Criteria for a good catch: A conceptual framework to guide sourcing of sustainable salmon fisheries

Place-based management recognizes the ecological inter-dependance between wild salmon and the natal watersheds where they spawn, rear and to which they are locally adapted.

Researchers from Wild Fish Conservancy, Raincoast Conservation Foundation, and the University of Montana are proposing an alternative framework for certifying wild salmon. The alternative is explained in a paper published in journal FACETS, by Canadian Science Publishing, titled “Criteria for a good catch: A conceptual framework to guide sourcing of sustainable salmon fisheries”.

The uniqueness of each river, and the salmon that return to it, drive this place-based management. This criteria can replace the conventional fisheries that have failed to manage salmon sustainably.  Tweet This!

The new framework is grounded in the place-based concept of salmon management. This place-based foundation recognizes the ecological inter-dependance between wild salmon and the natal watersheds where they spawn, rear and to which they are locally adapted.

The proposed new framework for identifying sustainably harvested salmon suggests that individual retailers develop criteria (or adopt others) that comply with this place-based foundation. Patagonia Provisions, for example, is one retailer requesting this high standard of certification because their customers want higher standards than are currently available.

“Open ocean, mixed-stock salmon fisheries are a major cause of the coast-wide loss of wild salmon populations and the failure of many populations to rebuild or recover from their currently depleted state,” said Nick Gayeski, the study’s lead author and scientist with the Wild Fish Conservancy.

Place-based salmon harvesting lets the consumer know how, and where, specifically, each salmon was caught. Consumers want this level of sustainability and accountability.”


Gayeski N, MacDuffee M, and Stanford JA. 2018. Criteria for a good catch: A conceptual framework to guide sourcing of sustainable salmon fisheries. FACETS 3: 300–314.

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The identification of sustainably managed fisheries is problematic for marketers and consumers of Pacific salmon food products owing to lack of well-defined and robust criteria that take into account current ecosystem science of salmon. We present the rationale for an alternative conceptual framework for salmon management that supports the development of sustainable sourcing criteria. Our approach contrasts with current large-scale fisheries certification programs such as that of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and general consumer recommendation services such as Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch (SFW) program. Our framework is based on the “place-based” character of salmon populations and recognition of fundamental aspects of salmon ecology, particularly the evolution of population life histories that are locally adapted to freshwater spawning and rearing habitats. We describe how this framework underpins development of science-based sourcing criteria and how it differs in important respects from the industrial approach that historically and currently is the basis for most salmon management. We conclude with a discussion of how the framework and its application may provide a model for redirecting salmon management, in general, towards a more science- and place-based approach and why that is likely to be sustainable in the long term in a way that most contemporary salmon management is not.


The past two decades have seen increased desire by consumers in western countries to eat more natural, healthy foods and to support practices that provide such foods in a manner judged to be “sustainable”, i.e., products derived from ecosystem services deemed demonstrably viable over the long term (decades to centuries). This has led to the development of certification bodies that review and certify (or not) retail products and brands as produced from sustainable sources (for example, organically grown produce). Marine finfish and shellfish products, in particular, necessitate public resource management to address sustainable harvest. In the case of Pacific salmon, hatchery practices and the persistence of salmon for wildlife and ecosystem benefits are also considerations for fisheries sustainability.

The most prominent fisheries certification body is the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) that uses independent third-party certification bodies to evaluate candidate fisheries. Less formally, the Seafood Watch (SFW) program of the Monterey Bay Aquarium reviews fishery practices and provides consumers with reports and general categories (red, yellow, green) of seafood products intended to help them identify products from sustainably managed fisheries. Concerns have been raised over the relatively large scale and rising cost of MSC certifications. In addition, controversies have arisen regarding the independence and accuracy of sustainability assessments (Jacquet and Pauly 2007; Christian et al. 2013; Kirby et al. 2014). Indeed, the MSC process has blanket-certified all five species of Pacific salmon caught in Alaska marine waters as sustainably harvested, even though hundreds of place-based stocks are involved, each with local environmental controls on production as well as highly variable stakeholder interests (e.g., many Alaskan-caught and -labelled Chinook, sockeye, and chum can have natal origins in watersheds of western Canada and the lower west coast of the US). The real and long-term impact of mixed-stock ocean fisheries on local (place-based) populations therefore is lost, or at least compromised, in this kind of wide-ranging certification process, and some of these populations are not being sustained (e.g., populations within BC pink and chum Certification Units and within BC’s Fraser sockeye Certification Unit, see Price et al. 2017).

A complementary, if not alternative, approach to large-scale certification is for retailers to develop their own sustainable sourcing criteria to guide their acquisition of raw or processed food products that they package or further process for direct sale to consumers. Development and application of self-determined criteria that are rooted in salmon ecology have the potential to result in a more rigorous evaluation of sustainability. This is because the retailer assumes responsibility for its claim that the fishery is sustainably managed.

The outdoor retail clothing company Patagonia has recently developed a consumer food products line known as Provisions. An important initial food item for the program is packaged smoked sockeye (Oncorhynchus nerka (Walbaum in Artedi, 1792)) and pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha (Walbaum, 1792)). The program seeks to accomplish two related objectives with its salmon product sourcing. First, it aims to acquire premium salmon products from fisheries that harvest wild, naturally reproducing salmon in a sustainable manner. Second, it seeks to support salmon fisheries that provide models of local, place-based fisheries that contrast with the majority of large-scale, mixed-stock salmon fisheries on the west coast of the US and Canada. Patagonia wants its salmon sourcing criteria to reflect maintenance of local social values in addition to sound science regarding salmon ecology and fisheries management. To assist Patagonia, we developed over-arching criteria for sourcing wild salmon products with a view that these self-imposed criteria could serve as a well-defined and robust complement to existing certification programs. This approach could also increase return on investment for other retailers that choose to provide high-quality, sustainable salmon products derived from robust criteria.

Salmon sourcing and framework criteria are based on the recognition that (1) wild salmon are locally adapted to the rivers and streams in which adults spawn and juveniles rear and (2) that abundant spawning and rearing salmon support numerous ecological functions (e.g., wildlife benefits, carcass fertilization to streams, etc.) that must be maintained to maintain the health of the salmon populations themselves. This makes salmon populations “place-based”, a response to and reflection of the local habitat and environmental conditions with which they have evolved and to which they are (locally) adapted. We argue that the place-based nature of salmon populations requires that the management of salmon harvest be appropriately place-based as well. Thus, we based our sourcing criteria on this fundamental attribute of wild salmon populations and its significance to Pacific salmon ecology and management. The place-based criteria are listed in Box 1 and discussed in the Criteria for Sustainable Sourcing section.

Box. 1

Criteria for sustainable salmon sourcing

Criteria that apply to the source population

  • Target source population(s) is (are) known or estimated with high probability.
  • A defensible escapement goal is in place and supported by high-quality data; the escapement goal meets, at minimum, a maximum sustainable yield (MSY) target and preferably the goal is greater than the MSY point estimate.
  • If the escapement goal is an MSY-based target, there must be evidence that the goal is met or exceeded in 80% of the past 10 years.
  • If an escapement goal is not in place and (or) sufficient high-quality escapement data are not available, additional fishery information must be provided for review by an independent science panel (ISP) familiar with the sourcing criteria or their derivation to determine if the fishery exemplifies a place-based and (or) risk-averse fishery (as described below).

Criteria concerning landed and non-landed by-catch of non-target salmon and non-salmon populations

  • Are non-target salmon or non-salmon species encountered and captured (landed) in the fishery?
    • If “yes”, the population(s) of origin of the non-target fish must either be known or estimated with sufficient confidence (for example, from genetic stock identification) to determine that no conservation concerns exist for non-target populations. Ideally, determination of “no conservation concern” would require that equally risk-averse escapement goals exist for the non-target population(s) and are achieved with high confidence (accounting for all sources of fishery-induced mortality). In the interim, the minimum requirement is that “no conservation concern” exists, as determined by the management agency or supported by data reviewed by the ISP.
    • Are non-target salmon or non-salmon species encountered by the fishery but not retained, either being released (harmed or unharmed) or encountered as drop-off from fishing gear?
    • Preference is for fisheries that employ selective fishing gears and practices that can release non-target species with no or little harm and have supporting data that attest to high post-encounter/release survival from similar gear types or from the fishery itself.
    • Preference is given to fisheries where by-catch populations are of known origin or credibly estimated by the management agency, and the status of those by-catch populations is known to meet risk-averse escapement goals.
    • If by-catch is known or estimated to involve drop-off from encounter with the gear, there must be a credible estimate of the encounter rate and the drop-off mortality rate.

Criteria concerning the evaluation of the fishing methodology

  • Regardless of the fishery location, the river(s) of origin of the source population(s) must be known or credibly estimated (for example, by genetic stock identification). Knowing the source population(s) is important if the fishery targets several populations that are not distinguishable by external characteristics from any other individuals retained by the fishery.
  • Preference is given to fishing gears that are population selective and capable of identifying and releasing non-target populations/species with minimal harm.
  • Preference is given to passive fishing gears such as reef nets, fish traps, and fish wheels that do not require lengthy handling of non-target individuals, if any, and do not require removing the fish from the water for any significant time, if at all.
  • Preference is given to fishing gears and associated practices that result in little or no crushing or bruising of landed fish and that the quality of flesh is preserved by promptly bleeding and icing the catch. Passive selective gears are most capable of meeting this criterion.
  • Purse seine and drift or set gillnet fisheries must employ short soak times and landing practices that avoid or minimize bruising or crushing of retained fish and that employ careful sorting and release of by-catch. Evidence must be provided regarding the post-release survival of by-catch.

Criteria concerning model fisheries and gears

Preference is given to salmon sourced from fisheries that produce a high value-added product that can be marketed to consumers wishing to support ecologically sustainable and socially responsible products that return a living wage to fishers in local fishing communities. Such fisheries should have the following characteristics:

  • small, local fisheries that meet the biological criteria that exemplify place-based fishing,
  • fisheries that are, or are capable of, sustaining local place-based fishing communities,
  • fisheries using passive fishing gears capable of releasing non-target individuals with little or no handling,
  • fisheries whose gear and practices have a low carbon footprint relative to boat-based fisheries that employ drift gillnets or purse seines and for which fuel may make up a significant component of daily operating costs, and
  • fisheries that land target fish with little or no handling, bruising, or crushing and that promptly bleed and ice the landed catch.

Criteria regarding chain of custody

All salmon products sold under the retailer’s label must provide the following information:

  • the fishery from which the salmon was obtained,
  • the type of gear employed, and
  • the identity of the population(s) to the finest spatial scale possible, sufficient so that the consumer can determine the status of the population(s) to which the salmon belong.


The authors wish to thank Dr. Carol Ann Woody, Center for Science in Public Participation; Matthew Stoecker, Stoecker Ecological; and Jamie Glasgow, Director of Science and Research, Wild Fish Conservancy, for comments on earlier versions of the sourcing criteria for Patagonia that greatly improved the substance and form of that document and helped us to clarify many of the issues developed in this paper. We are also grateful to Jim Lichatowich for numerous informative discussions regarding salmon fisheries management, sustainability, and the importance of conceptual foundations for providing clear priorities and guidance of management actions.


Wild Fish Conservancy, Duvall, WA, USA
Nick Gayeski

Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Sidney, BC, Canada
Misty MacDuffee

Flathead Lake Biological Station, University of Montana, MT, USA
Jack A. Stanford

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