Waitrose has been urged to suspend sales of one of its premium products, an eco-certified king scallop from Shetland, which can sell heavily at Christmas.
The marine conservation campaign Open Seas challenged Waitrose after it raised concerns that the scallop fishery causes unjustifiable ecological damage because the shellfish are dredged from the seabed.
Shetland’s scallops, along with two types of sought-after crab, were awarded a coveted eco-label for their sustainability from the Marine Stewardship Council five years ago, and command premium prices. The three fisheries were worth £5m last year.
The scallop fishery is being reassessed by the MSC as part of a five-yearly reappraisal, which is expected to see it recertified early next year. Waitrose said unless the scallops lost that accreditation, they were justified in stocking them.
The MSC has robustly defended its work, but Open Seas alleges that a recommendation to recertify the Shetland fishery failed to take account of evidence that it caught critically endangered common skate and skate eggs, and 7% of its catch was rare horse mussels. The fishery also included parts of a marine protected area and a special area of conservation.
“Shellfish is neither premium nor sustainable if its harvest causes significant environmental damage,” said Phil Taylor, head of policy at Open Seas. “Any retailer promising that their seafood products are from sustainable sources is asking their customers to trust them with their environmental credentials.
“Waitrose should be doing much better, and should commit to selling only those scallops that do not damage our seabed.”
Scallop dredging is very controversial: its critics claim the technique is akin to strip-mining the sea bed, since it involves dragging heavy gear along the seafloor, catching and killing other species.
Unlike much more expensive hand-dived scallops, where divers choose only mature scallops without affecting other species, conservationists say dredging can reduce brittle, coral-like species such as maerl, sponges and other mollusc beds to rubble.
Some maerl and mollusc beds were affected in Shetland, Open Seas said, but the sale of any dredged scallops raised questions for Waitrose. Its range includes dredged scallops from British waters on sale for £35 a kilo.
Waitrose insists it applies stringent tests to its seafood products, and insists on full traceability of all its scallops. Its skippers and suppliers know how strict its rules are, the retailer has said.
“Waitrose introduced the concept of responsibly sourced seafood into UK supermarkets more than 20 years ago and we take our role in marine conservation very seriously,” a spokeswoman said.
The MSC and the Shetland Shellfish Management Organisation (SSMO), a cooperative that overseas the islands’ inshore fisheries, insist they have robust scientific evidence and conservation strategies that ensure scallop dredging in Shetland is sustainable.
Even so, the MSC decided last month to suspend its certification of Shetland’s velvet crab, a highly sought-after species exported live, particularly to restaurants in Spain. It said the crab population was not at sustainable levels and needed time to recover.
An MSC spokesman said the recommendation to recertify the scallop fishery was made by independent experts and Open Seas criticisms would be taken into account before a final decision was made in January 2018. If Open Seas or any other group wanted to protest again after that decision, it had 14 days to do so.
“Fundamentally, we don’t agree with Open Seas that these matters have been marginalised or neglected,” the spokesman said. “We wouldn’t agree that the assessment process was unduly narrow.” If the MSC did recertify the fishery, there would also be annual monitoring of its catches.
Carole Laignel, of the SSMO, said it took rigorous steps to protect the marine environment. That included monitoring of its vessels, routine reporting of any rare or endangered species caught, and the closure of some areas to conserve stocks.
“There is certainly a place for a well-managed community dredge fishery within the fabulous marine environment that we enjoy in Shetland,” she said. “We recommend that Open Seas refrain from uninformed and unfair comments on what remains a highly sustainable fishery.”