British Columbia's sockeye fishery - including the troubled Fraser River run which is currently the focus of a judicial inquiry - is about to get international certification as a sustainable fishery.
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 eco-labelling 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 eco-fraud and green washing," said Mr. Hill.
Mr. Hill said the MSC program has become more of a marketing tool than a way to promote sustainable fisheries and he said environmental groups should look at finding 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 . . . we think certification should at least be withheld until the results of the judicial inquiry are provided and COSEWIC . . . completes its review," he said.
"In the past we've supported some MSC certifications and we're hopeful to do that again in the future. But . . . if this kind of trend continues, of certifying clearly unsustainable fisheries . . . it will significantly diminish the value of the MSC," said Mr. Young.
The MSC states 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.
The MSC states any objections should be sent by e-mail (to: email@example.com).
The MSC sets the gold standard for environmental certification and eco-labelling, 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, last fall, when only about 1 million fish returned, instead of the 10.6 million expected. That dramatic shortfall led to native, sport and commercial fishery closures and convinced Prime Minister Stephen Harper to order a judicial inquiry. That inquiry is currently being organized and 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 judicial inquiry, or for the COSEWIC study, because any findings could be considered later.
"There is always data coming in . . . and our system is set up to take that into account, 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," she said.
Referring to the collapse of sockeye stocks on the Fraser, Ms. Coughlin said the MSC process assesses how a fishery is managed, not at how stocks vary from year to year.
In that regard, she said, the closure 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.