In Controversial Move, Antarctic Fishery Called 'Sustainable'

A controversial fishery in one of the world's most remote oceans has been certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Environmental groups and some scientists had objected to the certification, claiming that not enough is known about the Ross Sea toothfish.

Fishing vessels have been catching Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni) in the Ross Sea since 1996, operating under the regulations of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. In 2007, several companies applied to MSC for an eco-label, which would help them sell their fish for a premium.

MSC doesn't evaluate fisheries itself, but sets the overall standards for sustainability. Certification companies, such as Moody Marine, check out the fisheries to see if they make the grade. In November 2009, Moody decided that the Ross Sea toothfish deserved the MSC label.

Backed by a group of ecologists and biologists, a set of environmental groups called the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) objected.

They argued that key aspects of toothfish biology—such as where the fish spawn—weren't well enough known to guarantee that the fishing is sustainable.

MSC brought in an independent adjudicator to investigate the objections. He found several problems with the way that Moody had evaluated the fishery, but in his final decision, released in early October, he declined to decide whether the label was justified. Instead, he asked Moody to weigh his comments and make up its own mind—an unusual move that left ASOC "dismayed" (PDF). Moody then decided that its certification was still valid.

MSC says the process was rigorous. "Management of this fishery follows precautionary and ecosystem-based principles," MSC Deputy Chief Executive Chris Ninnes said in a statement. He cited strict regulations, annual stock assessments, and other factors as reasons why the certification was justified.

Despite the fact that the fish will have a sustainability label, ASOC is asking consumers not to buy them. At least one grocery chain has said it won't offer the fish.