Monday, September 27, 2010

Can You Rely on the WWF-SASSI List?

The pocket guide SASSI list has been a remarkable success since its launch a few years ago. It successfully got a generally apathetic seafood consuming public to actually start making responsible choices about seafood which in turn forced retailers - restaurateurs and supermarkets - to procure sustainably managed fish.

Its most recent re-incarnation has however raised a growing chorus of questions about its reliability and the methodology underpinning its categorisation of fish. An immediate concern raised by, inter alia, Prof John Bolton of UCT is the inclusion of farmed fish on the SASSI-list. Farmed fish of course is not wild and therefore not harvested and therefore should have no place on the SASSI (which is a sustainable seafoods list) guide. However, as Prof Bolton correctly points out, the SASSI list for example lists the non-native Pacific Oyster (wild and farmed) as a green species. In other words, WWF-SASSI is telling SA seafood consumers that consuming the non-native Pacific Oyster is highly recommended because it is a species that is sustainable and responsibly managed. This is plainly false! As Prof. Bolton notes, the farming of pacific oysters is known to spread alien and invasive species. The wild harvesting of oysters along South Africa's coast is considered to be particularly problematic with almost no research on the status of the species and recognition that oyster populations in the inter-tidal zone in the Southern Cape have been almost completely denuded. For that reason, while most fisheries were allocated rights of up to 15 years in 2005, the oyster fishery was allocated a maximum of 3 year long rights. And despite these very real threats to sustainability, SASSI tells us we can eat oysters with a clear conscience. Common sense tells us that wild harvested oysters should be on the orange list at the very best!

Another significant concern with the WWF-SASSI list is that it lists South African sole, which is part of the hake trawl fishery as an orange listed species. What is odd about this listing, is that sole is listed as orange but the hake that is caught with the sole by the very same vessel is listed as a green species! Hake caught by the trawl fisheries is certified by the European based eco-label, MSC, as being sustainably and responsibly caught. Indeed, the hake trawl fishery is one of South Africa's best managed and most comprehensively regulated fisheries (not to mention our most valuable fisheries as well). WWF-SASSI has attempted to justify the listing of sole on the orange list on the basis that the hake-inshore trawl fishery is apparently responsible for killing some 8000 endangered albatrosses although this figure is not supported by any data from the industry, the Department of Fisheries or an independent fishery observer programme.

Another example of SASSI's questionable fish categorisation methodology is the listing of abalone as an orange listed species. This effectively equates sole - an MSC listed fishery that is fully regulated by the Department of Fisheries and that has had a sustainable and constant TAC since 1992 - with abalone which is a fishery in effective free-fall where the TAC fell from 600 tons in 2000 to zero in just 8 years! Abalone is the most poached fish stock in the world; it has no management, recovery, research or compliance plan; it was until very recently listed on CITES Appendix III and it is described by the South African government as a fishery on the verge of "commercial extinction".

SASSI's listing of South African MSC certified sole as orange has effectively shut down the commercial trade in sole, threatening the jobs of more 1400 fishers and investments worth more than R172 million. The consequence is that SASSI effectively promotes the consumption of foreign imported soles which may be less sustainably managed and not part of a certification programme like MSC.

Can you really rely on the WWF-SASSI guide to choose responsibly? We do not believe you can.

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