Canadian conservation groups file formal objection to Alaskan salmon fishery’s “sustainable” certification

Sockeye swimming in a river.
Photo by Jonny Armstrong.

British Columbia conservation organizations SkeenaWild Conservation Trust and Raincoast Conservation Foundation, along with Watershed Watch Salmon Society, have filed a formal notice of objection with the UK-based Marine Stewardship Council in response to the proposed re-certification of Alaskan salmon fisheries as sustainable.

“These are not sustainable fisheries and continuing to label them as such would be misleading consumers,” said Greg Knox, executive director of SkeenaWild Conservation Trust.

Non-selective net fisheries in Southeast Alaska are devastating salmon and steelhead populations all along the Pacific Coast. These fleets disproportionately intercept millions of salmon and steelhead bound for BC, as well as Washington and Oregon. They also fail to adequately track and report bycatch.

In fact, Alaskan fisheries near the BC border have been harvesting an increasing proportion of the total catch of BC salmon, as Canadian fisheries have been curtailed to protect at-risk populations, and now catch the lion’s share of many of those populations. 

“Alaska’s indiscriminate harvest is preventing the recovery of vulnerable chinook, chum, sockeye, coho and steelhead that are headed for Canada,” said Aaron Hill from Watershed Watch Salmon Society “This is having a devastating impact on communities and wildlife in B. that depend on wild salmon and steelhead.” 

The Marine Stewardship Council is the world’s pre-eminent seafood eco-label and allows fishing industry clients to select third-party companies to assess their fisheries against the MSC’s standards. The objecting conservation organizations believe that the assessment company, MRAG Americas, has not done its due diligence in characterizing how the fishery operates, significantly underestimating its impacts on at-risk salmon populations in BC, Washington, and Oregon. 

The assessor also failed to recognize that the Southeast Alaska troll fishery is not only unsustainable, but unlawful. “The catch in the chinook fishery, more than 90% of which is not from Alaska, deprives endangered Southern Resident killer whales of their primary food source,” said Misty MacDuffee, of Raincoast Conservation Foundation. “This fishery violates both the US Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act because there has not been an approved remedy to the consequences of this prey removal,” she concluded. 

The Alaskan salmon fishery was first certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council in 2000 and its current certification expires this year. The fishery has still not met conditions imposed from its previous assessments more than 10 years ago.

Throughout the recertification process, which began at the end of 2022, conservation organizations have raised concerns about the fishery’s impacts on at-risk salmon, steelhead, and seabird populations, as well as the impacts of artificial hatchery production on wild salmon returns. These impacts are inconsistent with the Marine Stewardship Council’s purported criteria. The third-party assessor has largely dismissed these concerns, and recently advised the Marine Stewardship Council that the fishery should be re-certified. 

The notice of objection should instigate an independent review of the decision, on the basis that the assessment company has undermined the fairness of the assessment.

“Consumers want sustainable seafood and they want to trust organizations like the Marine Stewardship Council to help them make the right choices,” said Hill. “If the Marine Stewardship Council certifies these dirty fisheries, it’s not just their credibility that’s at stake, but the future of wild Pacific salmon.”