Clearwater casting aside eco-certification for offshore lobster fishery

Clearwater Seafoods is dropping Marine Stewardship Council certification for its Canadian offshore lobster fishery, calling it “a voluntary decision driven by business considerations.”

The blue MSC eco-label tells consumers the seafood they are buying is sustainably caught and has been a point of pride for North America’s biggest shellfish producer.

Clearwater’s offshore lobster fishery off southern Nova Scotia was the first fishery on the Eastern Seaboard to receive MSC certification in 2010.

The current five-year certification expires at the end of the month.

“Clearwater is confident in the ability of this fishery to meet the MSC standard today, but has chosen not to initiate recertification at this time given the internal resources required to support recertification,” Clearwater vice-president Christine Penney said in an email statement to CBC News.

The blue MSC eco-label tells consumers the seafood they are buying is sustainably caught. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

Maintaining certification has become more onerous recently for the fishery.

Two years ago, Clearwater was convicted of a gross violation when it was caught illegally storing thousands of lobster traps on the ocean floor even after it had been repeatedly warned by Canadian authorities to stop the practice because it was a conservation risk. The traps were left on the bottom with escape hatches open, but continued to catch and kill lobsters.

The conviction triggered a Marine Stewardship Council audit and new conditions were imposed to demonstrate compliance.

“The question comes to mind whether they’re unable to show that evidence and therefore they wouldn’t pass the certification,” said Shannon Arnold, an environmentalist with the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax.

“And so by just walking away from it, they’re not forced to show that to the consumers that they’re actually fishing within the law.”

Clearwater defends lobster fishery

Clearwater said the fishery was always and remains sustainable.

“While Clearwater has chosen not to enter into recertification of the offshore fishery MSC program at the end of 2020, the sustainability measures that were in place for 10 years of successful certification continue to be in effect,” said Penney.

“The offshore lobster fishery remains sustainable. The fishery has not been suspended or failed, and it maintains its current certificate until December 2020.”

Clearwater maintains its fishery will remain sustainable. (Robert Short/CBC)

The Marine Stewardship Council declined to directly comment on Clearwater’s decision to drop its lobster certification.

“Clearwater is a long-standing partner of the MSC, and its other MSC-certified fisheries in Canada and globally remain in our voluntary program,” spokesperson Vianna Murday said in a statement.

Those core Canadian species are staying with the council.

They include offshore scallops, snow crab, arctic surf clam, cold water shrimp and lobster harvested in the Maritimes by an inshore fleet independent of the company.

Clearwater said an internal tracing system will allow it to separate lobster it buys from the inshore and the 720 tonnes it harvests under its offshore licences.

“This fishery accounts for a small portion of Clearwater lobster volumes, and the use of the eco-label is very limited on products from this fishery,” Penney said.

Partnership buying company

Clearwater is in the process of being sold. If approved by shareholders, the new owner of the company will be a partnership between Premium Brands of British Columbia and a coalition of Mi’kmaw First Nations led in part by the Membertou band in Cape Breton.

Membertou had previously bought two of the eight offshore licences held by Clearwater. No one from the band was available for comment.

Clearwater management and the company lobster boat, the Randell Dominaux based in Shelburne, N.S., will continue to run the coveted offshore lobster fishery.

Offshore lobster fishery

Clearwater has enjoyed exclusive rights to Lobster Fishing Area 41, which starts 80 kilometres from shore and runs to the 200-mile limit, extending from Georges Bank to the Laurentian Channel between Cape Breton and Newfoundland.

The company fishes entirely off southern Nova Scotia. Unlike every other lobster fishery, there is no season and Clearwater has been awarded a quota of 720 tonnes, which it has said represents about 15 per cent of all lobster it sells.

For environmentalists like Arnold, the loss of Marine Stewardship Council certification is a blow.

“That transparency from the MSC process, that extra layer, is what really allowed us to dig in and see what was happening with this fishery in the offshore and how they were fishing outside the legal boundaries,” she said. 

“So we’re concerned that we’re losing that level of oversight.”

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