As if Canadian commercial fishermen didn’t have it bad enough with precipitously declining salmon runs and Alaska interceptions of Canadian-born fish, now they’ve lost Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification of their sockeye, chum and pink salmon fisheries.
MSC is considered the global go-to for defining which fisheries are “sustainable” and which are not. Sustainability is now considered an important selling point for fish with the world’s oceans plagued by overfishing.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FA0) of the United Nations, more than a third of marine fishery stocks are now overfished with “the percentage of stocks fished at biologically unsustainable levels…increasing since the late 1970s, from 10 percent in 1974 to 35.4 percent in 2019.”
Consumers, especially those in high-value Western markets, have taken notice.
When Blue Circle Foods, a self-proclaimed “Better Fish Forever” company, surveyed consumers in 2019, it found “a strong preference for fish and seafood that is certified sustainable; however, cost still topped consumers’ priorities.”
While price was the dominant factor influencing seafood-buying decisions, the survey highlighted some other potential marketing problems for Canadian commercial fishermen, as well as those in Alaska. According to the survey results:
- “90 percent of shoppers are concerned about contaminants like mercury in fish and seafood
- “88 percent are concerned about ocean pollution
- “86 percent are worried about the extinction of wild fish species”
Blue Circle is a Washington, D.C.-based fish retailer that promotes itself as “an employee-owned, sustainable seafood company founded in 2005 by organic industry pioneers. We produce feel-good fish for everyday eating – from fillets to fun things like salmon sausages and burgers always free from fillers and breadcrumbs.
“We’re passionate about continuous improvement in both aquaculture (fish farming) and wild-caught fishing practices. As protein producers, we have a responsibility to the environment. Our farmed salmon and shrimp are net producers of protein, meaning that unlike farmed beef, chicken, and pork, our salmon and shrimp generate more protein than they take out of the environment. By sourcing sustainably farmed and wild-caught fish, we’re helping to save resources for the future.”
The company is of the sort that would turn up its nose at salmon lacking MSC certification, though examinations of the salmon supply chain have indicated it is pretty easy to slip unsustainable salmon into stores. A variety of studies and investigations conducted over the course of the past 10 years have shown seafood widely mislabeled.
Still, the Canadians, which MSC ditched at the end of October, sound worried.
Dane Chauvel, the founder and chief executive of British Columbia-based Organic Ocean told the fishing industry publication Seafood Source that the loss of MSC label would result in lower prices and make it harder to market wild local salmon.
“It closes down some markets to us, because large retailers are looking for that blue (MSC) logo,” he said. ” f you can’t provide it, they won’t buy your fish regardless of what you say about it. It’s not insignificant.”
Chauvel also happens to be the chairman of the B.C. Salmon Marketing Council, which along with other B.C. fishing organizations has blamed the Canadian government for their problems.
The Toronto Star in the spring headlined “Feds leaving West Coast fishing sector to flounder after salmon closures, harvesters say,” while reporting “nearly 60 percent of B.C.’s commercial salmon fisheries were shuttered last year by the federal government in a radical bid to save salmon stocks, many on the brink of extinction.”
The latter claim is an overstatement. Salmon are an amazingly resilient and adaptable species. But there is no doubt many Canadian salmon runs are depressed, and Canadian scientists have documented Chinook salmon, the biggest of the species, in trouble from Oregon north all the way to the Alaska Peninsula.
Canada’s answer to its salmon fishery problem – harvests are now a fifth or less the 65 million metric tonne average from the 1950s to the start of the new millennium – appears to be to copy the Alaska ocean-farming plan which transformed Prince William Sound from a minor fishery wqithout hatcheries to the state’s major producer of pink salmon with hatcheries.
Before hatcheries, pink salmon catches in the Sound averaged 3 million fish per year for the decades from 1951 to 1979. As hatcheries came online in 1974 and began to grow in size, the average pink harvest in the Sound rose steadily. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game data, the 10-year average harvest from 2010 to 2019 now stands at just over 50 million pinks per year, a better than 16-fold increase.
Whether the program will work as well in Canada as in Alaska is a big unknown. Past experiences with enhancement projects in Canada have not met with the envisioned success.
“The history of the (salmon) fishery is closely associated with the history of fisheries science on Canada’s Pacific coast,” Donald Noakes and Dick Beamish, a legend among Pacific salmon researchers, wrote 20 years ago in a history of the B.C. salmon fishery.
And the science powered some big dreams. Work by the late Bill Ricker, a pioneer in managing salmon for optimum escapement (ie. spawning numbers), suggested Canadian streams and rivers should be capable of annually producing 100,000 tonnes of salmon per year or more.
“However, despite attempts in the 1950s and 1960s to achieve this optimal escapement, catches could not be built up to levels thought to exist in the late 1800s,” Noakes and Beamish reported. “This inability to increase catches led to the establishment of an enhancement program, officially funded in 1977.
“The original goal of the Salmon Enhancement Program was to more than double salmon production to approximately 150,000 tonnes annually based in part on rebuilding targets proposed by Ricker. Salmon catches did increase and reached the highest levels of the fishery in 1985 and 1986 with catches of 107,500 t and 104,000 tonnes, respectively.
“Despite the apparent rebuilding and the new enhancement program, however, catches declined steadily until 13 years later they were the lowest in the history of the fishery in 1999.”
Harvests have remained low ever since. Catches that averaged nearly 31 million salmon per year in the 1980s averaged under 7.6 million per year in the 2010s, according to harvest data compiled by the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission (NPAFC).
And the last three years have been a disaster.
The catch this year, according to the NPAFC, was 668,090. The three-year, all-species average is under 1.4 million. That is less than the 1.7 million, all-species harvest in Cook Inlet, one of the state’s smaller salmon fisheries, this year.
And the Alaska Department of Fish and Game basically called that harvest a disaster, reporting that the catch “was the third smallest since 1975 and 42 percent less than the recent 10-year average harvest of 2.9 million fish. The estimated 2021 ex-vessel value of all salmon species (the price paid fishermen) was $13.9 million, the second lowest ex-vessel value in the last 10 years, and roughly 48 percent less than the previous 10-year, average, annual ex-vessel value of $27.0 million.”
The Cook Inlet fishery, like most Canadian fisheries, is heavily dependent on the return of sockeye salmon, and like the Canadian fisheries, might be paying a price for Alaska’s bounty of pink salmon or “humpies” as they are commonly called.
In a peer-reviewed study published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, scientists in 2020 reported hatchery production of pinks “was predicted to have reduced sockeye productivity by approximately 6 percent (it the Gulf of Alaska) and approximately 5 percent” in the Bering Sea.
They did not attempt to quantify the effects of the boom in wild pinks likely linked to warming Gulf waters and definitely linked to years of efforts on the part of the state to manage the fish for maximum yields. The Alaska harvests of pinks in recent years have regularly exceeded the historic, all-species harvests in the state.
Though this year’s harvest of more than 69 million pinks, nearly half of them in the Sound, is considered low for recent times, it exceeded the state’s all species catch in all the years from 1970 through 1977 and topped the decadal average for the ’70s by more than 20 million fish.
Still, the pink catch was nowhere close to the record harvest of 213 million pinks in 2013 when almost eight out of every 10 salmon caught in the Alaska commercial fishery was a humpy, according to state data.
The Canadians should be so lucky.