The West Coast groundfish fishery has received its “sustainable” certification from the international Marine Stewardship Council.

Summer 2014

The West Coast groundfish fishery has received its “sustainable” certification from the international Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The MSC credited NOAA Fisheries’ 2011 shift to catch shares management for reducing bycatch and rebuilding critical stocks as a primary reason in the certification.

The MSC, which promotes and certifies sustainable fisheries, called the West Coast groundfish fishery “the most diverse, complex fishery ever to enter assessment against the MSC standard anywhere in the world.” The sustainable designation is expected to open important new markets for the roughly $50 million West Coast groundfish fishery that spans the Washington, Oregon, and California coasts.

“The catch share program got us over many of the hurdles on our way toward gaining MSC certification,” said Brad Pettinger, director of the Oregon Trawl Commission, which sought the certification. “We have renewed our social contract with America’s seafood consumers by demonstrating conclusively that we can manage and harvest these species in a sustainable fashion.”

yellowtail rockfish and boot sponges

Yellowtail rockfish, canary rockfish and boot sponges. Photo: NOAA.

The designation covers 13 species, including the first rockfish and skate species to be certified by the MSC as sustainable. Stores can now advertise that they meet sustainability standards. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program cited the certification in upgrading six West Coast rockfish from “avoid” status to a “good alternative” for consumers.

“For West Coast consumers, this announcement means that their options for buying local and certifiably sustainable fish have just expanded dramatically,” said Geoff Bettencourt, a commercial fisherman from Half Moon Bay, California.

Certification followed an exhaustive, 400-page assessment of the groundfish fishery that highlighted several strengths:

NOAA Fisheries worked with fishermen, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, West Coast states and others to shift the fishery to a catch shares program in 2011. Catch shares divide the allowable catch of certain fish into shares controlled by fishermen, who can then fish more safely and efficiently at profitable times instead of competing for the biggest catch.

“Certification of the fishery demonstrates that catch shares give fishermen increased flexibility to fish more effectively for the species they want with less impact on the fish we need to protect,” said Frank Lockhart, who oversees the program for NOAA Fisheries.

The MSC assessment relied on a 2013 NOAA Fisheries report on the second year of catch shares that confirmed the ongoing reduction of bycatch – the unintentional catch of species. The report showed that bycatch of depleted species had declined substantially under catch shares.

“The MSC designation is a testimony to the environmental and economic benefits we can achieve by working together to solve major fisheries challenges,” said Shems Jud of the Environmental Defense Fund, a proponent of catch shares. “Today rates of bycatch and discards have plummeted, while overfished species are rebuilding more rapidly than initially anticipated. At the same time, fishing businesses are able to fish more efficiently under the new management system.”

Species covered by the sustainable certification include:

LEARN MORE about the West Coast Groundfish Trawl Catch Share Program

VIEW REPORT—The Second Year of Catch Shares

Home page photo: Widow Rockfish, NOAA