By Monte Stewart – Business Edge – May 16, 2008
A B.C. group is seeking approval for the world’s first eco-certified shark fishery.

The B.C. Dogfish Hook and Line Industry Association has applied for certification to the Seattle-based Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) as part of a bid to revive its sagging market fortunes and sustain the fishery long-term. "It’s a survival reaction," says Michael Renwick, the association’s executive director.

If granted, the MSC certification will apply to dogfish: a name that applies to several species of small shark. Other fishers of other shark species would have to apply separately.

In B.C., most dogfish are caught by longline, in which a series of baited hooks are hung off a main fishing line. Dogfish are also caught by groundfish trawling.

Dogfish is a popular seafood in England, France, Germany and the Benelux countries of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. In England, it’s sold in fish-and-chip shops as rock salmon, in France as small salmon and in Belgium as sea eel.

In Chinese cuisine, the fins and tail are used in shark-fin soup.

Renwick says sales of B.C. dogfish have declined 50 per cent and prices that fish processors pay have declined at a similar rate over the past two years because European buyers, in response to pressures from environmentalists, have refused to buy stocks that are not independently eco-certified.

The European buyers represent a range of groups from importers to value-added product sellers comprising most of the world’s market.

"We’re practising what we’re preaching, but it’s costing us a lot of money," Renwick says about the certification application and follow-up assessment. But the investment, he suggests, is worth it because the B.C. dogfishing industry catches about $8-$10 million worth of fish exported annually.

He hopes the market will react positively in the meantime.

But there has been little response "one way or the other" since the B.C. industry announced its certification plans.

Created in 1997, the MSC is an international non-profit organization that promotes solutions for over-fishing and its impacts on oceans around the globe. Renwick says he’s confident his group will receive certification and the assessment will show that Canada’s West Coast waters are actually under-fished. TAVEL Certification Inc., a company approved by the MSC to conduct sustainable fishery certifications, will do the assessment.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is also conducting an assessment of dogfish stocks in Pacific and Atlantic waters, in co-operation with MSC as that group completes its due diligence.

Renwick says he hopes MSC certification and the DFO’s findings will actually permit more dogfishing.

Ecotrust Canada, a Vancouver-based sustainable business group that is assisting the industry with certification and conservation, says the B.C. hook-and-line fleet caught 3,037 metric tonnes of dogfish last year.

That is well under the federal government’s annual total allowable catch of 15,000: 11,000 for hook-and-line fishermen and 4,000 for trawlers.

Seven B.C. dogfish fishermen now account for more than 60 per cent of the dogfish catch each year, according to Ecotrust Canada, which has developed a fish-quota and licence-trading system and conservation code of conduct with them.

Renwick, whose group represents 45 spiny dogfish catchers, 30 of whom are active, says the B.C. industry is already a world leader in conservation practices. The industry has adopted strict rules and videos every fish caught onboard a vessel.

Danielle Edwards, fisheries co-ordinator for Ecotrust Canada, says the industry has done a lot of work to make sure that it’s sustainable. Now, she says, it needs to prove the same to consumers. "It’s really about proving what’s already been done here and protecting the market for the fish, given that the consumer is demanding a lot more information about where the fish comes from and how it’s fished," she says.

Edwards says certification will also show that shark fisheries can be fished sustainably, if they are managed appropriately. A number of shark species, mostly of the small variety, are believed to swim in Canadian waters. Edwards says consumer demand for some type of eco-certifier stamp of approval is only going to increase in future.

"All fisheries are under increasing pressure to certify their sustainability," she says. "Whether or not the fishery is in a position to achieve certification is another question . . . Very shortly, and we’re already seeing it, people will not have markets to sell their fish into unless they can achieve that kind of sustainability certification."

Renwick says shark fisheries managers and the global industry should collaborate on responsible fishing practices. "But I think you can say that for just about any wild-catch fishery," he says.

(Monte Stewart can be reached at