With salmon stocks in the Fraser River in decline, questions are being asked about how British Columbia's commercial sockeye fishery could be on the verge of getting international certification as a sustainable source of seafood.
After nine years of review, the British-based Marine Stewardship Council - the gold standard for environmental certification and eco-labelling - seems poised to put its stamp of approval on B.C.'s wild sockeye fishery. The final hurdle is a 30-day public comment process, which is now under way.
Not everyone is pleased.
"They've missed the mark on this," said Ernie Crey, fisheries adviser to the Sto:lo Tribal Council, which represents bands on the lower Fraser River. "It's a mistake to certify sockeye fisheries in B.C."
This week, a traditional native fishery on the Fraser was shut down because of conservation concerns, and hopes of any commercial or sports fisheries began to fade when the estimated size of the summer sockeye run was downgraded from 165,000 to 85,000 fish.
Mr. Crey said even with all fisheries closed, conservation concerns remain because the Fraser River is warming rapidly. The river is currently at 21.9 degrees. Between 20 and 24, spawning success quickly falls off, and above 24, many fish die in the river, as warm water robs salmon of energy and increases their susceptibility to disease.
"We are facing a catastrophe," Mr. Crey said. "Even if all the fish that are expected do hit the river, they will run out of gas below Hell's Gate [canyon]and die before they have a chance to spawn."
Mr. Crey said it's hard to imagine labelling the sockeye fishery sustainable when the situation is so precarious.
Aaron Hill, an ecologist with Watershed Watch Salmon Society, agreed, saying neither the Fraser nor Skeena River sockeye fisheries deserve to be called sustainable.
"The major concern is that the way the certification is set up, it essentially allows overfishing to continue on known weak stocks for the next three fishing seasons," Mr. Hill said. "That's just not acceptable."
But Christina Burridge, executive director of the B.C. Seafood Alliance, said the MSC process has been an exhaustive one, and certification would not be issued unless the fishery was managed to an extremely high level.
She said certification would require the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans to fully implement a wild-salmon policy that has been under development for years.
The wild-salmon policy, introduced in 2005, manages specific stocks and stresses conservation as its mandate, but has not been fully implemented.
Ms. Burridge said under MSC certification standards, the DFO would have to apply the wild-salmon policy.
"I think that everyone, including the salmon, will be better off with a series of timelines that the department … has agreed to meet to implement key features of the wild-salmon policy," Ms. Burridge said.
She was critical of those speaking out publicly against certification, saying the 30-day consultation process is the place to register views.
"The appropriate place to provide comment and have those comments looked at by the certifying body and the assessment team is in that process," she said.
B.C.'s salmon-fishing industry began seeking MSC certification after Alaska got certification in 2000. The market advantage Alaska has enjoyed has been growing in importance.
Increasingly, seafood buyers are refusing to accept fish that don't carry an MSC logo, and some major purchasers - notably Wal-Mart and Loblaw Cos. Ltd. - have recently said they will move in that direction in the near future.