Salmon have played a central role in the lives and culture of Pacific Northwest people throughout history. Their abundance in the oceans and rivers made them a major source of protein for hundreds of First Nations villages, and they were also crucial to trade. Today, they are still considered to be one of the tastiest and healthiest foods available.
The importance of salmon goes beyond their value as a food source. Because they begin their lives in lakes and rivers before making their way to the ocean, they bring nutrients from the ocean back up the rivers when they return to spawn. Bears, eagles, and other animals that feed on the salmon spread these nutrients further into the forests.
But salmon are not returning in the numbers they once were. Fraser River sockeye runs are made up of 40 separate stocks, linked to the lakes where they return to spawn. Every stock is important to the overall health and resilience of Fraser River sockeye. This past summer, the federal government closed the Fraser sockeye fishery when only a million of the predicted 10 million sockeye made their way back. It was the third year in a row of record low returns.
Shutting down the Fraser fishery in 2009 was a good move; every sockeye stock had horribly low returns. However, if even one major stock has high returns, current fishing plans allow aggressive fishing that would threaten endangered stocks.
Despite this critical situation, the Marine Stewardship Council recently decided to certify all B.C. sockeye salmon as sustainable. The MSC is a U.K.-based agency that assesses and offers eco-certification for fisheries around the world in response to applications from the fisheries themselves.
It also appears that the MSC is poised to certify the Atlantic longline swordfish fishery as sustainable, despite concerns that it kills endangered turtles and sharks.
Certifying and labelling sustainable marine foods is an important initiative. It provides essential information to consumers and creates incentives for fisheries to become sustainable. But we need to get it right, from the start. If standards are set too low we risk legitimizing and "greenwashing" existing unsustainable practices. And if it becomes too difficult for industry leaders to gain benefits from sustainability labels, we reduce the opportunity for change. If we make too many mistakes with eco-labelling, consumer confusion will increase rather than decrease, leading to a lack of trust.
The MSC provides rigorous standards for evaluating fisheries, but we're seeing limitations, illustrated by the sockeye certification. Although MSC certification depends on the way a particular fishery is managed, the Fraser sockeye management system has recently been called into question and is now undergoing a federal judicial inquiry. We don't know all the reasons for the decline of the Fraser sockeye, but it's clear that management issues are factors.
And although MSC certification standards are high, applying those standards appears to be lacking. In the first place, no fishery that has entered the process has failed certification. The MSC also allows fisheries that require further improvements to use the logo in return for agreeing to "conditions", or promises to improve over time. The question remains as to whether these conditions are being adequately enforced.
A complementary approach to the MSC includes programs like SeaChoice in Canada, formed by the David Suzuki Foundation and other conservation organizations, and the Seafood Watch Program of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in the U.S. These programs rank fisheries and seafood products into three broad sustainability categories based first on ecological criteria. Unlike MSC, however, SeaChoice is not a certification program.
There is hope for the MSC. To begin, the MSC must strengthen the application of its standards. It needs to provide more enforcement and make changes to ensure that certifiers are independent. Under the current process, industry hires the certifiers, which can create a real or perceived conflict of interest.
The improvements need to happen now. Giving fisheries such as Canada's Fraser sockeye fishery and Atlantic longline swordfish fishery an MSC logo will reduce the MSC's credibility. If it becomes too eroded and the market loses confidence in eco-labelling, we may lose a critical tool to improve the health of our oceans and the people who depend on them.