Rupert Howes Leads Sea Change for World's Fisheries
Before he joined the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), Rupert Howes couldn't tell the difference between a cod and a haddock, though he enjoyed dining on just about any seafood – preferably sautéed with lots of butter and garlic.
Now that he leads the world's most widely recognized eco-labeling and certification organization for fisheries, he talks at length about the dangers that overfishing poses on all kinds of fish, ranging from tuna to Chilean sea bass, and he waxes eloquent about different types of fishing gear. He explains that about 90 percent of the ocean's big predators, like tuna and marlin and cod, have already been fished out of existence due to unsustainable fishing practices and management that have also led to wider environmental impacts to marine ecosystems.
As CEO of MSC, Rupert is driving lasting improvements in marine environments through a certification program that encourages fisheries to adopt sustainable practices. The program, which promotes seafood marked with MSC's seal of approval, appeals to the enlightened self-interest of fishermen by reversing the decline in global fish stocks, it helps consumers by ensuring that they will have fish to eat, and it aids all creatures living in the sea by removing threats to their delicate ecosystem.
"There's no doubt that there's an incredible amount of support for MSC from the seafood industry and retailers, with more than 80 fisheries around the world already engaged in the MSC process and over 1,200 different MSC products launched into the market," Rupert said. He added, "This represents about 200 million items of MSC-labeled seafood annually that are helping to empower consumers to make the best environmental choice." Among the biggest retailers participating are Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer markets in the U.K., Aeon in Japan, and Lidl and Metro in Germany. A big win is Wal-Mart's pledge to sell only MSC-certified seafood at all its U.S. stores by 2011.
Measuring Marine Health Certification is carried out by independent assessors who use an objective, scientific process that focuses on the health of the target fish stock, the impact of the fishery on the marine ecosystem and the way the fishery manages its fleet and enforces regulations.
"I genuinely believe we are seeing a real difference," Rupert said in his clipped British accent, his hazel eyes twinkling behind wire rim glasses as he describes MSC's success. "Today about 7 percent of the world's edible wild capture fisheries are engaged in our program, representing 42 percent of the global salmon catch and 40 percent of global prime white fish catch. That's more than 4 million tons of seafood in total."
Three years ago, there were just 10 MSC-certified fisheries. Today 26 fisheries are certified and more than 50 are in full assessment. Drawing upon his studies in economics, Rupert figures that MSC's challenge is to "work with the grain of the market to shift it to a more sustainable footing." He explained, "Markets are not perfect, but they can work much more effectively."
Rupert didn't have any particular interest in fish as a child. He never owned an aquarium and was prone to seasickness. However, he has always been passionate about nature. Growing up, he immersed himself in the works of conservationists like David Attenborough and became determined to make the world more sustainable. Although he started his career as an accountant for a major U.K. firm, he wound up working for a sustainable development charity called Forum for the Future and wrote a book on motivating industries to improve their environmental performance.
Fished-Out Oceans In 2004, when he became CEO of MSC, he described the challenge as "reversing the decline in global fish stocks and delivering improvements to the marine environment, thereby contributing to safeguarding the livelihoods of fishermen." A United Nations report issued in 2005 led credence to MSC's efforts. It found that 52 percent of the world's fish stocks were fully exploited, 16 percent were overexploited and 7 percent were depleted. Fishermen were well aware that the North Atlantic had been fished out. Atlantic cod, blue fin tuna and European sea bass were most at risk, the report said.
The November 2006 issue of the journal Science echoed these concerns. Reporting the findings of a four-year study by an international group of ecologists and economists, it reported that the loss of biodiversity in the oceans was reducing the ability of oceans to produce seafood, resist diseases, filter pollutants and rebound from stresses such as overfishing and climate change. Coauthor Steve Palumbi of Stanford University predicted, "Unless we fundamentally change the way we manage all the oceans' species together, as working ecosystems, then this century is the last century of wild seafood."
The Science report also extolled the ability of oceans to recover, once endangered fish are protected. "We can turn this around," said lead author Boris Worm of Dalhousie University. "We won't see complete recovery in one year, but in may cases species come back more quickly than people anticipated – in three to five to 10 years. And where this has been done we see immediate economic benefits."
That is the promise upon which MSC is building. The challenge is to promulgate standards that are tough enough to protect fish, yet attainable enough to interest all fisheries to participate in certification.
Getting Small Fisheries on Board "Fish is the most highly traded commodity in the world, and half of it comes from the developing world," Rupert said. "As well as engaging with the larger fisheries, it is vital that MSC ensures its program is open, accessible and relevant to small-scale fisheries around the world in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres." He is encouraged by the fact that Vietnam recently signed an agreement aspiring to have all its fisheries certified and the entry of seven small-scale developing fisheries into the program in early 2008.
In addition to encouraging fisheries to become certified, MSC is teaching schoolchildren the benefits of sustainable fishing and is working with celebrity chefs in the U.K to promote gourmet entrees made with MSC-certified fish.
Demand for certified and labeled seafood is driving change within the global fishing industry and delivering real and lasting ecological benefits. Given the scale and urgency of the challenge, MSC wants to build on its current success and to accelerate the momentum that is now building behind the program. Skoll funding will help MSC do so. Immediate targets include proving the concept in the European market, expanding the MSC program in North America and introducing the program in the Asia-Pacific region. Rupert believes the tipping point will come for his organization within the next five years.
"Our vision is to create a market that only wants sustainable fisheries," he explained. "In many ways, the MSC is an idea whose time has come."
The main office of Marine Stewardship Council is at Mountbarrow House – 3rd Floor, 6-20 Elizabeth St., London SW1W 9RB, U.K., telephone +44 (0) 20-7811-3300. MSC also has offices in Seattle, Wash., U.S.A.; Miranda, Australia; Tokyo; and The Hague, Netherlands. For more information, visit www.msc.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.