Chilean Seabass – why Monterey has lost its way

The Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) is a great ally of the oceans but its recent decision to include Chilean Seabass as ‘best choice’ in their Seafood Watch has bewildered many. Chilean Seabass includes Antarctic Toothfish from the Ross Sea, which, as the name implies is neither Seabass nor from Chile. In a blog justifying that decision, Alison Barratt from MBA said “while fishing is ongoing (in the Ross Sea), our recommendation reflects the current status of that fishery.”

The ‘current status’ is based on the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification of the Ross Sea toothfish fishery as sustainable (I have yet to find MBA’s or MSC’s definition of sustainability). It is of great concern that the MSC’s assessment is strongly contended by many leading Ross Sea scientists as this short clip from my  documentary The Last Ocean shows.

It is of greater concern that an institution as influential as Monterey Bay Aquarium is making decisions about the Ross Sea fishery based on a scope as narrow as the MSC‘s. The assessments they carry out are funded by fishing companies seeking certification. They look only at the science around the sustainability of the fishery, they do not measure or consider the value of where that fishery takes place. In essence, the MSC provide facts and figures about the fishery but not the heart and soul of the Ross Sea issue – which goes far beyond Chilean Seabass and/or sustainability.

Emporer Penguin Chicks. Photo: John B. Weller

Emporer Penguin Chicks. Photo: John B. Weller

The Ross Sea is about the values of protecting very special places – in this case, the most intact and untouched ocean ecosystem on Earth. Just because we can take a fish sustainably does not mean it is right to do so. We no longer take buffalo from Yellowstone, kiwis from New Zealand or lions from the Serengeti – because we now know these creatures and the places in which they live bring a value to our lives that far exceeds the financial gain of a few. The Ross Sea is one of those places.

The MBA would do well to recognize that decisions made about the Ross Sea fishery are  value based decisions. Those who make them would do well by considering the values the Aquarium was foundered on, and where the aquarium is – Cannery Row, the remnants of just one of the many many collapsed fisheries around the world. When next discussing whether the Ross Sea Fishery is ‘best choice’, a ‘good alternative’ or to be ‘avoided’, I suggest they ask themselves one simple question – is being sustainable enough justification to destroy the natural balance of Earth’s last truly wild ocean?

Peter Young is Producer/director of the Last Ocean feature documentary and co-founder of The Last Ocean Charitable Trust