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Going Green: The seven-year hitch

Oregon Dungeness crab nabs MSC eco-label, dodges ‘Furman’s Folly’

By James Wright
February 05, 2011

Of the 100-plus fisheries worldwide that have obtained the London-based Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) eco-label for responsible management and sustainability, most certifications benefited from reams of data covering decades of stock assessments for certifiers to examine. Armed with this information, most clients, or sponsors, have a strong sense of where their fishery stands in the certification process going in, how good their chances of obtaining certification are going forward and how long it might take. 

The Oregon Dungeness crab (Cancer magister) fishery, which earned MSC certification in December, had to take a slightly different tack. That’s because it’s the rare
MSC-certified fishery that is not subjected to regular scientific stock assessments. Instead, state managers have always relied on a “3-S” system of harvest restrictions: sex, size and season (only males with shell carapaces measuring 6.25 inches across are allowed to be landed between December and August). It’s worked for generations, even though the fishery has experienced many up-and-down cycles. 

Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission (ODCC) Executive Director Nick Furman says it was more than just a hunch that the fishery’s practices, which date back to 1889 and have changed little since, were responsible and sustainable, worthy of worldwide recognition. Eventually, he was proven correct — it just took an unexpected seven years to complete the MSC certification process, which typically takes around 18 months. 

“Pre-certification, in 2002, I think our certifier (Scientific Certification Services of Emeryville, Calif.) was candid in saying, ‘You’re gonna have some things to deal with,’” says Furman. “There was information with research and management issues, but not a lot of time spent on it over the last decade or two; the fishery simply hadn’t warranted it. In the days of limited funding in the fishery-management arena, a fishery that is working doesn’t get a lot of attention.” 

With such a “data deficiency,” as Furman calls it, the ODCC couldn’t initially turn to recent studies or reports to justify its assertions and assumptions of sustainability. It simply wasn’t enough, either, to point to recent trends in landings, which showed tremendous gains: In the 1990s, the average Oregon Dungeness harvest per season was just shy of 11 million pounds; over the past decade, the average jumped to 18.6 million pounds. Dungeness is the state’s most valuable single-species fishery and has been for a long time: The 2009-10 harvest earned Oregon fishermen $44.8 million.

“We felt that we didn’t need anything more than our simple 3-S management scheme,” says Furman, adding that the fishery utilizes circular steel pots or traps and is limited to 429 license holders. “We’ve been green, thumbs up, good to go for years. But achieving MSC [certification] would substantiate what all the other groups were saying about Dungeness. And at least for a while, Oregon Dungeness would own a segment of the marketplace. If a retailer wants to focus on MSC and Dungeness crab, they have only one choice.”  

Kerry Coughlin, director of the MSC’s Americas region, says the Oregon Dungeness fishery was short on data for only one of the program’s three key principles — health of the stock, health of the ecosystem and management. 

“In order to score [the fishery] more accurately, there needed to be more scientific work done on the stock in order for the fishery to demonstrate what everyone believed it would,” she says, which included further modeling and reporting. 

“One of the things that a lot of fisheries do is a confidential pre-assessment, which we encourage,” adds Cough-lin. “Thirty to 40 percent of fisheries don’t pursue full assessment after they learn some things in pre-assessment. [If that were known publicly] it would be a deterrent — it would penalize them for not being there already.”  

The Oregon Dungeness fishery did undergo a confidential pre-assessment, but from the beginning was open about its interest and subsequent participation. The seven-year wait for MSC certification was difficult at times for Dungeness suppliers, even though the majority were supportive of the process. “For a while it became known as Furman’s Folly,” quips Furman. “And every six months I’d get a call from someone in the media asking, ‘Where you at?’ But the [ODCC] board was in full support of maintaining the initiatives.”

Christa Svensson, a sales and marketing rep for Bornstein Seafoods in Astoria, Ore., says the value of the MSC label is clear and they didn’t have to look far for evidence.  

“More [suppliers] have been on board probably because of the hard work from the [coldwater pink] shrimp fishery,” says Svensson, referring to the Oregon fishery that earned the eco-label in December 2007. “They’ve already been there, they’re interested and it’s not a foreign concept.

“Initially, [the wait] was frustrating, but I think [MSC] did a good job of explaining why things were taking longer, as did the crab commission. So we were able to table it.” 

Interest in Oregon Dungeness crab could increase overseas and “beyond the I-5 corridor” of the Pacific Northwest because of the sustainability certification, she says. 

Suppliers “really see the value in it and are glad they persisted,” says the MSC’s Coughlin. 

The industry faces a decision that will play a key role in determining how long it can maintain the eco-label. Furman says a major hurdle will be committing to a “targeted reference point,” or a harvest level in which the fishery would have to “put the brakes on.” That level has not yet been determined, says Furman, but the MSC has given them two years to figure it out. But now that the label is theirs, stakeholders know their work is just getting started.

“The important thing is not achieving [MSC certification], it’s what you do with it,” says Furman, adding that ODCC will “lift up the stone again” when it comes to penetrating the European market, which has been wary of Dungeness crab prices in the past. “If you haven’t rung the bell in the marketplace and with the consumer, you haven’t done much.” 

 

Associate Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com

February 2011 - SeaFood Business 

 

 

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