Lesson 3 (for the Marine Stewardship Council) in how not to earn credibility

For thousands of years First Nations people on the British Columbia coast and inland have been almost entirely dependent on salmon runs. Some estimates suggest that the Fraser River basin was potentially one of the most densely populated areas prior to colonization. Various estimates also suggest the Fraser River used to support somewhere around 120-140 million salmon.

From the mouth near present-day Vancouver to the upper reaches around Takla Lake, Valemount, and other headwater areas there was a pretty simple principle at work – catch too many salmon and die (or have to move to another territory). Somehow the amazing number of nations on many of these rivers had a system for making sure salmon made it upstream to neighbors and upstream to spawning grounds.

When I worked in the Yukon in the early 2000s I learned about an impressive system that made sure that over 90 different nations were able to access salmon along the 2700+ km Yukon River. In the present day, the Yukon River Panel with reps from the U.S. and Canada are working every year on making sure that salmon runs make it upstream.

80% of the salmon spawn in Canada (in the Yukon Territory), however, for many years over 80% of the salmon were being caught in the U.S. in Alaska. Something had to give.

Now, everyone along the river is attempting to figure these issues out. Salmon runs have declined, open sea fisheries are largely closed, and so many people – First Nation or not – depend on salmon every year for things like dog teams, an essential form of transport in winter.

There’s also a very unique chum salmon run that fights upstream to near the community of Teslin – an over 2700 km journey (including past one dam at Whitehorse). It’s one of the longest traveling chum runs in the world; chum generally like to spawn near the mouths of rivers.

It’s not an easy process – however, a pretty amazing amount of people try and work through the issues.

In trying to read the MSC reports, it’s suggested that this certification process was the longest the organization has been involved in at over nine years. As the process:

has required all parties engaged in the process (i.e clients, DFO, First Nation and ENGO stakeholders, the assessment team members and the certification companies), to constantly backtrack and review the preceding certification step and its results in order to proceed to the next assessment task. [pg. 1]

In addition, there was:

a vast amount of information provided by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), the client, environmental, conservation and First Nation stakeholder groups. [pg. 3]

I was curious what some of the First Nation input was – especially in light of the complex legal environment that surrounds aboriginal rights and title (treaty rights with the Nisga’a on the Nass River) and B.C. fisheries. And the very strong emotions that surround salmon fisheries for most First Nations people.

I read, and read, and read (as mentioned in previous posts there’s over 500 pages of reports) – ok, maybe skimmed at times – and not until page 68 of the Volume 1 report does it state:

SCS [Science Certification Systems, Inc. the company that conducted the certification process] made a significant effort (through emails, faxes, couriered packages, and phone calls) to both contact and speak directly with First Nations organizations associated with the fishing and fisheries management of salmon in British Columbia, Canada. Although these efforts were made, SCS was unable to gain any traction with First Nations.

And, in fact, pretty much the only communication with First Nations was a meeting “in the interest of efficiency” between one member of the review team with three groups in a series of three meetings over a one month period in 2005.

One, maybe don’t run off about how First Nations were involved in the nine year process in the opening pages of the reports – if in fact there was only three meetings in 2005 with specific Nations.

Two, there is a legally mandated principle of “meaningful consultation” with First Nations in Canada. A few years ago the logging company Weyerhaeuser learned an important lesson about how phone calls (or faxes, or emails) were not considered “meaningful consultation” when dealing with the Council of the Haida Nation on Haida Gwaii regarding Tree Farm License 39.

I’m not suggesting that the Marine Stewardship Council has engaged in a process that requires “meaningful consultation” as the Canadian courts have attempted to describe it – however, Fisheries and Oceans the federal ministry that engaged heavily in this process and has a “five year action plan” to meet conditional MSC certification – does.

Any thoughts?

3 thoughts on “Lesson 3 (for the Marine Stewardship Council) in how not to earn credibility

  1. LAL

    So…. Five years seems plenty enough time to get in touch with First Nations people rather than expending the mere five minutes it takes to send a fax. It seems to me, with my own personal interactions with some First Nation groups that there is a protocal to follow when discussing things of importance, ie: speaking with an elder, that does not involve sending a fax, courier or leaving a voicemail… Respectfully showing up in person comes to mind- and maybe not in a fancy government stickered SUV.

    If there are so many First Nation individuals involved/effected/dependant on salmon would it not be in the best interest of the government to include them in the action plan? Or is this conservation for export consumption…

  2. kd

    why would FN’s be worried about an industry marketing scheme like the MSC process when they have Sec 35 of the Charter that guarantees their food fish rights….?? That’s probably why FN’s could care less about engaging he MSC process…they are 2nd in line after conservation according to DFO’s hierarchy of management…..and this is enshrined in the Charter….not some licensed right like commercial fishermen but CHARTER rights.

    Also, maybe they saw through the ‘greenwashing’ that MSC is and chose not participate.
    Plus, FN’s dont need MSC at all to pressure DFO to look after their rights….they’ll use the Courts.

  3. salmon guy Post author

    thanks for the comment kd – and yeah, I think you may be exactly right.

    Part of the issue as well, may be the fact that most First Nation governments are so completely buried in the flawed referral system (and other processes) in B.C. right now. Basically any piece of paper that goes over a provincial or federal government desk, also goes across First Nation desks – and yet, there’s a slight imbalance in the resources to move and process that paper.

    And so yes, seeing the “greenwashing” coming into port from a few miles out, probably played into the lack of engagement. And as I mentioned, who likes to “engaged” by phone, email, fax, or courier package….

    You’re also dead-on regarding Charter Rights and Sec. 35. As I’ve raised in other posts – the definition of “conservation” is a sticky one though. In relation to the DFO Wild Salmon Policy: who’s definition of conservation? And what are we conserving – and why? Is it “conservation” as in the flawed-model like National Parks where all human harvest is denied? Or is it “conservation” as in we’ll leave that mountain over there, or that stream over there fallow for awhile so populations can recover (a practice used historically by many, if not all First Nations)? – no different than we’ll leave that field over there fallow so that the soil can recover (a practice largely lost in current day industrial farming).

    I don’t think we necessarily need a dictionary definition of “conservation” as most everyone will have different understandings and conceptions – it’s more, a desperate need for skilled conflict resolution and negotiation practitioners to assist everyone in working through these issues. As shooting pellet guns at each other is not assisting anyone (e.g. as happened at the mouth of the Fraser this year). Or a really novel concept – meet face-to-face in communities.

    Using the courts is a tough one. It’s prohibitively expensive (for everyone), plus the courts just keep coming back saying things like “sit down and negotiate these things in good faith”. One would think that federal and provincial governments would want to avoid the courts when it comes to aboriginal rights and title as they keep getting their wrists slapped.

    And really, because of the cost and energy required for an already overloaded legal system, at the conclusion of many cases the only folks getting the most benefit are lawyers and consultants (not that I have anything against these folks, as there are some very good ones). It’s simply that the court-route is built upon an adversarial system with winners and losers – and I don’t think there are too many judges that are going to make as brave a decision as say the Marshall decision in Washington State that allocated 50% of the salmon run to native groups.

    Similar to the debate around aboriginal rights and title still rampant in B.C. the courts deal with such specific components of each case – that no certainty (for anyone) comes out of the decisions. Sure, progress is made – however the courts are not going to take over the role and responsibility of communities figuring these things out together – or setting responsible government policies. As Justice Lamer said back in the Delgamuukw decision: “we’re all here to stay”.

    thanks, again for the comment and visiting the site. It’s a good discussion with no easy answers and hence why I set out on creating this site.

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