The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) reports that 10 years after it awarded its ecolabel to South Africa’s hake trawl fishery, this fishery has demonstrated not only its environmental credibility, but also that environmental sustainability can provide long-term economic gains.
MSC mentions that recent studies have demonstrated that eco-certification of South Africa’s hake trawl fishery, one of the oldest fisheries in South Africa, has helped to create opportunities for diversification to non-traditional exports markets, including in EU member states such as the UK, Germany and Sweden, where “buyer commitments to sustainable sourcing have often been the driver.”
Currently, the South African hake fishery is responsible for an annual export revenue of approximately US$187 million. The study showed that, without MSC certification, the value of South Africa’s hake trawl fishery could decrease by an estimated 35% over a 5-year period. The resultant loss in the fishery’s contribution to gross domestic product (GDP) would be between 28 and 47%, with the potential loss of 12,000 jobs in the fisheries sector and supporting industries.
Improvements in fishing practices have also led to environmental gains, including a 90% decline in seabird mortalities (achieved by vessels using bird scaring lines). Moreover, as one of the elements required to maintain the MSC label, trawling grounds were charted with data provided by the sector. This information was then used to limit the grounds where trawling was to be conducted, helping to prevent damage to lightly trawled areas and to preserve natural refuges for hake. In addition, pioneering research is also being conducted by the sector in the Atlantic Ocean, 100 nautical miles off the west coast of South Africa, where the trawl industry has agreed to a 4-year fishing stoppage in certain areas to monitor ecosystem recovery in areas of closure.
Certification also contributed to closer cooperation between scientists, NGOs and industry towards managing this fishery sustainably.
Over the years, the practice of trawling in tropical waters has given rise to much controversy, because of its impacts on the overall environment and on non-targeted species. The example of the MSC-certified trawl fishery in South Africa demonstrates that improvements have been introduced thanks to the eco-certification, with undeniable environmental and social benefits. It is not so clear however whether there have been economic benefits, particularly in the form of a premium for MSC-certified products on the end markets. In the South African case, the MSC’s role has been to accompany a dynamic of change rather than certifying a fishery that was already sustainable to start with. The example also shows that there have been impressive investments in the sector, including new gear, research and data provision, as well as interaction with other stakeholders. The question remains whether such dynamic could also be successfully achieved by smaller-scale operators with less capital to invest in management-related initiatives, particularly if short-term economic benefits cannot be used to pay for the investments.