco-label should be conferred or not. Bourillón points out that the fisheries that have been certified so far have received conditional approval — that is, they must demonstrate improvements in certain areas in order to keep their certificates. He worries that lobster fishing faces a particularly tricky challenge: how to evaluate the impact that lobster traps have on the ocean floor, since there have been few studies that examine this. He believes that if certification is granted, “it will be conditional on our doing a study that responds to this important and unanswered question.”
González of WWF-Mexico notes that in a way, “certification is like the icing on the cake,” since the whole auditing process reveals areas where management of the fishery may need improvements. “The points system and criteria reveal strengths and weaknesses in the way fisheries are managed,” he says.
In the wake of certification, COBI will search out new markets for Sonora’s distinctive crab. “We want to start by showing that conservation is good business,” says Bourillón, “that it pays to fish in a certain way because it not only guarantees that the resource will not be depleted but also because there are potential economic benefits.”
Jim Humphreys is the US director of the Marine Stewardship Council, based in Seattle, and has visited the Sonora fishery. He maintains that the market for certified lobster in the United States is “undeveloped but growing.” Meanwhile, three U.S. companies, he says, are promoting and selling MSC certified Alaska salmon: Whole Food Markets, a natural foods retailer, and Lindblad Expeditions and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, which are both serving the eco-labeled salmon in their boats’ dining rooms.”
“As new products become available, we are working with the existing companies that are using MSC-labeled products to encourage them to use the new ones as well,” Humphreys explains. “We are also working with other retailers and restaurants to obtain their commitments in using MSC-labeled seafoods.”
He notes that strongest support for the MSC label exists in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Germany, France, and Australia.
06100 Mexico, DF
Terminación Bahía de Bacochibampo s/n
Fraccionamiento Lomas de Cortés
Read more about this project in the Eco-Index:
www.eco-index.org/search/results.cfm?ProjectID=196 and www.eco-index.org/search/results.cfm?ProjectID=205.