I’m sorry Marine Stewardship Council but your “Principles” may have some flaws…

Apologies to those of you who might be a bit tired of reading my posts on the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). However, I must say, that it is “eco-labeling” (MSC’s own words) such as this program that point to some of the issues in fisheries worldwide.

Today, Kerry Coughlin the Marine Stewardship Council’s “Regional Director for the Americas” wrote an editorial for The Tyee a British Columbia-based “independent daily online magazine.” The article is a defence of the Marine Stewardship Council and it’s recent decision to certify B.C.’s sockeye fisheries.

The article dovetails with emails I have received from the MSC over the past week or so. I received the emails – that basically defend the MSC and their processes – after I sent them links to this site, specifically, Lesson 1, Lesson 2, and Lesson 3 for the MSC that I proposed a little over a week ago.

Again, as mentioned in previous posts, I’m not trying to be a jerk – or intending disrespect to the organization and individuals involved, nor the sixty-three fisheries that have been “eco-certified” by the MSC (in just over 10 years). I haven’t spent, or had, the time to read through the thousands upon thousands of pages that accompany these “eco-certifications” so can’t yet suggest a completely flawed process.

I have spent some time, though, trying to wade through the BC sockeye fishery certification at well over 500 pages.

I’ve also recently been reading the “MSC Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Fishing” . These are the central core tenets of the organization and the sixty-three fisheries worldwide the MSC has certified as “sustainable” in the last decade since the organization was created by the World Wildlife Fund and multinational corporation Unilever (one of the world’s largest sellers of seafood).

I had some interest in these Principles, because as you may have read in my post from the other day quoting the Bruntland Report from the 1980s:

In 1979, the stats used for the report, total volume of fish captured (wild fisheries and aquaculture) in the world’s oceans was more than 70 million tons.

The report stated:

With conventional management practices, the growth era of fisheries is over.

[Yet] the world fishery has doubled since 1979 from 70 million to over 141 million tons captured in 2005…

So, personally, the words “sustainable” and “fisheries” can sometimes begin to ring oxymoron-ish – especially industrial-scale fisheries. It’s not to say that sustainable industrial fisheries may not be possible; and really at some point they will truly have to be and at one time in the past they were. However, a fishery is a fishery – and most everything in the ocean is connected (and beyond) – take a whale, impact a krill; take a shark, impact a pilot fish; take a salmon, impact a bear (oh wait, that’s not the ocean… point made).

(what’s the old saying? give a man a fish feed him for a day, give him a net…and watch him fish the crap out of the sea…)

Marine Stewardship Council Principle 1:

A fishery must be conducted in a manner that does not lead to over-fishing or depletion of the exploited populations and, for those populations that are depleted, the fishery must be conducted in a manner that demonstrably leads to their recovery.

Hold on a second. If one reads for the literal meaning of this entire sentence – it is one long contradiction. A “fishery” means one thing – killing fish. If one is killing humans, one is depleting a population. If one is killing fish – this is depletion.

I suppose the important point here is: “over-fishing”.

This is where things get sticky and complex. As with anything who gets to define and determine the “over”?

If a population is depleted – then it must be fished in such a way that “leads to recovery”? These are diametrically opposed ideas, and are they not fundamentally opposed to the idea of “sustainable”?

If a population is “depleted” killing any more of it is not “sustainable”? Even in the most skewed definitions of the word…

I am all ears if there are examples out there of “depleted populations” being harvested in such a way that leads to population “recovery”. My guess is that realistic economic returns and depleted populations being harvested are not two things that exist in the same sentence (other than the one you just read).

If you have had an opportunity to read my earlier post Once upon a salmon – and I recognize I’ve raised this in a few posts this past week; however these are stunning numbers – in 1902 the Canadian Minister of Fisheries reported that over 30 million Fraser River sockeye were canned that year and that 30 million more sockeye could have been canned if the canneries had had the capacity. (And remember this is just canned sockeye, this doesn’t include fresh sold, Aboriginal fisheries, and whatever other fisheries).

So, MSC, and independent scientific review board, and independent certifying body, and Ms. Coughlin – you all rightfully recognize that there are some issues with Fraser sockeye (and I might add the other three sockeye river fisheries included in this eco-certification), such as listings as endangered species for some stocks, and a judicial inquiry, and the case of only a little over 1 million sockeye showing up this past season – what sort of numbers are we suggesting for these particular “populations that are depleted” and what sort of “fishery [will] be conducted in a manner that demonstrably leads to their recovery”?

And are we talking 1902 numbers of “recovery” – or 1850 numbers of “recovery” – or 1491 numbers of “recovery”?

I suppose catching one sockeye a year is still considered a “fishery”….

Concluding thought:

In British Columbia, a significant number of First Nation communities depend on sockeye fisheries and have for thousands and thousands of years – and somehow these Nations looked after those runs sustainably.


Sockeye from large hatchery runs (or the rare healthy run) are trucked on highways (right beside the rivers that once hosted the salmon runs) to other First Nation communities that have no sockeye runs anymore.

My experience in B.C. First Nation communities – sockeye are not about “fisheries” – sockeye are life.

On Haida Gwaii where I grew up – I fished a particular river a lot growing up. The name of that river is the Yakoun River. The river runs up the heart of the northernmost island. As far as I have been told, “Yakoun” means River of Life in Haida.

"Yakoun Lake Schematic" by Simon Davies

I’m guessing the once strong run of sockeye – one of the few on Haida Gwaii – is the reason the name was given in the first place…

Number of First Nations meaningfully consulted in this 9-year MSC process – that apparently investigates and certifies sustainable fisheries?


And that’s three in a series of three meetings one summer quite a few years ago.

Number of First Nations dependent on annual sockeye returns on just the Fraser River alone:

Approximately 50.

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