British Columbia's sockeye fishery - including the troubled Fraser River run that is the focus of a judicial inquiry - is about to get international certification as sustainable.
But the decision, posted yesterday by the British-based Marine Stewardship Council, has led to harsh criticism in B.C., with environmental groups saying the ecolabelling program has lost its credibility.
Bruce Hill, co-ordinator of the Headwaters Initiative, a group working to preserve B.C. rivers, said sockeye stocks in both the Fraser and Skeena are in decline and it would be "absurd" to certify those fisheries as sustainable.
"If they continue with what they are doing and certify the Skeena and the Fraser, it's nothing more than ecofraud and greenwashing," Mr. Hill said.
He said the MSC program has become more of a marketing tool than a way to promote sustainable fisheries, and environmental groups should seek alternative certification systems to support.
Jeffrey Young, aquatic biologist at the David Suzuki Foundation, said certification shouldn't be granted until after both the judicial review and an upcoming sockeye study by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada are completed.
"The Fraser fishery continues to threaten endangered sockeye, and there isn't really an overall rebuilding plan," he said.
"In the past, we've supported some MSC certifications, and we're hopeful to do that again in the future," he added. "But ... if this kind of trend continues, of certifying clearly unsustainable fisheries ... it will significantly diminish the value of the MSC."
The MSC says that after extensive review it has determined "that the British Columbia sockeye salmon fishery should be certified." The decision, however, is classified as a "determination," and final certification won't be granted until after a 15-day period, during which objections can be registered with the MSC's office in London. (They can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The MSC sets the gold standard for environmental certification and ecolabelling, and it has been examining the B.C. sockeye fishery for the past nine years. An MSC label is much sought after by producers in today's environmentally conscious market.
Sockeye stocks in B.C. are broadly in decline, with the worst crisis emerging on the Fraser River last fall, when only about one million fish returned, instead of the 10.6 million expected. That dramatic shortfall led to native, sport and commercial fishery closings and persuaded Prime Minister Stephen Harper to order a judicial inquiry, which is expected to begin after the Olympics end.
Kerry Coughlin, regional director, Americas, for the MSC, said the organization felt it wasn't necessary to wait for the results of the inquiry, or for the COSEWIC study, because any findings could be considered later.
"There is always data coming in ... but at some point, if you continue to hold for more data and more data, it becomes completely endless," she said. "If a fishery becomes certified then there are required annual audits ... so what information that does come out of this federal inquiry will be taken into account."
Referring to the collapse of sockeye stocks on the Fraser, Ms. Coughlin said the MSC process assesses how a fishery is managed, not how stocks vary from year to year. In that regard, she said, the closing of all fishing on the Fraser last year was a sign of appropriate management. In an unsustainable fishery, she said, fishing would have been allowed to continue.