Would a grizzly bear certify this fishery?

As the Canadian federal inquiry examining the 2009 Fraser River sockeye salmon collapse in British Columbia kicks into full gear, one might be surprised to learn that at the same time, some want to designate this fishery as "eco-certified."

Marine Stewardship Council certification for the Fraser River sockeye fishery raises serious questions about the process and methodology for MSC certification, especially given the latest Fraser sockeye collapse of some eight million fish. Even the possibility of MSC certification for Fraser sockeye has led many of BC’s environmental NGOs to express qualms about the logic and rationale of the MSC, as their judgment in this matter has, thus far, overlooked serious concerns about the status and management of Fraser sockeye.

It is an unfortunate situation as the existence of MSC certification should signify an opportunity to increase the protection of wild salmon on the coast and to work around the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) who have been a major obstacle to achieving that goal.

MSC began in 1997 when the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever – a major seafood buyer – formed a partnership to try to leverage buying power into transformative change for global fisheries and collectively define sustainable, or at least environmentally preferable, fisheries. A collaboration of this type represents a potentially powerful step forward, as conscientious members of industry can work with NGOs to integrate conservation and social justice agendas into fisheries sustainability.

This new approach also changes the role of governments, given their poor track record at managing fish, into a follow-up function that implements policy as it is defined by the collaboration between industry and NGOs. This scenario has the potential to drive substantial change as long as the environmental NGOs involved fully grasp the conservation science at the local level. It is also key that they never lose sight of the fact that establishing sufficient rigorousness for such a process is of paramount importance to ensuring that their integrity is not squandered for bad tradeoffs.

The Raincoast Conservation Foundation recognizes the value that certification could play in terms of improving fisheries practices. However, we are concerned that MSC relationships between the client (industry) and the certifier are far too close and not independent. Secondly, we are concerned that the MSC criteria sets a low bar and will not result in transformative change. These factors have allowed them to endorse fisheries around the globe that are not sustainable. For example, the stock status of both Alaskan pollock and New Zealand Hoki have declined under MSC certification. Their criteria also lack sufficient ecosystem considerations. For example, BC salmon fisheries do not consider whales, bears or other wildlife that depend on salmon. In addition, if the Fraser River certification moves forward then Cultus Lake or Sakinaw sockeye would also be certified; this leads us to raise the question, is the MSC actually sanguine about certifying endangered fish populations?

Certification must account for all environmental (and social) issues facing the certified fish in question, even if this means committing to continuous improvement on certain issues, especially as science and conservation objectives evolve. Failure to do so is greenwashing and forces NGOs who are also working on these issues into difficult positions, where they find themselves opposing the MSC instead of supporting it.

As an example, the industry is proposing that MSC give the green stamp of approval to pink and chum salmon runs in the Great Bear Rainforest, the area where Raincoast has been working for over a decade to protect salmon- grizzly systems and other important salmon ecosystem linkages. In the last several years, however, there has been a disturbing silence at the time of year when these streams should be vibrant with spawning fish and splashing bears. Raincoast believes it to be imperative to account for these types of ecosystem functions when considering a fishery’s sustainability.

We suggest that the MSC re-examine both how their process and certification standards are determined and pay much more attention to their ecological shortcomings if they want long-term legitimacy from conservation groups. MSC needs a transparent, independent and impartial certification process, as well as a mechanism for ongoing improvement of criteria that would continually push for the highest fishing standards and truly drive conservation in the world’s oceans. To attain this, they must address the structural flaws in their certification process and commit to incorporating ecosystem objectives for marine and terrestrial environments. Their brand reputation is at stake and they run the risk of turning their theoretical supporters into very real opponents if their approach to these issues is allowed to continue.

A version of this article was first published at The Huffington Post on June 22, 2010.

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.