Sustainability rating drops for Clearwater’s offshore lobster fishery

Clearwater Seafoods’ offshore lobster fishery in Eastern Canada has lost its “recommended” rating from Ocean Wise, a seafood sustainability recommendation program of the Vancouver Aquarium.

It’s more fallout from a 2018 conviction for what the Crown called a “gross violation” of a Canadian fisheries regulation by Halifax-based Clearwater.

Another sustainability rating looms

In a separate action, the Marine Stewardship Council, another much larger eco-sustainability organization, has moved up its scheduled “full surveillance audit” of Clearwater’s offshore lobster fishery by two months to April.

Clearwater asked for the early audit in the interest of transparency and to “give stakeholders a chance to participate and express their views,” company vice-president Christine Penney said.

“We anticipate that the audit process will continue to reaffirm that fishery is operating in a responsible and sustainable manner,” Penney said.

Clearwater’s ‘gross violation’

In September, Clearwater company CS ManPar was convicted for storing 3,800 lobster traps on the ocean bottom off the Nova Scotia coast for upward of two months in the fall of 2017 — for 17 consecutive days on one occasion and 31 consecutive days on another.

Fishery rules say gear must be tended every 72 hours.

Clearwater pleaded guilty to the charges and was fined $30,000.

The offence was made worse because, in 2016, DFO explicitly warned senior Clearwater management to stop its long-standing practice of storing traps offshore.

It was a warning that the company ignored, the Crown said.

Why Canadian eco-program downgraded Clearwater

Ocean Wise uses the international Marine Stewardship Council as a benchmark for fisheries in Canada.

In this case, Ocean Wise said Clearwater’s MSC-certified Eastern Canada offshore lobster fishery was the subject of an official complaint by the Ecology Action Centre in January.

The complaint was filed after CBC News revealed the Clearwater conviction and the circumstances leading up to it.

Ocean Wise explained the downgrade on its website.

“In line with our policy to recommend Canadian MSC-certified fisheries, except where objections have been filed by stakeholders, this fishery is no longer recommended by Ocean Wise.”

It had no further comment.

The downgrade is welcomed by Shannon Arnold of the Ecology Action Centre, who lodged the complaint with the council.

“We’re pleased to see that they’ve taken a proactive stance to say, you know, this doesn’t seem to be passing our assessment anymore if they’ve been convicted of illegal fishing and they will be awaiting the new audit from MSC,” Arnold said.

Audit will review court evidence

Based in London, England, MSC uses a third-party company to audit the fisheries it certifies.

The certification company that audits Clearwater is Acoura. Its early audit will include a review of the evidence submitted in the Clearwater conviction.

In correspondence, Arnold argued the court record provided details of company non-compliance with MSC standards .

Acoura has told the Ecology Action Centre “we’re taking this very seriously.”

Company varied from observed fishing practices

As part of its investigation, DFO compared the MSC description of Clearwater’s offshore fishery in Eastern Canada to observed fishing practices.

That comparison, entered into evidence in court, found differences.

DFO said the average soak time per trawl was actually five to 15 days versus the four to five days claimed in the MSC certification.

The number of strings hauled and set was 50 as opposed to 30 strings claimed in MSC.

DFO said on average 40 trawls, or 48 per cent, were left unattended per trip — with “no record of this being reported.”

The case for Clearwater

Clearwater expects vindication from the upcoming audit.

Its offshore lobster fishery was the first lobster fishery in Canada to get MSC certification.

The company is proud of that fact and considers its offshore lobster fishery a model of environmental sustainability.

It has told MSC it follows the rules and the conviction was the result two isolated incidents due to unforeseen issues.

It says the 72-hour rule is impractical for a fishery that takes place 50 miles from shore and has never been enforced in the offshore lobster fishery.

DFO has been looking at changing the 72-hour rule but so far has not amended the regulation.

Clearwater’s offshore monopoly

Penney had little to say in response to Ocean Wise’s action.

She said she considers MSC to be the most “robust” sustainability certification program, with its use of independent third-party auditors like Acoura.

Clearwater holds all licences for Lobster Fishing Area 41 off Nova Scotia. It 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 is restricted to fishing west of Halifax.

It has an annual quota of 720 tonnes, which it says represents one per cent of lobster landings in Atlantic Canada.

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