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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

We're reporting this week about seafood - fish you're likely to see in all sorts of stores from Whole Foods to Wal-Mart. It's labeled Certified Sustainable. Supposedly, that means the fish was caught in a way that protects the environment. Seafood with this label sometimes costs more.

BLOCK: We've been exploring what Certified Sustainable really means. It's a label bestowed by the Marine Stewardship Council, or MSC. Critics say the certification can be misleading. Still, they can see that the system can do good things for the environment.

NPR's Daniel Zwerdling asked the council to point us to a fishery that symbolizes those benefits, which leads us to Florida and a fishery near the top of their list.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Come on up with it, Skippy.

DANIEL ZWERDLING, BYLINE: We went to the docks of the Day Boat Seafood Company, near Palm Beach, Florida. And here's another reason we wanted to see it: Environmentalists say Day Boat is on their list, too.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We've got a big one coming. We're probably going to need some help.

ZWERDLING: Day Boat sells swordfish, among other things. They get most of it from a dozen long line boats. The boats are called longliners, because each one puts out miles and miles of fishing line, with hundreds and hundreds of hooks. One of those boats has just come back from 10 days out in the Atlantic. The crew has lowered a rope into the hold, and they're hoisting dozens of swordfish off a bed of ice onto a slippery metal scale.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

ZWERDLING: This one's close to eight-feet long. It weighs almost 325 pounds. But it's missing its sword and head. In fact, all the swordfish are headless. Crew members say the second you land a swordfish out in the ocean and haul it into the boat, it can wreak havoc. So they attack it with an old-fashioned hacksaw.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: He'll jump about two foot off the boat and just tear things up. He's breaking boxes and...

ZWERDLING: So as soon as they come on board, what's the first thing you do?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: First thing we do is saw his head off - shwoomp.

ZWERDLING: But how do you hold them down to be able to do that?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: With everything you got.

(LAUGHTER)

ZWERDLING: As the Day Boat crew unloaded their swordfish, I watched from the dock with one of the owners, Howie Bubis. Bubis had told me earlier why they wanted the Marine Stewardship Council's label in the first place. Day Boat was supplying high end supermarkets like Whole Foods. And Whole Foods announced that they were going to buy as much seafood as possible that was MSC Certified Sustainable.

HOWIE BUBIS: We decided that we wanted to keep them for a customer. And in order to do that, we had to move into a sustainable type fishing company.

ZWERDLING: So back in 2010, Bubis and his partner told the MSC: We want our swordfish to be Certified Sustainable. The Marine Stewardship Council does not certify fisheries itself. Instead, it publishes elaborate guidelines that define what makes a fishery sustainable. And then a company that wants the label has to hire a commercial auditing firm to see if it complies.

BOB TRUMBLE: My name is Bob Trumble and I'm the vice president of MRAG Americas.

ZWERDLING: That's the firm that Day Boat hired. Trumble says, first, he assembled a team of four ocean specialists, including himself. They gathered all the studies they could find on swordfish off the coast of Florida. How fast do they reproduce? How have their numbers changed over the years? Of course, you can't count every fish in the ocean. You can only take a tiny snapshot and then use mathematical models to extrapolate.

Trumble reads part of his team's report.

TRUMBLE: When there is no explicitly defined limit reference point, a default can be used in the scoring of PI 1.1.1, this dependent on whether or not BMSY is smaller or larger than 40 percent of...

ZWERDLING: Kind of dense. And the auditors pored through years of Day Boats' business records.

So how much has this whole process cost you?

BUBIS: So far, a little over $200,000. And it's occupied three years of our life.

ZWERDLING: And the owners of Day Boat say there was something else they had to do to get that sustainable label. The MSC rules say that when fishing companies are applying to be certified, they have to listen and respond to anybody who objects, including other fishing companies and environmentalists. And talking with environmentalists - one of Day Boat's owners, Scott Taylor, says he normally doesn't do that.

SCOTT TAYLOR: The environmentalists would prefer no fishing whatsoever. That would be their first goal, that we would go away.

ZWERDLING: The environmentalists say that's not true. But they did say there was evidence that swordfish boats in Florida kill endangered turtles, and the MSC's rules say that a fishery is not sustainable if it's causing serious damage to the environment. Scott Taylor told the environmentalists, my boats don't kill turtles. Still, he negotiated with them to try to minimize the risk. One of the members of a turtle group kept protesting.

TAYLOR: And there came a point in the discussion where I simply said to this woman - and I prefer not to use her name specifically - what can I do for you? What is it that I can do to make you feel more comfortable about what we're doing? She then went into, for lack of a better description, a diatribe.

ZWERDLING: But Taylor compromised. He promised that his boats will switch to a different kind of hook because scientists say it kill fewer turtles. Taylor promised that they'll put observers or video cameras on every boat, within five years, so researchers can study exactly how Day Boat operates. Environmentalists have been pushing industry to do that for years, mostly in vain. Taylor agreed.

TAYLOR: We could either take the tact that we were not going to let them, you know, derail us from the way that we were going to operate; or that we were going to reach across the aisle in a way that was uncommon and really unheard of.

ZWERDLING: And you know who praises Scott Taylor now? The environmentalists.

SHANNON ARNOLD: It is pretty rare to get someone from such a big industry to do that when you don't have to. And I think it's a breath of fresh air.

ZWERDLING: Shannon Arnold is co-director of the Ecology Action Center. They're based in Halifax. They focus on issues along the Atlantic Coast. And they worked closely with the owners of Day Boat and the turtle group.

ARNOLD: And it wasn't easy. I think there was a year of some pretty contentious stuff that went on. And then they both decided, let's try and work through this. And what came out at the other end has been much better for the animals on the water, that's for sure.

ZWERDLING: And Day Boat's owners say the MSC is good for business. The MSC system certified Day Boat just over a year ago. And Taylor says they're getting about 10 percent more money for their swordfish than competitors who are not labeled sustainable.

Environmentalists say if you just heard Day Boat's story, you might think, wow, the Marine Stewardship Council is a great program. But they say for every fishery like Day Boat, which they applaud, they can show you another MSC fishery with big problems.

Talk to Gerry Leape. He serves on what the MSC calls its Advisory Stakeholder Council.

GERRY LEAPE: The consumer looks at the fish and says, oh, it has the label on it. It must be sustainable. It must be well-managed. And in some fisheries that the MSC has certified, that is not necessarily the case.

ZWERDLING: And he says swordfish are a perfect example. Leape is an ocean specialist with the Pew Environment Group.

Suppose you walk into your supermarket and there's a chunk of swordfish, labeled MSC, Certified Sustainable. That swordfish might come from Day Boat in Florida. On the other hand, that swordfish might come from longline boats in Canada - 2,000 miles away. They're certified sustainable, too. Yet, as we told you yesterday, studies show those swordfish boats accidentally kill tens of thousands of sharks.

LEAPE: That is absolutely the kind of fishery that should not be certified. That fishery is outrageous.

ZWERDLING: And consider so-called Chilean sea bass. Actually, they're toothfish. Some are caught near Antarctica in the Ross Sea. A little over two years ago, the MSC gave several companies that catch them its seal of approval. And many scientists were amazed.

Jim Barnes runs a network of dozens of environmental groups, it's called the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition.

JIM BARNES: They do not know the most elementary things about the life cycle of this Antarctic toothfish.

ZWERDLING: Scientists say it's hard to study fish around Antarctica, it can be treacherous. For instance, they're still struggling to learn, how often do toothfish reproduce? Where do they lay their eggs?

BARNES: And nobody has ever seen toothfish eggs. Nobody has ever seen little baby toothfish, for that matter. And in the face of that gap, the MSC is cheerfully ready to say, oh, what this fishery is doing is perfectly sustainable.

ZWERDLING: Which raises a question: How can the MSC put the exact same label, Certified Sustainable, on fisheries that seem so dramatically different - like Ross Sea toothfish and swordfish from Florida and those controversial swordfish from Canada?

And here's part of the answer. Remember, the Marine Stewardship Council itself does not certify fisheries. Instead, each fishery hires a private audit firm to decide if it's sustainable, based on the MSC's guidelines. There are roughly a dozen auditing firms around the world that do this work for the MSC. And sources in the industry told us, some certifications are well-done and some are not.

Again, consider Ross Sea toothfish.

MICHAEL LODGE: There are instances in the toothfish case, for example, when the certifier had not been sufficiently rigorous, sufficiently careful. You can call that sloppy.

ZWERDLING: That's a lawyer named Michael Lodge. Lodge reviewed the toothfish controversy for the Marine Stewardship Council. The MSC has set up a system where environment or industry groups can formally object if they don't agree with the auditing company's decision. And the Antarctic Coalition strenuously objected when the auditing firm approved Ross Sea toothfish.

The MSC hired Lodge to hear the case like a judge.

LODGE: It's common practice. You know, lawyers become judges of various kinds - administrative judges, criminal judges, what have you.

ZWERDLING: In this case, Lodge became a toothfish judge, so he had to analyze how did the auditing company conclude that the fishery is sustainable. The audit firm is called Intertek Moody. Leaf through Lodge's decision about the way Moody handled the case, page 21, the conclusion reached by Moody is not supported by the evidence. Page 22, relevant documents were not fully considered.

LODGE: Certainly in those instances they were not doing their job properly. They had failed to do what they were required to do as a certification body.

ZWERDLING: Moody's general manager dismisses that criticism. Do you feel that Moody's work on cases has ever been sloppy or not competent?

PAUL KNAPMAN: No. No.

ZWERDLING: Paul Knapman runs Moody's division that certifies fisheries around the world. Moody has certified more fisheries than any other firm in the MSC system, including the controversial swordfish industry in Canada and Ross Sea toothfish.

KNAPMAN: We have scientists on our team who look at the information that's been gathered. It's all evidence-based. And if they say that the fishery meets the standard, then we are able to determine the fishery should be certified.

ZWERDLING: The judge was not convinced. But under the MSC system, judges are not allowed to overturn an audit firm's decision. They can merely tell the auditors, go back and look at the evidence again, which is what Lodge ordered Moody to do. And then, Moody made the same decision it did the first time around. The companies that applied can label Ross Sea toothfish certified sustainable.

The chief executive of the MSC says it's not surprising.

RUPERT HOWES: Yes, there are controversial fisheries; there are bound to be. We have nearly 300 fisheries from pretty much every ocean in the world under assessment.

ZWERDLING: That's Rupert Howes. We talked at the MSC's London headquarters. Howes is charismatic and unflappable. He says the fact that so many environmentalists and others criticize parts of the MSC program shows that it's working.

HOWES: Part of the success of the program is we're a broad church. You know, we're very engaged with all of our stakeholders and many of them are very critical of some of the assessments. Most of the people who criticize the program, I think, are completely committed to an organization like the MSC existing. They see us as part of the solution.

ZWERDLING: And Howes says he's counting on those critics to keep pushing the MSC to make it better. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

BLOCK: Our story was co-reported by NPR's Margo Williams.

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