There's a federal judicial inquiry underway to find out why British Columbia's Fraser River sockeye salmon runs collapsed in 2009, but an international organization is within weeks of certifying the sockeye fishery as ecologically sustainable.
And while an industry spokesperson said the certification will help improve the fishery, critics say it points to what's wrong with the certification process.
The Marine Stewardship Council, based in England, works, according to its website, "with fisheries, seafood companies, scientists, conservation groups and the public to promote the best environmental choice in seafood."
After a nine-year process, the certification body, Nova Scotia's TAVEL Certification Inc., has determined B.C.'s sockeye fishery should be certified to be in accordance with the MSC standard. Anyone who objects has 15 working days to file a statement with the MSC.
Enviro groups 'strongly' object
Early indications are that the MSC will hear some objections.
Even before the MSC had posted its sockeye decision on its website (and it still wasn't up as of this writing), four B.C. environmental organizations said they would be "objecting strongly" to the announcement. Representatives of the David Suzuki Foundation, Skeena Wild Conservation Trust, Headwaters Initiative and Watershed Watch Salmon Society were all available to comment.
"It's irresponsible to certify the Fraser above all when we've got a judicial inquiry into its management," said Vicky Husband, a senior adviser to the Watershed Watch Salmon Society. The MSC should at least withhold its certification until after the inquiry is complete, she said.
MSC's announcement comes just a few months after Fraser River sockeye returns collapsed from an expected 10 million fish to around one million. In November, Prime Minister Stephen Harper called a federal inquiry into the collapse.
Said Husband, "It is unimaginable that any fishery targeting Fraser sockeye could be considered sustainable at this time."
The Skeena, Nass and Barkley Sound sockeye are doing better than the Fraser, she said, but the Department of Fisheries and Ocean's needs to commit to a stronger plan to rebuild the stocks and to keep harvest rates low enough to protect endangered stocks before it will get support from conservation organizations like hers.
"MSC certification of B.C. sockeye fisheries is corporate eco-fraud," Husband said. "It's credibility will be lost to its consumers and markets." The MSC process appears to be more about certifying fisheries than about conservation, she said. "From its inception the MSC process has been a failure."
Husband said she fears the certification will be granted regardless of any objections raised with the MSC. "Our experience in looking at objections is they never overrule."
A call to TAVEL's Steve Devitt was not returned by publication time.
Fishery responsibly managed: SFU experts
"2009 wasn't a very pretty picture, that's true," said Christina Burridge, who led the certification effort as a consultant to the B.C. Salmon Marketing Council.
To put it in perspective though, the escapement, or number of young salmon that went out to sea, was the 14th lowest in the last 40 years, she said. It was a bad year, but not desperate, she said.
A Simon Fraser University think tank on the fishery decided there were a range of possible factors that depressed the run, including a combination of environmental factors and the effect of fish farming, but found management of the fishery wasn't one of them, she said. "They agreed the fishery has been managed responsibly."
The question, as far as the MSC is concerned, is what happens when runs decline, she said. If returns shrink DFO has committed to closing the fishery, she said. "If 2010 looks like 2009 there won't be any fishing and there won't be any fish bearing the label," she said. "There'll be no fishing."
MSC's certification will help improve management of the sockeye fishery, she said. The certification comes with 43 conditions that DFO has to put in place over the next five years, she said. They are the kind of conditions conservation groups want to see, she said.
"This certification delivers that and it delivers the accountability that that actually happens," she said. "I would see it myself as a victory for the fish."
Certifiers try to stay up with shifting facts
It's difficult to manage a fishery when the returns are so unpredictable, said Mike McDermid, the Ocean Wise program manager at the Vancouver Aquarium.
Right now there's little but speculation about what happened to the "missing" fish, he said in an email. "I think this really speaks to our inability to accurately predict salmon returns," he said. "This creates some serious concerns with respect to the fishery because decisions need to be made in advance whether or not an area or fishery will open to commercial or recreational fishing."
It is good news that the managers of the fishery are willing to shut it down when returns are low, he said. "This is a very important step for solid management and one that governments have been reluctant to do in the past because of the repercussions of public and industry pressure."
Ocean Wise, whose advice is used by restaurants, recommends choosing wild B.C. and Alaskan salmon over salmon farmed in open-net pens, he said. But things change so fast and the issue is so complex that they produce seasonal recommendations that vary as the season progresses.
"This allows us to make recommendations on fisheries, populations (specific runs or stocks) right down to the boat level in order to ensure that people are supporting sustainable fisheries and populations," he said.
He said he hadn't yet looked closely enough at the MSC pre-assessment documents to comment on how they would affect the fishery, but added, "I do feel there is a need to better understand the populations [stocks/runs] involved and there is a need to fine tune rather than broad stroke assessments of fisheries with regards to their ultimate sustainability."
With some populations strong and others weak it is difficult to make a reccomendation across the whole fishery, he said.
Watershed Watch's Husband said several B.C. conservation groups will file a formal objection to MSC's certification of the B.C. sockeye salmon fishery.
"The fact that a fishery as unsustainable as the Fraser can be certified as sustainable under the MSC label highlights just how broken and corrupt the MSC process is," she said. "The MSC is not only failing its mandate, but also fooling consumers around the world into believing they are making a good choice by purchasing MSC products which will be sourced from collapsing fisheries and endangered populations."
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