MSC's sockeye marathon

British Columbia sockeye salmon is not certified as sustainable and well managed by the Marine Stewardship Council. Not yet, at least. That determination won't come for a few weeks or longer, but there's been some confusion and contention recently about what has turned out to be a very lengthy process.

The MSC has been a lightning rod for criticism since its inception in 1997 as a creation of Unilever and the World Wildlife Fund. The London-based nonprofit has arguably done more to raise awareness of sustainable seafood and create change on the water than any other entity in the world. Yet it hasn't been easy, painless or cheap for many involved in the process — or for businesses that claim they've been excluded from it.

On the subject of painstaking processes, it's been nine years since the B.C. sockeye fishery entered the MSC certification process. In the last several weeks three Canadian conservation groups seeking to protect British Columbia's Fraser River sockeye salmon have ramped up criticism of the organization that has to date certified 63 fisheries worldwide as sustainable and well managed (the public comment period ended Wednesday).

Watershed Watch Salmon Society, SkeenaWild Conservation Trust and the David Suzuki Foundation all say the MSC has no business certifying British Columbia sockeye salmon as  sustainable, pointing to last year's Fraser River returns that were only about 13 percent of what was expected. It was the lowest sockeye return for this key fishery in 50 years, they say, which is now the subject of a federal judicial inquiry.

The groups also want to expose what they say are deficiencies in the MSC's certification process. They say no fishery has ever been denied certification after completing assessment, but most fisheries that lack the proper credentials for certification were likely informed of their shortcomings during the confidential pre-assessment period. The groups also fear that an eco-label on B.C. salmon would only further place the fish in peril and that no objection to a certification has ever been upheld, a fact they appear determined to change.

The MSC program isn't perfect and couldn't possibly satisfy all fishery stakeholders all the time. But the organization's goal isn't to certify as many fisheries as possible. "The MSC does not have a position on whether a fishery gets certified or not," Kerry Coughlin, MSC Americas director told me this week, adding that final decisions are made by an independent adjudicator. "We do have a strong position on our program and how it works. The process is designed to be transparent and it's peer reviewed."

The MSC's mission is to certify sustainable fisheries; it is not to persuade consumers about which fish to buy and which to avoid. That's a task for Seafood Watch, which last month demoted Alaska pollock, an MSC-certified fishery, from a "best choice" to "good alternative."

Concerns over whether to certify B.C. sockeye are valid, considering the recent poor returns. But the fate of B.C. sockeye's certification is not exclusively in the hands of the MSC. Coughlin said the fishery exists in a complex, multi-river resource with a high level of interest and engagement from stakeholders.

This, she said, is a good thing. "The whole essence of the MSC program is all about harnessing market forces to bring about change," she added.

In that respect, the MSC is doing exactly what it set out to do.

Thank you,
James Wright
Associate Editor
SeaFood Business

PS. The SeafoodSource staff would like to send heartfelt condolences to the family of Capt. Phil Harris, who passed away this week after suffering a stroke. "Deadliest Catch" just won't be the same without him. Fish on, Cornelia Marie.

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