Australia’s Heard Island and McDonald Islands (HIMI) toothfish fishery is contributing to the ‘green economy’ on World Environment Day, after its independent certification as a sustainable and well managed fishery.

While the fishery was once plagued by illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, the collaborative effort of policy makers, managers, scientists and industry over the past decade has delivered significant results.

In March this year the fishery received the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) tick of approval, confirming that the fishery is successfully implementing three principles of global best practice: fishing activity is sustainable for the target population; environmental impacts are minimised; and the fishery is effectively managed.

Australian Antarctic Division fisheries research scientist, Dr Dirk Welsford, said years of scientific research in the HIMI fishery and the adoption of conservation and management measures in the region, through the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), had supported the toothfish fishery’s bid for certification.

‘To ensure that toothfish stocks and the ecosystem are not permanently affected by fishing, Australia uses a system of rigorous management controls,’ Dr Welsford said.

‘These include limiting the types of vessels allowed to fish, restricting the amount of fish that can be caught, not discarding processing waste and bycatch over the side of the ship (which can attract seabirds), and using fishing techniques that avoid seabird and marine mammal bycatch.

‘The research that has informed these management measures has been led by the Australian Antarctic Division, in collaboration with vessels in the HIMI fishery and the Australian Fisheries Management Authority.’

To collect information that helps CCAMLR set sustainable catch limits, for example, toothfish vessels are required to implement research programs developed by Australian Antarctic Division scientists, such as tagging and releasing fish and conducting a large annual survey to estimate the abundance of toothfish around HIMI. Vessels must also carry two scientific observers, who collect data on catch and bycatch and the measures used to prevent the bycatch of wildlife, such as seabirds. This information feeds into models of toothfish stocks and has also helped to develop seabird bycatch mitigation devices that are used throughout the Southern Ocean, with dramatic success.

The Australian Antarctic Division has also developed underwater camera systems that can be deployed on fishing gear. The cameras record digital video and still photos of the habitats where fishing occurs and allows scientists to assess the vulnerability of these habitats to damage. This work, in collaboration with fisheries research and management bodies, has contributed to the establishment and imminent expansion of the HIMI Marine Reserve, and identified less sensitive areas where commercial fishing can occur.

The MSC certification allows toothfish products from the HIMI fishery to carry an ‘eco-label’, identifying them as sustainable. All fishing in the HIMI fishery is now MSC certified, with the mackerel icefish fishery certified in 2006 — the first Australian Commonwealth-managed fishery to be MSC certified.

‘History will be the ultimate judge of whether the toothfish industry is managed sustainably, but this is certainly recognition that we are doing the best we can with the information we have available to us now,’ Dr Welsford says.

‘MSC certification is an important milestone and we will continue to conduct research and implement the necessary management measures, in collaboration with the fishing industry, to ensure the HIMI fisheries continue to achieve global best practice.’