By Kerry Coughlin
Without a doubt salmon is a great Canadian resource. Rightly so, government, conservation organizations, businesses, and citizens are concerned about the recent low numbers of sockeye salmon returning to spawn in some of B.C.’s rivers.
The fishing industry has sought Marine Stewardship Council certification, which provides ongoing independent, rigorous, scientific examination of the fishery and, if B.C. sockeye salmon is certified, demonstrates that it is a well-managed fishery that meets the world’s leading standard for sustainable fishing.
An independent certification assessment team, made up of scientists from the B.C. region and beyond, recently recommended the fishery receive MSC certification. However, some concerned groups have asked how the sockeye fishery could possibly be considered sustainable when returning stocks are so low; there is a federal inquiry into the fishery; and some stocks have been red-listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
These are good questions, and people in B.C. who care deeply about the legacy of salmon and its environmental, cultural, and economic importance, deserve to know about the MSC, the assessment process, and what potential certification of B.C. sockeye salmon would mean.
The MSC program was created in collaboration between industry and environmental groups in part as a response to the collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery off the east coast of Canada. Clearly, the consequences of not protecting our fish supplies are great. Our natural environment, many livelihoods, and the health and other benefits of eating fish depend on good stewardship that preserves fish for future generations.
While the independent team assessing the B.C. sockeye salmon fishery concluded in its January 20 final report that the fishery is being managed in a way that meets the MSC standard, it’s important to note that it has not been certified. Per MSC procedure, a 15-working day period has begun during which environmental organizations and other stakeholders who have been involved in the assessment process can file an objection to the recommendation. If a formal objection is filed, a further review and decision process will be led by an independent adjudicator with expertise in the field but no prior involvement in the assessment of the fishery. MSC’s role throughout the assessment and objections period is to facilitate the process and ensure proper application of the established methodology and policies, not to take a position on the outcome recommended by the independent certification team.
The assessment process included an intensive, several-year evaluation involving a team of experts from B.C. and beyond, extensive examination of data, extra consultation steps, on-site audits, regional stakeholder engagement, and scientific peer review. As another level of scrutiny, the work of all certifiers assessing to the MSC standard is monitored by a separate independent organization—Accreditation Services International.
Throughout the assessment, regional conservation organizations, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and other stakeholders have been closely involved. Their input has made an important contribution to the assessment, and the last round of stakeholder input resulted in numerous changes between the draft report put out for public comment and the final report. The certifier’s final report identifies improvement actions, including steps that would advance further adoption of B.C.’s Wild Salmon Policy, something many in the conservation community have been advocating.
There is uncertainty in the scientific community as to the reasons for the current lower than predicted sockeye returns to many B.C. rivers. But the independent assessment team findings were in agreement with those of a think tank of B.C. regional scientists that commercial fishing pressure is not the cause for these declines since breeding stock levels were high in the years that spawned the fish now returning in low numbers.
The MSC standard and methodology was developed through extensive scientific, academic, industry, and conservation organization collaboration, and is widely respected globally. As a result, it generally aligns with other organization’s evaluations of fisheries. In regard to the IUCN red-listing B.C. sockeye, however, the scope and approach of the methodology used is different from MSC’s: the units of reporting are different, the focus of each assessment only partly overlaps, different scoring models are used, targets to gauge stock status differ, and IUCN assessments of threats to the stock are broader than fishery impact. Thus it is possible for the evaluations and results to differ. In the certifier’s final report on MSC assessment there is a dedicated section addressing the IUCN evaluation as it related to the Fraser and Skeena river areas, and how the listings affected the outcome.
If the B.C. sockeye fishery does become certified, the MSC program is designed to serve as a useful tool for ongoing fisheries management. MSC-required annual audits ensure that new data and up-to-date scientific assessments of stock health determine fishery manager’s actions in reducing catch levels or completely eliminating fishing if stocks are not safely above natural recruitment levels. This ongoing further examination would include taking into account any relevant information that becomes available through the Canadian government’s upcoming federal inquiry to uncover the causes for low sockeye salmon returns.
Experience with 61 previously certified fisheries globally indicates that if the B.C. sockeye salmon fishery is MSC-certified it would provide the province with additional ongoing monitoring, increased transparency, and supplemental data for fisheries managers and conservationists working to help maintain sustainability.
Certification, if awarded, and use of the MSC ecolabel would also signal to local and international markets that B.C. sockeye salmon is being commercially harvested and sold only if it is caught in a way that preserves the stock and does not harm the marine ecosystem. This assurance and traceability to fishery of origin is increasingly becoming a requisite to sell into global seafood markets.
In the end, conserving natural resources, protecting species, and preserving fishing-related livelihoods is what the MSC program is all about. If the B.C. sockeye salmon fishery does become MSC-certified, it will indicate to buyers and consumers it is a seafood source that has been put to the test and has scientifically proven a commitment to sustainability and a more transparent, accountable and enduring fishing industry.
Kerry Coughlin is the regional director for the Americas at the Marine Stewardship Council.