Alaskan Salmon Fishery Drops Eco-Certification, BC Groups Take Credit

By Joan Delaney, Epoch Times
January 17, 2012 8:58 pm Last Updated: September 29, 2015 4:54 pm
Sockeye salmon en route to spawning grounds.
Sockeye salmon en route to spawning grounds. Three B.C. conservation groups are challenging the recertification of the Alaskan salmon fishery as sustainable by the U.K-based Marine Stewardship Council. (Watershed Watch Salmon Society)

An announcement by salmon processors in Alaska that they will discontinue eco-certification with the U.K.-based Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is being viewed as a victory by B.C. conservation groups that had challenged the recertification of the Alaskan salmon fishery.

The seven processors, which account for about 70 percent of Alaska’s salmon harvest, said Tuesday they are “phasing out their financial support” for the MSC certification program after their current certification ends on Oct. 29, according to a statement from the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation.

“While individual companies requested their letters be held confidential, their reasons for announcing their phased pullout note that MSC certification has been welcome and valuable for more than a decade,” the statement said.

MSC certification enables fisheries to brand themselves as a sustainable source of seafood. The council’s blue eco-labels on certified fish products indicate to consumers that the fish they are buying comes from a responsibly managed fishery.

In 2000, the MSC gave blanket eco-certification to 16 Alaskan salmon fisheries over the objections of B.C. marine conservationists, who say Alaskan salmon fishing practices are damaging already struggling wild salmon populations in B.C.

“Alaska’s imminent relinquishment of its MSC certification for salmon fisheries should be taken as a clear sign that many Alaskan salmon fisheries were never a paragon of sustainability as consumers have been led to believe,” says Aaron Hill, a biologist with the Watershed Watch Salmon Society.

“The original MSC certification over a decade ago was a travesty, and despite Alaska’s progress on meeting some of the conditions of certification, the fact that 19 conditions remained unfulfilled indicates that the MSC certification was ineffective in driving positive change in the fishery.”

In recent years, the MSC has drawn criticism for certifying fisheries that have questionable sustainability. The council sparked an outcry in 2010 when it certified B.C. sockeye salmon, part of the troubled Fraser River fishery which has been in decline for years.

The MSC responded that certification was based on a fishery’s management, not on its stocks, and that the closure of the Fraser to all fishing after it crashed in 2009 indicated appropriate management.

A commercial salmon fishing vessel in Alaska
A commercial salmon fishing vessel in Alaska (Watershed Watch Salmon Society)

Last week, Watershed Watch Salmon Society along with Raincoast Conservation Foundation and SkeenaWild Conservation Trust announced they would challenge the recertification of Alaskan salmon fisheries, which was already in process.

Hill says the fact that the processors pulled out now shows that the groups’ efforts had an effect.

“The timing indicates that we may have had a strong impact because the processors and the Alaskan fishing interests would have had to have money on the table and contracts signed,” he says.

“We did know that they were thinking about bailing on it for quite a while so I think this may have just been the trigger—the straw that broke that camel’s back.”

“While there are other sources of MSC-certified salmon, Alaska was an early and important leader in the MSC program. We hope that this fishery will re-enter assessment, maintain the market advantage of MSC certification, and continue to showcase their sustainability,” said Kerry Coughlin, MSC Americas regional director..

Ocean Ranching, Interception Fisheries

The three B.C conservation groups are raising two key concerns related to the Alaskan salmon fishery: interception in Alaska of Canadian-bound salmon from at-risk populations, and “reckless” ocean ranching practices.

“Some of those salmon populations are quite depleted, and we’re concerned that they’re being harvested at unsustainable rates in those Alaskan fisheries,” says Hill.

Greg Knox, executive director of the SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, says some Alaskan fisheries, such as Bristol Bay, “are among the best-managed salmon fisheries in the world.”

“But Alaskan fishery managers are not being nearly cautious enough with their harvest of Canadian wild salmon populations, including sockeye and chum from the Nass and Skeena Rivers in northwest B.C., and Vancouver Island chinook salmon.”

The 2011 Wild Fish Journal reports that 68 percent Vancouver Island chinook are caught in Alaska, with some likely coming from depressed stocks. Of all the chinook caught in SE Alaska, only 3 percent are native to the state, the report said.

Ocean ranching, a form of fish farming not practiced in B.C, involves raising salmon in a hatchery and then transferring them to a net-pen in salt water where they are fattened up before being released into the wild.

Upon returning to the area of the ocean ranches in two to four years, they are caught by commercial and sports salmon fishermen.

“When they’re released into the open ocean they compete with wild salmon for the same food resources, and there’s increasing scientific evidence and increasing concern among scientists that this is having a detrimental effect on wild salmon populations,” Hill says.

“Alaska’s total output of hatchery fish is now over 1.5 billion, and the total between the U.S., Canada, Russia, and Japan is now over 5 billion fish annually. They’re flooding the North Pacific Ocean with these things.”

In 2001, the Environment and Natural Resources Institute at the University of Alaska Anchorage released a report warning that ocean ranching could negatively impact Alaska’s own wild salmon stocks.

Other problems include disease transfer from hatchery fish to wild fish, and an increased bi-catch of wild fish that are mixed in with hatchery fish. The practice has also been linked to the poor state of herring populations in some areas in Alaska.

The conservation groups announced their concerns to coincide with routine Pacific Salmon Treaty meetings between Canada and the U.S. last week in Portland. Overseen by the Pacific Salmon Commission, the treaty is designed to ensure that neither country over-fishes the other’s salmon stocks.

The groups are calling on Ottawa to do more to protect at-risk salmon stocks from being overfished as they migrate through Alaskan waters to their natal streams in B.C. and the Yukon.

“I mean, we have the same concerns about some of our fisheries here in B.C., but nobody seems to talk about Alaska and what they’re doing to the populations,” Hill says.