06/26/2010 04:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Protecting B.C. Salmon Stocks

An opportunity to enter into a robust dialogue over the vision of the Marine Stewardship Council -- oceans teeming with life -- is one we readily accept. MSC's mission is to use our ecolabel and fishery certification program to contribute to the health of the world's oceans by recognizing and rewarding sustainable fishing practices, influencing the choices people make when buying seafood, and working with our partners to transform the seafood market to a sustainable basis. That's why I want to correct some of the inaccuracies and misunderstandings contained in a blog posted by the Raincoast Conservation Foundation the other day.

In its post, Raincoast questioned the process and methodology of the MSC certification process (still ongoing) involving the Fraser River sockeye salmon fishery in British Columbia. The fact is the process is open and transparent and the methodology is an independent, third-party assessment against MSC's three core principles covering: health of the stock; impact on the ecosystem; and the management of the fishery. Of course, there are dozens of specific questions posed that require answers within each of these core principles to achieve certification, but the MSC standard is a rigorous, internationally recognized environmental standard that includes multiple checks and balances to ensure the outcome is scientifically defensible and publicly accountable. The MSC does not conduct the assessment or receive any money directly from the fishery client or certifier.

At another point, Raincoast leveled an accusation that the fishery and certifier are somehow too close, because a fishery pays a certifier for an assessment. In Canada and everywhere else, outside, independent auditors are paid by companies to provide in-depth, unbiased and honest assessments of the business that are provided to shareholders and governments. This MSC assessment provides similar approaches to derive independent and verifiable conclusions concerning sustainability. All registered non-profit organizations almost certainly use an independent, outside auditor to certify its books to comply with national requirements.

Elsewhere, Raincoast expresses the concern that the bar has been set too low. Just the opposite is true. The MSC standard rewards global best practice in sustainable fisheries and catalyzes transformational change at an international level for fisheries not currently meeting that expectation. Here's just one example: for the South Georgia Patagonian Toothfish fishery, stringent requirements include an independent observer on board every vessel on every trip to record catch data and fishery interactions with seabirds and a range of measures taken during the course of the involvement with the MSC program to reduce seabird by-catch has reduced albatross mortality from several thousand annually to single figures. In some years no albatross are captured or killed.

Raincoast also accused MSC of endorsing fisheries around the world that are not sustainable. That's simply not true. They cite New Zealand hoki, but the record proves (PDF) that these stocks have re-built to healthy levels since achieving recertification in 2007. Work to strengthen fisheries management promoted through the certification process has contributed to these successes.

The Fraser River sockeye salmon fishery was voluntarily entered into the MSC program by local commercial fishing companies and an independent certifier using a team of fishery and fishery management experts conducted the assessment over several years, with input and involvement throughout the process by local B.C. conservation organizations, among others. In fact, three environmental groups filed a formal objection to the certifier's assessment report. When this happens, our program requires the case be turned over to an independent adjudicator who can take testimony, examine the evidence and render a final decision much like a court. That's where the issue stands now.

In the Fraser B.C. fishery, the assessment report establishes 17 specific conditions that were developed with direct stakeholder input and involvement. If certification goes ahead, two examples provide clear evidence of the strength of the MSC process in addressing both depleted stock issues and social/cultural issues in the fishery as certification will be conditional until the management agency provides: a clear commitment to implement recovery action plans for Cultus Lake and Sakinaw sockeye; and, evidence that First Nation issues regarding aboriginal and treaty rights have been identified and these issues are being addressed through an effective consultation or negotiation process.

Over the last decade, stocks of wild caught salmon have fluctuated; as a result, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), which manages the fishery in collaboration with conservation groups, First Nations, industry and the general public, has closed the fishery when stock runs declined below levels considered acceptable to maintain adequate recruitment. The MSC process will contribute to the significant collective B.C. effort to find out how to restore all salmon stocks to healthy levels.

MSC certification, if that is the outcome, is not a license to fish. In this instance, it is a scientific roadmap of where the fishery is and the steps necessary to ensure a sustainable fishery into the future. Ongoing annual surveillance audits will provide invaluable and fresh data to measure progress and make adjustments, as needed. Many within the BC environmental community are strong supporters and have pushed for implementation of Canada's Wild Salmon Policy. The MSC assessment process, and the improvement actions called for by the independent assessment team, will help to foster implementation of this policy.

During the assessment process, MSC's role is entirely neutral, so the suggestion by Raincoast that the process itself suggests MSC has lost sight of its mission is without merit and misinforms a reader about the Marine Stewardship Council. Fact is MSC is the only ecolabel certification program in the world that is consistent with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's (UN FAO) guidelines and the ISEAL Code of Good Practice for Setting Social and Environmental Standards. What's more, the Marine Stewardship Council has a Board of Directors, Technical Advisory Board and Stakeholder Council that include some of the world's leading fishery experts, scientists, conservation groups and others from around the world united by the MSC vision of oceans teeming with life for this and future generations. I welcome everyone into sharing this vision and collaborating with us to make it a reality around the world.