"Sustainable" Fish: A Sham?


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Long regarded as the gold standard for eco-certification of sustainable fisheries around the world, the London-based Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has begun to lose some of its glitter—at least in the eyes of many of the scientists and environmentalists meeting in Paris this week at the Seafood Choices Alliance's annual Seafood Summit.

The flashpoint is the MSC's plans to grant certification to British Columbia's Fraser River sockeye salmon fishery. The final decision is expected to be announced next week.

Pauly expressed concern that the British Columbia situation may be part of a trend.

"I almost choked when I heard that they were planning to certify Fraser River sockeye. The population is in freefall," Daniel Pauly said in an interview. Pauly, the keynote speaker at the summit, is a renowned marine scientist and the principal investigator at the University of British Columbia's Fisheries Centre. He was also one of the advisors called in to lend the MSC scientific credibility when the organization was founded in the late nineties.

Canadian environmental groups, at least three of which sent delegates to Paris specifically to lobby against MSC certification of Fraser sockeye, agree with Pauly that the fishery—far from being sustainably harvested—may be collapsing.

They point out that in six of the last 11 years, the fishery has been closed due to poor returns of breeding salmon. Last year, although the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans predicted of a run of 10.7 million fish, only 1.7 million made the journey upriver to spawn. The International Union of Conservation for Nature recently declared three of the Fraser's genetically distinct salmon populations endangered, and one other is critically endangered. Meanwhile, the Canadian government has launched a judicial inquiry into how its own officials failed to predict this year's absence of fish.

"We're supportive of MSC certification generally, but we are trying to stop this one dead," said Craig Orr, executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society, an environmental group in British Columbia.

Exactly why the MSC is moving ahead with such vigor remains unclear. Activists speculate that the province's salmon processors have come under pressure to get eco-certification from supermarket chains in Britain (where the MSC label carries more clout than it does in North America). Pauly pointed out that at this point backing out would put the MSC in an awkward position, because the applicants have already invested huge amounts of money in the costly certification process.

Kerry Coughlin, MSC's Seattle-based regional director for the America's, said she can remember no fishery being refused certification this late in the process. But she asserted that the pending approval should have come as no surprise.

"The way the MSC process works is that stakeholders are invited and encouraged to have input all the way through," she said. "The MSC program is based on three principles: are the fish stocks healthy, is the fishery damaging the marine ecosystem, and—key here—is there an ongoing effective management of that fishery? Our decisions are based on peer-reviewed scientific research." The Fraser River's closure to all commercial fishing, she said, was a sign that the resource was being managed effectively. "It's an appropriate management response to allow the stock to rebuild."

Pauly expressed concern that the British Columbia situation may be part of a trend. The MSC has been certifying new fisheries at an almost dizzying rate. Currently it gives its blessing to 59 of them, up from 38 in 2008. There are an additional 120 under assessment, most of which will get approved, if past trends continue.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.

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