The group holding the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certificates for the British Columbia sockeye, pink and chum salmon fisheries is voluntarily dropping out of the eco-label program, blaming a lack of commitment to the fishery from Canadian fisheries managers.

“Everyone who cares about wild salmon in British Columbia should be worried,” said Christina Burridge of the Canadian Pacific Sustainable Seafood Society’s (CPSSS), which holds the MSC certificates for the fisheries. “There will now be no independent oversight of how Fisheries and Oceans Canada Pacific Region (DFO) manages these fisheries.”

The self-suspension will be effective Nov. 27.

MSC first certified the fisheries, with the exception of North and Central Coast chums in 2010, the year of a massive sockeye return. The fisheries were re-certified in 2017, including North and Central Coast chum, with 22 conditions that require annual reporting through an audit on progress against milestones.

The year-one audit in October 2018 found nine of the 22 conditions were behind target.

“Almost all those conditions were about north and central coast stock assessment and evaluating the effects of hatcheries on wild populations, and in late 2016 we agreed on a Client Action Plan with DFO to meet the conditions and the annual milestones.” Burridge said.

The year-one targets required a plan for stock assessment and for evaluating the effect salmon enhancement, she said.

"We realized early this year that DFO was unable to deliver on those commitments so we hired external help to deliver the plans,” she said. “But we see little practical commitment to implement those plans from DFO. We might well pass the 2019 audit but we see little prospect of meeting the 2020 requirements.”

Burridge said the group's self-suspension of its MSC certification reinforces a letter sent by DFO area directors to senior management a year ago expressing concern that “the regional ability to meet well-established core salmon assessment programs is no longer possible with the allocated funding.”

“Though we are disappointed, saddened and frustrated to be forced out of the program,” Burridge said, “we believe the fishery is sustainable and we are working on a plan to have these difficulties addressed in order to have the fishery evaluated and re-certified by the MSC at a future date.”

Long strange trip

In 2010, nine years after applying for MSC certification, three BC sockeye fisheries -- the Nass, Skeena and Barkley -- earned MSC certification. British Columbia's Fraser River sockeye fishery earned the eco-label later that year.

The certification was a controversial one. NGOs fought the process from the beginning. "By any definition, this is not a sustainable fishery," said Greg Knox, executive director of SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, following a decision overruling NGO concerns during the certification period.

In the mid-1990s, harvests in the river systems were over 25,000 metric tons. However, those harvests have varied wildly. Combined, the certified sockeye fisheries have ranged up to 8,000 metric tons since the certification, but have fallen far lower some years.

The Fraser certification also sparked controversy within the government. One biologist even quit his job at Canada's Department of Fisheries and Ocean (DFO) following the certification.

I feel a lot of my comments over the years have been ignored, and I think the last straw is the certification of the Fraser River sockeye," Langer said.