Certifying the South African Hake Trawl Fishery | WWF
	© Wim van Passel / WWF

Sustainable Whitefish

The MSC-certified South African Hake Trawl Fishery has shown that responsible fishing means more than maintaining healthy fish stocks.
“We used to worry about the hake quota and that would be it,” says Russell Hall. “Now that’s just one small part of a much bigger equation. If you want to stay in this business long-term you have to deal with every aspect of sustainability.”

Russell manages the trawling division of Sea Harvest, one of South Africa’s largest hake producers. He has been involved with the company’s vessels for more than 20 years, but today finds himself devoting more and more time to things that do not immediately seem to concern the day-today business of running a fishing fleet.

Albatrosses, for example. The issue of seabirds getting caught up in fishing gear came to light when the South African Hake Trawl Fishery first applied for Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification. A study found around 18,000 birds, including albatrosses, were being killed each year.

“It was a huge problem,” says Ross Wanless, who co-ordinates BirdLife South Africa’s work on seabirds in Africa.

“Albatrosses are particularly vulnerable because they are large, aggressive birds that dominate the access to food, and so are more likely to become entangled in the trawl gear. They are also of higher conservation concern, so the issue is most acute for them.”

Reducing seabird mortality was a condition of the fishery’s MSC certification. Working with WWF and BirdLife, the industry reacted quickly to introduce measures such as tori lines – colourful streamers flown from boats to scare the birds away. “Their introduction has reduced albatross interactions with fishing gear very significantly,” says Ross. As a result, what began as a voluntary initiative was incorporated into mandatory fishing permit regulations in 2006. A paper published in 2014 in the scientific journal Animal Conservation (Maree et al, 2014) indicates that the introduction of tori lines has resulted in a 90% reduction in seabird deaths and a 99% reduction in albatross deaths in the hake trawl fishery since 2006.

Further improvements

Despite these improvements, however, “it became clear that current regulations were not enough,” says Russell. “Unfortunately, it seems that by scaring the albatrosses away, we have opened the door for the smaller petrels and other species,” Ross adds.

This time, action was taken through the Responsible Fisheries Alliance (RFA) – a partnership between environmental NGOs WWF, BirdLife South Africa and five of South Africa’s leading fishing industry companies (Irvin & Johnson Ltd, Oceana Group Ltd, Viking Fishing Group, Pioneer Fishing and Sea Harvest Corporation) established in 2009.

“A task team with representatives from each company, plus members of WWF and BirdLife South Africa, studied what more could be done to prevent interactions with seabirds,” says Russell. They looked at issues like where and when the lines were deployed, how offal – which attracts the birds in the first place – was discarded, and even what colour the lines should be (yellow appears best).

“What works on one ship may not work on another,” Russell explains. “The RFA engaged a consultant to see what was most effective for each class of vessel, spending time on 15 different vessel types.”

The RFA and BirdLife brought their findings to the government, which updated the permit conditions with immediate effect. Ross is hopeful this will make a difference: "the new permit conditions will ensure a more effective bird-scaring line design is used, and that the lines are deployed as soon as there is any risk to seabirds. As a result of the detailed analysis of each vessel, vessel-specific Bird Mitigation Plans (BMPs) are being implemented for all RFA hake trawlers, identifying for  each vessel ways to reduce the impact on seabirds. The RFA is currently engaging with the remaining trawlers in the fleet to have them develop and adopt BMPs." 

Raised Awareness

Over the past 5 years, the RFA has been running responsible fisheries training courses developed by WWF to help fishers and managers learn what an ecosystem approach to fisheries is all about. Over 1200 attended, including many fishing boat captains, crew, observers, fishery compliance officers as well as law enforcement officials who operate at the harbours.

“It’s created tremendous awareness,” says Russell. “If skippers are interested, and coming back to you with issues and ideas, that’s how things will be resolved. Good practices become daily habits.”

More examples of how transforming markets can make a difference can be found here.

Better Production for a Living Planet

	© WWF
Download the full story here.


  • Overfishing due to unfit catch limits and illegal fishing;
  • Fishing down the food web;
  • Habitat destruction through use of unsustainable fishing gear;
  • Subsidies to increase vessel capacity and failure to set science-based catch quotas and recovery plans;
  • Wasteful discards and bycatch of marine birds and other mammal species.

Good management and responsible behaviour can result in:
  • Sustainable fishing quotas;
  • Reduced bycatch and discards;
  • Supportive legislation, effective monitoring and control;
  • Habitats and species protection;
  • Sustainable sourcing through credible MSC certification.

Markets and consumers today are more environmentally conscious. This is why the trawl industry pushed hard to obtain MSC certification for its target species, hake. The MSC label is very important to us as an exporter, so any issue that affects our accreditation is important.

Russell Hall, Trawling Division Manager, Sea Harvest Corporation

	© MSC
    The Marine Stewardship Council exists to contribute to the health of the world’s oceans by recognizing and rewarding sustainable fishing practices, influencing the choices people make when buying seafood, and working with our partners to transform the seafood market to a sustainable basis. msc.org

Priority Countries

  • Production
    Argentina, Chile, Canada, European Union, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, South Africa, USA, China.

    European Union (Germany, Netherlands, Spain, United Kingdom), Canada, Japan, Norway and USA.

    Present focal regions
    Southern Africa (South Africa and Namibia), Latin America (Chile, Argentina, Peru and Uruguay) Arctic Seas (Russia, Norway, USA), North Atlantic (Canada, EU), New Zealand.

WWF Target

  • By 2020
    Priority populations of Alaska pollock, cod, hoki, orange roughy, toothfish and hake are MSC-certified, harvested without negative impact on the ecosystem and under implementation of a spatial area plan that protects vulnerable marine ecosystems.
    45,9% of global whitefish is MSC-certified (data MSC report 2014-2015).

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Donate to WWF

Your support will help us build a future where humans live in harmony with nature.

Enter Yes if you accept the terms and conditions
Enter Yes if you accept the terms and conditions