Clearwater keeps sustainability label for offshore lobster fishery, but conditions imposed

North America's largest shellfish company has maintained a prized eco-sustainability certification for its offshore Nova Scotia lobster fishery, but the Marine Stewardship Council didn't exactly give Clearwater Seafoods a ringing endorsement either.

Auditors imposed conditions on Clearwater, downgraded its ratings and concluded "there is evidence of systematic non-compliance in the fishery."

MSC posted the results Friday afternoon.

The company said it is pleased with the outcome.

"Clearwater will work closely with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to meet our obligations and address the requirements of the conditions as outlined in the action plan," Christine Penney, Clearwater's vice-president of sustainability, said in an e-mailed response to CBC News.

Caught storing 3,800 traps at sea for weeks

The independent audit was ordered after Clearwater was convicted of a "gross violation" in its lobster fishery in September 2018.

The company pleaded guilty to illegally storing thousands of traps at sea after it was warned by DFO to stop.

Evidence in court also revealed discrepancies between conservation measures the company claimed to be following and what was happening on the water.

Clearwater has been given a monopoly inside Lobster Fishing Area 41, a vast zone off Nova Scotia beginning 50 miles from shore and extending to Canada's 200-mile limit.

The company is restricted to the southern half of LFA 41. Its dedicated vessel, the Randell Dominaux, fishes a strip in the southwest corner closer to the 50-mile boundary line.

Unlike every other lobster fishery, Clearwater has no season and has a quota of 720 tonnes.

Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press

Lloyd's Register carried out the audit after CBC reported the results of the court case in January 2019.

Both environmentalists and Clearwater asked for the review.

The auditors imposed two conditions on Clearwater to keep its MSC certification.

The company must demonstrate it is following fishing rules and will better manage so called by-catch of non-target species through having observers monitor their activities.

The company has agreed to extensive action plans and the audit notes Clearwater has already taken a number of measures to improve its fishery, including more detailed reporting of its activities, reducing the number of traps and ending the practice of storing traps at sea.

Robert Short/CBC

Clearwater said it stopped at-sea storage after DFO delivered a first warning in 2016, and called the episode in 2017 leading to its conviction an isolated incident.

DFO told auditors the fishery is being monitored and no further compliance issues have been reported.

Environmentalist Shannon Arnold of the Ecology Action Centre credits a thorough, multi-year DFO investigation for action.

"You do see a number of significant changes in the way that they are running their business and I'm not sure if it would have happened actually without some real scrutiny," said Arnold.

Clearwater audit scores

The auditors slashed two of Clearwater's previously stellar "performance indicators," with compliance and enforcement dropping from 100 to 70, and information decreasing from 95 to 75.

The remaining 28 indicators were unchanged and the company's overall score dropped only a point or two, nowhere near a benchmark that would trigger a suspension.

In the audit report, Clearwater "disagreed" with the downgrades.

In its statement to CBC, Clearwater said conditions are a normal part of the certification process and the audit "confirmed that the fishery meets the MSC's rigorous standards.

"We are pleased with this outcome and believe it is reflective of our efforts to operate in a responsible and sustainable manner," Penney said.