Open Seas statement on scallop dredging ecolabel decision
Yesterday (20th June 2018) the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) rejected our objection to the re-certification of the Shetland scallop dredge fishery. As a result, the MSC will now permit the fishery to sell dredged scallops using its blue tick label, despite the dredge fishery continuing inside Marine Protected Areas (MPA) and on other areas of sensitive habitat.
We think the decision, and the way the MSC have gone about making it, highlights a systemic failure in the MSC’s certification processes, and not only undermines the recovering health of our marine environment, but also shows that what MSC consider to be ‘sustainable’ is out of step with what the Scottish
environmental community and consumers expect.
Before we go into the extensive background on this, it is worth highlighting a few facts about Shetland dredged scallops that have emerged during this process:
- Scallop dredging continues to take place in Marine Protected Areas in Shetland’s inshore waters
- The full environmental footprint of the fishery is unknown. Of 22 active licensed dredging vessels, only 14 have vessel tracking installed. The rest of the fleet is untracked despite the fact that establishing fleet wide vessel monitoring was a clear recommendation of the fishery when it was first certified in 2012: “Ensure appropriate tools are in place for monitoring, surveillance and enforcement of any actions within the Management Framework for example use of portable vessel monitoring systems in vessels without VMS.”
- Scallop dredging is taking place on a whole range of habitat types which are classed as ‘Priority Marine Features’. Whilst harvesting scallops, the Shetland scallop fleet is also dredging up large volumes of horse mussels, (6.9% of landed volume). If left to recover, these horse mussels could form vital marine habitat.
- The Adjudicator – appointed to consider our Objection – has recognised that “fine scale maps” and “tow-by-tow information” have not been made available and as such cannot be relied upon in the decision process. Despite this the Adjudicator has relied on such data in his own decision – even the adjudicator seems to be in breach of MSC criteria!
- The MSC has made this decision on the basis of a brand new assessment which Acoura (the assessment company) presented only 5 days before our hearing – this assessment backtracked on several of the issues we have raised in the objection and that they had rejected until this point.
- Acoura’s Final Report (i.e. the assessment we objected to) and their responses to our objections included substantial factual, procedural (and spelling) mistakes. This included misquoting scientific papers and arguing against evidence presented in their own report.
- The company managing the fishery (Shetland Shellfish Management Organisation) argues its fishery is small when compared with the size of Shetland’s seas overall. However, evidence around this is not provided. The dredge prohibitions set up by the fishery are very small when compared to the size of Shetland’s seas, but this is not considered to be a problem.
So firstly, what has happened to date?
Since first engaging in this process in November 2016, we have expended considerable effort to highlight our concerns during the assessment process, notably that habitats remain vulnerable to damage, that scallop dredging was taking place inside MPAs and that significant volumes of horse mussels and other sea life such as common skate are being caught as bycatch. However, when the assessor Acoura apparently disregarded our comments and recommended re-certification of the fishery on the basis of erroneous interpretations of information, we felt we had no option but to formally object. MSC acknowledged that our objection had merit and appointed an independent adjudicator to consider the case. Five days before a hearing in London, the assessor submitted a heavily-revised report. Although we welcome some of the changes to the report, we essentially disagree with its expert judgement. Unfortunately the decision made by the MSC’s Adjudicator has now essentially rubber stamped what in our view remains a poor assessment.
What has the Adjudicator decided?
The Adjudicator has concluded that our objection should be dismissed, in short, because he does not consider that scallop dredging in Shetland causes serious or irreversible harm to habitat types, abundances, or the function of these habitats.
The company managing the fishery has asserted that the fine scale footprint of the fishery overlaps with less than 10% of the sand and gravel seabed areas in Shetland. Although this assertion relies on “fine scale… tow-by-tow information” (which has not been made available), apparently disregards the fact that 40% of the fleet are not tracked, ignores the key fact that “sand” is not a habitat but a substrate on which a rich array of species and habitats live, the Adjudicator has decided this assertion is sufficient to conclude that the fishery does not cause serious harm to marine habitats. Furthermore, elsewhere in his decision the Adjudicator has also concluded that, because such ‘fine-scale’ data was not made available by the fishery during the process, it cannot be relied upon in the assessment. On the one hand, the information is the basis for the re-certification, on the other hand it appears it cannot be relied upon. This makes the decision at best unclear, and at worst contradictory.
An example of habitat complexity in Shetland, despite presence of maerl, burrowing sea cucumbers and fish, MSC consider this area to be “sand” and able to rapidly recover from damage.
The Adjudicator concludes that our concerns regarding dredging impacts on rocky reef habitats (sufficiently important around Shetland that two SACs were designated in the waters to protect them) are not valid because “the fishery is concentrated in areas which generally do not overlap with such habitats” – despite there being no evidence provided during the assessment or objections process to support this claim.
The Adjudicator has accepted evidence we have submitted, such as the existence of a maerl bed in an area where dredging was still permitted (something Acoura and NAFC repeatedly argued did not definitively exist), and the fact that Acoura made material mistakes when attempting to quote scientific literature. However, despite accepting this, he has not considered that this overrides the view that the fishery overlaps with only a small part of the overall amount of sand and gravel in Shetland’s sea.
The Adjudicator has accepted our view that Acoura’s Final Report (published in January 2018 and to which we objected) included several factual and procedural errors, but chose to accept a brand new version of the assessment (submitted by Acoura 8 minutes before the absolute final deadline and five days before our hearing) which backtracked on some of the issues we had raised throughout the previous 18 months and which they had repeatedly rejected.
What does this mean?
The Adjudicator’s decisions mean that this fishery, which is deploying a highly damaging form of fishing in protected areas and other sensitive areas of sea, will continue being marketed as sustainable. In our view, this is bad for the consumer, who will clearly be very confused, problematic for seafood companies who are trying to source scallops in environmentally friendly ways, and bad for the environment. Bad decisions such as this continue to erode the MSC’s utility as a positive mechanism for change and this is sad to see.
Acoura responded to our concerns regarding dredging in MPAs with the following statement “Open Seas argues that habitats within SACs and MPA’s require additional protection, but this finds no basis in the MSC requirements.” That the MSC have now approved and endorsed such a view shows that the MSC process really has no grounding in what most people consider to be environmentally sensible. By taking such a position, MSC appears not to be consistent with nature conservation policy in Scotland, where MPAs and SACs are an integral part of our marine strategies, and shows that actually it is not a organisation able to step up to the challenges of improving the sustainability of our seafood in a meaningful way.
The inconsistencies in the Adjudicator’s own decision-making are alarming. We’ve been concerned throughout in the lack of rigour in Acoura’s assessments, but to see issues also apparent from the authority on the MSC standard is of fundamental concern for the validity of the standard overall.
The fact that we had to go to such lengths to have Acoura correct their errors and complete the Final Report – with not insignificant cost and time burdens – shows that there are serious procedural problems in the MSC public consultation and peer review processes.
Other issues which have been overlooked – such as the fact that 40% of the fishery is not fitted with vessel monitoring and therefore has an unknown footprint – also set dangerous precedents.
How do we feel?
We feel gutted, obviously. But we entered this process in full knowledge that we were engaging with an awkward, technocratic process. The MSC that claims to represent sustainability is now willing to lease the use of its logo to a fishery which is dredging inside MPAs designated to protect reefs. We have consistently asserted that for this fishery to be recognised as a best practice fishery it should be following best practice. It’s not.
During our engagement with the assessment we adhered to MSC’s tight and narrow parameters of sustainability. However, we think that a best practice fishery should be identifying the areas of seabed that are of lower sensitivity and directing the damaging footprint of dredging to those areas. Instead the fishery is just closing off small pockets of seabed to protect fragments of remnant habitat.
That said, we do also feel vindicated in some of the issues we raised, and welcome moves by the fishery to prohibit dredging in Mousa Sound following us raising this as an issue in our objection.
Where do we go from here?
Ultimately, we still contend that the real losers here are consumers and the marine environment that they care about. People who want to eat sustainable seafood do not imagine that their scallops are quite literally being raked out of sensitive areas of the sea.
Please get in touch if you would like to discuss any of the issues we have raised here.