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Finnish fish gain MSC sustainability certificate

Most fish caught in Finland's maritime areas can now be labelled with the MSC's blue sustainability logo.

Herring was traditionally a staple of the Finnish diet, but its popularity has waned. Image: Monica Forssell / Yle

The Finnish fishing industry has earned an environmental sustainability certification for Baltic herring and sprat from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). It determined that about 95 percent of fish caught in Finnish territorial waters meets sustainability criteria.

The London-based NGO gave Finnish professional fishers high marks on all of its three criteria for environmentally-sound practices using trawling and fyke nets. These include the health of fish stocks, the environmental impacts of fishing and industry management and tracking processes.

The process took the Finnish Fishermen's Association (SAKL) two years. Only members of the trade group will be able to use the MSC’s blue fish label on packaging for the next five years. That will cover some 70 percent of the total catch.

The MSC describes itself as the only wild-capture fisheries certification and ecolabelling program that meets best practice requirements set by both the UN and ISEAL, the global sustainability standards group.

Most go to animal feed

The silvery little Baltic herring makes up about nine-tenths of the total commercial catch from Finnish maritime areas, totalling some 130 million kilos annually. However it only accounts for 70 percent of its value.

Most herring and nearly all sprat caught in Finnish waters are used for animal fodder, including for the fur farming industry, mainly because of a ban on export to EU countries dating from 2002 when dioxin and PCB levels in the fish were found to breach EU limits.

In the past, much of it was exported to Russia, but that trade collapsed due to EU sanctions and Russian counter-sanctions. Now most exports are to Denmark (which has an exemption from the EU ban) and Eastern Europe. There are now efforts to develop more appealing consumer products using these fish.

"Herring and sprat are our most commercially-important fish species, and it’s excellent that Finland’s first MSC certification process has been carried out successfully. Demand for responsibly-caught MSC-certified raw material is growing both as food and as raw material for fish powder [for animal feed],” says SAKL president Kim Jordas, a Swedish People’s Party councillor in Lapinjärvi, eastern Uusimaa.

Room for improvement in data

The MSC says there is room for improvement in the Finnish industry's catch variety and gathering of data on by-catches. The SAKL is drawing up a plan with Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) and other agencies to develop more precise tracking methods over the next five years.

Luke notes that catching these species benefits the fragile Baltic Sea. It estimates that the annual haul removes more than 500 tonnes of phosphorus and 2700 tonnes of nitrogen from the Baltic Sea, thus limiting eutrophication and toxic blue-green algae blooms.

Fifteen years ago, the EU warned against frequent consumption of some Baltic fish due to their relatively high levels of carcinogenic dioxins and PCBs. Concentrations of dioxins and PCB have been declining in Baltic fish for decades though, and are now mostly below EU limits.

Noting that the fish are rich in healthy omega−3 fatty acids, an ongoing EU study suggests that "the health benefits of Baltic herring and salmon clearly outweigh health risks" for those over 45 and that "benefits are higher even in the most sensitive subgroup, women at childbearing age".

Still, the Finnish Food Safety Authority (Evira) advises that children, young people and persons of fertile age should not eat Baltic Sea salmon, trout or herring measuring over 17 cm more than once or twice a month.

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