Canada's fishing industry is in a race to meet tightening sustainability rules that threaten the multibillion-dollar export market.
Bad news stories are ubiquitous in fishing circles, but insiders worry that this has the potential to dwarf earlier problems of scarce stocks and low prices. Some of the biggest foreign buyers for Canadian seafood - a trade worth $4.55-billion last year - plan to stop buying any fish not eco-certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.
Many Canadian fisheries are trying to become MSC-certified, in some cases an effort going back years, but only a few have reached the standard. It's a major worry for government, and Fisheries Minister Gail Shea said this week that officials are doing everything possible to help ensure industry meets the deadlines.
"The cost of not doing it would be, well, we can't even talk about that," she said. "We can't not do it."
The deadlines set by retailers for sourcing only MSC seafood range widely - one example, Wal-Mart, has set a target of 2011 - but the writing is on the wall. And it's not just foreign retailers: Loblaw Companies Ltd. says it will buy only seafood certified by MSC or an equivalent by 2013.
While Ms. Shea professed confidence that all Canadian fisheries would be certified in time, internal government documents highlight the scale of Ottawa's concern.
"Perhaps as much as 50 per cent or more of the Canadian seafood export to the U.S. could be subject to risk of MSC-labelled requirement," according to a draft analysis obtained by researcher Ken Rubin under the Access to Information Act.
The United States is the biggest foreign market for Canada's seafood, according to Statistics Canada, worth nearly $2.4-billion last year.
Another document uncovered by Mr. Rubin, the printout of a presentation last year to the Canadian Fundy Fisheries Roundtable, notes that fishers of Atlantic species are "most at risk of market loss" under the shift to eco-certification.
Ms. Shea's optimism that fisheries will meet the deadline are shared by some in the industry, but others are worried about the hoops they will have to jump through to meet the MSC standard.
"There could be things imposed on us ... to bring our fishery up to a level imposed by someone outside the country," said Ashton Spinney, a lobster fisherman in Lower Argyle, N.S.
"It may take us four or five years to do that and the cost will be, well, I don't want to know," he added. "With the situation where we are in the fishery there's no extra dollars to shell out for certification. We just cannot carry more cost."
Ed Frenette, director of the PEI Fisherman's Association, believes the lobster fishery will take a good three years to be certified. Lobster exports to the United States are worth close to $1-billion annually, according to government figures, and such a timeline could put the trade in jeopardy.
"For the most part, I would argue that Canadian fisheries are well-managed, but maybe not to the perfection demanded by the MSC," Mr. Frenette said.
Martin Sullivan, the president of Ocean Choice International, a major Canadian processor and marketer, said the lobster fishery was "complex" and it was difficult to speculate how long certification might take.
"It's a pretty rigorous process," he said. "I think the timelines are very real and the industry is cognizant of them. It has put pressure on industry."
Mr. Sullivan said he was confident the deadlines would be hit.
But certification is a worry many struggling East Coast fishermen don't need. And many don't appreciate the fact that the process of eco-certifying will soon be a requirement of market entry, rather than assuring a higher price for their fish.
"There's really mixed emotions about it," Mr. Frenette said. "From a conservation view, it's seen as a good thing, but it's also seen as a costly exercise with no compensation. The retailers have stated point blank that there will be no price premium."
Walter Bruce, who has been fishing tuna for three decades out of North Lake, PEI, was more blunt.
"It's a pain in the ass," he said.
"It's a make-work project that will end up costing fishermen money; and we can't afford that," he added. "It's only going to make the lawyers, the accountants richer."
The goal of eco-certification
To recognize and reward sustainable fishing practices, contributing to the health of the world's oceans, by influencing the choices consumers make. MSC certification is valid for five years, during which time the fishery will be monitored at least once a year.
the MSC brand
Sustainable fish stocks, minimizing environmental impact and effective management.
Who examines the fisheries?
Analysis is done by independent third-party bodies.
Canadian fisheries undergoing certification (and when they started)
B.C. sockeye salmon (2003)
Canada Pacific Halibut (2003)
Pacific hake mid-water trawl (2007)
B.C. pink and chum salmon (2008)
B.C. spiny dogfish (2008)
Canada sablefish (2008)
Eastern Canada offshore lobster (2008)
Eastern Canada offshore scallop (2008)
B.C. north Pacific albacore tuna (2009)
Canada Scotia-Fundy haddock (2009)
North West Atlantic Canada long-line and harpoon swordfish (2009)
OCI Grand Bank yellowtail flounder trawl (2009)
Canadian fisheries certified
Canadian northern prawn (2008)
Gulf of St. Lawrence northern shrimp (2008)
Gulf of St. Lawrence northern shrimp trawl fishery Esquiman Channel (2009)
Source: The Marine Stewardship Council