Fish are Friends and Food: The rise of the US federal seafood certification

by RJD Intern Daniela Ferraro

As appetite increases, people are looking towards federally managed fisheries to provide a seafood certification system. With rising levels of overfishing, habitat destruction, and mismanagement, there has been an emphasis placed upon fishing regulations and sustainable fishing practices (Jackson et al 2001). This began with adjustments to the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act (MSA) in 2006, giving the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and Regional Fishery Management Councils permission to establish annual catch limits. Fishing limits are an attempt at keeping stocks from being overfished. Sustainable fishing is the process of maintaining a balance in favor of the number of fish reproduced versus stocks fished. Unfortunately, stocks are not rebuilding and continuing to decline in number (Rothschild et al).

400 tons of Chilean jack mackerel caught in a purse seine. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

400 tons of Chilean jack mackerel caught in a purse seine. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

The federal government’s jurisdiction reaches as far as the end of the Exclusive Economic Zone from 3 to 200 miles offshore. In the past 8 years, from 2007 to 2014, the federal government has worked to develop a framework for seafood import and certification as well as an eco-label program. These guidelines abide by the standards set in the MSA with input from eight of the Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee meetings (Sasser et al 2006). Currently, there are at least 200 consumer guides and 70 certifications and eco-labels that focus on wild caught fisheries and aquaculture. The largest certification program is the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which acts to align fisheries based on a specific set of standards that support sustainability. MSC’s guidelines take the status of the fishery, efficacy of management, and the impact to habitat into effect when assigning certifications (Christian C 2013). In developing countries, MSA has certified fishing fleets involved in fisheries improvement projects (FIPs) to encourage sustainability. While FIPs relay the means towards sustainable fishing, these fleets don’t meet MSA standards (Bush et al). Large corporations in the United States, such as McDonald’s and Walmart, along with the European Union recently agreed to buy only MSC-certified seafood (MSC 2013).

The MSC Ecolabel, Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

The MSC Ecolabel, Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Opposition comes in the form of Senator Lisa Murkowski’s Responsible Seafood Certification and Labeling Act (S. 1521), a bill introduced on September 18, 2013. Murkowski proposes to prevent the federal government from granting contracts to third party certification seafood vendors, promoting a label based on criteria developed by a third party, and upholding standards that recommend third party seafood. This bill directly opposes third party seafood certifications. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) assisted MAFAC and NOAA in developing FishWatch, an agency dedicated to providing seafood consumers with information on federally managed fisheries (30). It competes with nongovernmental efforts by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Blue Ocean Institute to “provide(s) easy-to-understand science-based facts to help consumers make smart sustainable seafood choices” (NMFS 2013). While still claiming neutrality, NMFS has taken a step towards federal certification and eco-labeling.

Fishermen in Sesimbra, Portugal. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Fishermen in Sesimbra, Portugal. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

In attempt to reconcile a national fishing industry and local fisherman with third party certifiers, NMFS has space to be the go-between and resolve conflict. In creating its own labeling and certification program, NMFS will serve as an advocate for fishermen in an economy that serves the consumer over seafood sustainability. The necessity and demand for a federally-managed certification program deals with issues such as market, fisheries, and communication. A reinforcing of existing structure coincides with the thought that third-party organizations and their certifications are methods of privatizing governance. MAFAC and NMFS tackle not only the definitions of sustainable fisheries but issues of control and who should have the authority to claim sustainability. In the future, fishery certification and eco-labeling could become the next wave of categorizing seafood, with “sustainable” sitting right alongside “organic” and the Organic Foods Protection Act (Stoll et al. 2014).



Bush S, Toonen H, Oosterveer P, Mol A. The ‘devils triangle’ of MSC certification: balancing credibility, accessibility and continuous improvement. Mar Policy 2013l 3:288-93

Christian C, et al. A review of formal objections to Marine Stewardship Council fisheries certifications. Biol Conserv 2013; 161: 10-7

Jackson J, et al. Historical overfishing and the recent collapse of coastal ecosystems. Science 2001; 293 (5530): 629-37

Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). McDonald’s first USa national restaurant chain to serve MSC certified sustainable seafood to all US locations. 2013b

National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). FishWatch. 2013

Rothschild B, Keiley E, Jiao Y. Failure to eliminate overfishing and attain optimum yield in the New England groundfish fishery. ICES J Mar Sci: J du Cons 2013:fst118

Sasser E, Prakash A, Cashore B, Auld G. Direct targeting as an NGO political strategy: examining private authority regimes in the forestry sector. Bus Polit 2006; 8(no. 3): 1-32

Stoll J, Johnson T. Under the banner of sustainability: The politics and prose of an emerging US federal seafood certification. Mar Pol 51 2015: 415-422

Patterns of serial exploitation of sea cucumbers in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park

By Jake Jerome, RJD Graduate Student and Intern

There is no doubt that overfishing is a major threat to ocean ecosystems. When most people think of overfishing, they think of the over harvesting of fish species that many in the world rely on. However, there are species besides fish that face the threat of exploitation. Eriksson and Byrne found in 2013 that the tropical sea cucumber fishery in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP) is following patterns of overexploitation.

To reach this conclusion, the authors performed a meta-analysis of catches in the fishery from 1991 to 2011 by reviewing data published in peer reviewed literature and fisheries reports.  From their analysis they found that the sea cucumber fishery initially focused only on harvesting high-valued species but shifted towards lower-valued species over time. The initial target was black teatfish (Holothuria whitmaei) until 1999, when a 70% decline in the catch of black teatfish was noted, and subsequent effort then shifted towards the white teatfish (H. fuscogilva). The fishery was subsequently diversified after the collapse of the black teatfish to include other species of medium and low-value. Despite the addition of these new species into fishery efforts in 1999, most of them no longer appeared on catch lists as of 2005. Two new key target species prompted an increase in the harvest during the 2004 to 2011 period, though they were species of lower value than the teatfish.


Catch records from the Queensland East Coast bêche-de-mer fishery (ECBDMF). The three areas indicated in the figure are conceptual periods in the fishery based on the composition of catch. (Eriksson and Byrne 2013)

A major problem with the sea cucumber fishery in the GBRMP is the lack of information about the original population sizes of the species targeted. Without a baseline of knowledge, predicting the critical threshold beyond which a species can no longer recovery is extremely difficult. Because of this, many of these species may have been fished past their critical threshold and may not be able to avoid extinction.

With Australia being a developed high-income country, it is expected that management of fisheries is better resourced then it would be in low developed countries. This study showed that serial expansion and the quick replacement of high-valued species with lesser valued individuals is not limited to fishing practices in low-income developing countries and is a common trend in the overexploited global sea cucumber fishery. This is important to the fishery because it points out gaps in the management of sea cucumbers. Although Australia tried to manage this particular fishery with a rotational zoning scheme (RZS) in 2004, it proved to be either too late or ineffective. In addition, this study illustrates that providing relatively few fishermen access to a large fishing area through licensing, does not necessarily transfer to sustainable sea cucumber harvest.


White teat sea cucumber (Holothuria fuscogilva). (Stacy Jupiter/Marine Photobank)

In the end, it is clear that more studies need to be done on population sizes of tropical sea cucumbers to accurately assess their vulnerability. Without being able to monitor populations as they are harvested, effectively managing the many now threatened or endangered sea cucumbers will continue to be a problem.


Eriksson, H. and Byrne, M. (2013), The sea cucumber fishery in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine       Park follows global patterns of serial exploitation. Fish and Fisheries. doi: 10.1111/faf.12059