The New Zealand Ministry of Fisheries estimates that from 2007-2008, 273 New Zealand fur seals (Arctocephalus forsteri) were killed by offshore trawling hoki fisheries, an increase of over 75 seals since the previous year. New Zealand’s hoki fishery has been certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council since 2001 and re-certified in 2007. Hoki is commonly used for ubiquitous fried fish sandwiches, such as those served at McDonald’s.
“The research report shows that certification under the Marine Stewardship Council has not prevented large numbers of fur seals from being killed in the hoki fishery,” says Kirstie Knowles of local conservation organization, Forest & Bird, in a press release.
She adds that while “the MSC certification requires a reduction in fur seal captures,” the Ministry of Fisheries report “shows a spike in captures in 2007-08 and a 72 percent increase in the fur seal capture rate since 2002-03.”
As trawlers move through the sea to catch fish, they also catch other non-target species, dubbed ‘by-catch’. In this case, fur seals caught in trawlers’ nets unintentionally end up drowning to death. While the fur seal is protected by New Zealand’s Marine Mammal Protection Act, accidental by-catch mortalities are allowed.
“Fur seals have learnt to feed opportunistically on catches in our nets as they reach the surface,” George Clemment, chief executive of the Deepwater Group, representing deepwater fisheries including the hoki fishery, explained to mongabay.com. “Their behaviors put them at risk and, unfortunately, some drown in doing so. The deepwater areas we trawl and the fish we bring to the surface do not normally comprise part of fur seals’ natural feeding patterns.”
Clemment adds that “for the most part the fur seals interactions occur at the surface and are not strictly ‘by-catch’ in that they are not generally caught in the trawl net during the fishing operation.”
The industry is working with researchers and the government to do all it can to reduce the mortalities of fur seals according to Clemment. Overall, he says, the capture rate, which includes fur seals that are set free before drowning, has declined. However, Knowles of Forest & Bird argues this is largely due to a massive decline in the quota set for the hoki fishery. The quote has been cut from approximately 275,000 tons in 2001 to 100,000 tons today.
The sustainability rating from the MSC is not threatened by these by-catches, because, Clemment says, the fishery is not threatening the overall population of fur seals.
“The hoki fishery is not having any detrimental effects on the population size of fur seals in this region, which is understood to be continuing to increase in size,” he says, citing an industry and government study of fur seal populations in the region.
While hoki, also known as blue grenadier, is on the MSC sustainability list, Greenpeace added it this year to their International Seafood Red List. In this list, Greenpeace highlights popularly sold fish that the activist organization deems unsustainable. According to Greenpeace, the hoki fishery also kills albatross and Basking sharks as by-catch.
The New Zealand fur seal is classified as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List. Its population is rebounding after nearly facing extinction by fur sealers in the 19th Century.
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