Thursday, November 4, 2010

BC Spiny Dogfish – Sustainable Fishery or Species at Risk?

Will BC Spiny Dogfish be the first shark fishery to be deemed sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council? Or will it become another species on the growing COSEWIC Species At Risk list? 

MSC accredited certifying body, Moody Marine Ltd, is part way through a sustainability determination and COSEWIC is presently reviewing the extinction risks.

IUCN previously assessed the Spiny Dogfish as near threatened globally.  A proposal by Germany in 2004 to list Spiny Dogfish under CITES Appendix II tabled at a pre-CITES meeting was rejected by European member states.

The MSC assessment process started in 2008 under another private consulting company, TAVEL, which has subsequently been taken over by rival Moody.

Things moved very slowly on the MSC dogfish assessment and on 2 March 2010 Moody announced that it would be using the MSC “default assessment tree”.  In other words, the full-blow sustainability determination with multiple criteria under three Principles as given in “Marine Stewardship Council Fisheries Assessment Methodology and Guidance to Certification Bodies”.

However, once the Moody assessment team started to dig into the available data on this fishery, they found that it was very data-poor.  The last time the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) had attempted to assess the status of the stock was back in 1987, so Moody had very little that was current to work with.  Moody and other MSC accredited consulting companies typically “borrow” extensively from the latest government or RFMO scientific assessment in order to arrive at their sustainability determination.

DFO dutifully commissioned a new stock assessment for BC spiny dogfish held May 17, 2010 in Nanaimo, BC.  The ensuing DFO report, “Science Advisory Report 2010/057 – Assessment  of Spiny Dogfish (Squalus acanthius) in British Columbia in 2010” has yet to see the light of day with regard to the general public.  However, one must assume that Moody got a sneak preview and didn’t like what it saw, because on 8 October 2010 they announced that they had changed their mind and rather than apply the default assessment tree, they are opting for the alternate back-door route to certification by applying the MSC “Risk Based Framework” (RBF).

The RBF was developed by MSC as an alternative assessment approach for data-deficient situations; particularly for Principles 1 and 2 (in other words, the important stuff like stock status, management strategy and ecosystem impacts).  Initially the motivation for such an approach was the idea that the default assessment tree favoured large scale fisheries in developed nations and that smaller fisheries in under-developed countries would be at an economic disadvantage because of a lack of the appropriate information and infrastructure, even though these fisheries might have a track record of being sustainable over a number of years.

This notion of giving a break to under-developed countries seems to have fallen by the way, and RBF is now being applied to fisheries for which there is no excuse for not having a state-of-the-art assessment of the sustainability of a fishery.  Case to point – a British Columbia fishery – one of the wealthiest provinces in one of the wealthiest countries with super-abundant resources to collect the information required to determine whether a fishery is sustainable.

RBF methods are much more subjective than the standard approach under the default assessment tree.  Methods range in complexity and data requirements from a system based on expert judgment (Scale Intensity Consequence Analysis- SICA), to a semi-quantitative analysis to assess potential risk (Productivity Susceptibility Analysis - PSA).  PSA examines attributes of each species that contribute to or reflect its productivity or susceptibility.   Pacific Spiny Dogfish has both a very low productivity and a high susceptibility to fishing gear.  They are long-lived, only maturing at about 35 years of age.  Females typically give birth once every two years and produce around 6 pups after a gestation period of 22-24 months – the longest of any known vertebrate. 

There has been a commercial fishery for Spiny Dogfish in Pacific waters since 1870 with landings peaking landing of over 30,000 tons in the 1940s.  Landings have been much lower, between 5,000 and 7,000 tons, in the Canadian Pacific fishery in recent years presumably because of lower abundance.  The fishery is pursued by both hook-and-line and trawl gear.  Although trawl catches have been relatively stable recently, landings and discards in the hook-and-line fleet have been steadily increasing over the last eight years.  Catch rate and survey trends are either flat or decreasing.  The size of the population relative to virgin levels is not known.  The fishery is managed by quota, currently set at about 15,000 tons.  It is not clear whether this is an adequate measure to ensure a sustainable population in the long-term or whether a more conservative approach is required.

It will be very interesting to see what comes out of the parallel MSC and COSEWIC processes with regard to sustainability vs. extinction risks.  Either way, we need more up-to-date information and a conservation-minded harvesting strategy if the fishery is to be truly sustainably managed such that there is a very low risk of future declines, collapses or even extinction.  


  1. Thanks for this Fishy. Can you cite your sources?

  2. The information on the MSC certification can be found here:

    Information on the DFO stock assessment is here:

    COSEWIC info is here: