The dangers of oversimplification

    Posted by Jon Harman on 02 October 2013

    Jon Harman

    I really like some of the visual, presentations and summaries that The Guardian is producing in its " Datablog: Facts are Sacred" feature. This uses succinct visual representations to provide large amounts of accessible information on complex issues - often in fields in which I have either a limited understanding or poor access to information.

    However, I do have more than a passing knowledge of fish and seafood. So reading this week's Datablog entry on 'Which fish to buy' (WhichFish?) I find myself perplexed both by the approach and the advice provided - leading me to ponder whether the same might also apply to some of the other topics covered by the blog.

    By pooling fish information data from a number of sources, the result is a loss of precision and a lack of clarity as to whether the assessments have been done against any standard or led by campaigning goals. It is possible to benchmark the various 'Fish List' schemes against a set of prescriptive guidelines published by the UN's Food & Agriculture Organisation - see "Guidelines for the Ecolabelling of Fish and Fishery Products from Marine Capture Fisheries." Indeed, I was part of group that reviewed a number of worldwide schemes in 2009 (see our Seafish document.)

    Some key recommendations from this report were that schemes should clearly define their scope, accuracy, independence, precision and transparency - and operate to an agreed standard. Plainly this isn't happening here. Unfortunately by combining diverse sources, WhichFish? has moved to the world of the lowest common denominator.

    In one stroke it eliminates most of the world's fisheries by 'red-listing' bottom trawl and longline fishing methods - and yet perversely goes on to recommend haddock as being sustainable (which in my book is principally caught by trawling and longlining!). At least that agrees with some of the haddock fishery assessments made so far by the Marine Stewardship Council.

    This synthesis of information is forced to err on the side of caution, meaning that any amber "middle of the road ratings" end up as 'do not eat.' Crab for instance - which scores 3/6 with Marine Conversation Society and yet ends up with the dreaded red cross on WhichFish?. I find this difficult to reconcile with high profile campaigns like Channel 4 and Hugh Fearnley-Whttingstall's recent 'Fish Fight' campaign, which extol us to eat a wider variety of species, all of which would fall into the "require more data category" - just like crab. Following this prescription would only result in the continued waste that arises from discards, does that make sense?

    Reading on to cod, I become even more perplexed. Indeed, all the work done by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC - considered to be the gold standard in fisheries sustainability) is totally ignored! Pacific cod and Barents Sea cod for instance, both of which have MSC approval (and in fact the Barents Sea stock is currently at a 25 year high). Yet the website red lists cod because the stock information varies in different parts of the world. This is what I mean by lacking precision - clearly stocks in different parts of the world will be in different states and it is plainly wrong to tar all fisheries with the same brush.

    So, where to go? Well, the Marine Conservation Society's Fish Watch and the Monterey Bay lists at least follow set guidelines and iterate with science and industry. They are not perfect, but good. Fish Watch has an impeccable pedigree and certainly MSC has a robust and proven process that is delivering results worldwide. A not often quoted fact is that the UK has more fisheries that are either in or have passed the MSC assessment than other country in the world. So, don't let this particular guide fool you - it ain't all bad folks.

    Jon Harman, Operations Director

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