British Columbia sockeye salmon: the fishers' story
Meet the British Columbia sockeye salmon fishers
MSC certification has meant the British Columbia sockeye salmon fishery can sell – to high-value markets – all the fish it is allowed to sustainably catch. Christina Burridge, executive director of the BC Seafood Alliance, discusses how the management of the fishery ensures its sustainability and how MSC certification is ensuring that management only improves.
- Conservative management tailors fishing opportunities to run size and escapement goals while protecting weaker populations
“The difference that MSC certification brings is that changes happen on a faster timeline and they happen with much more transparency and accountability."
- Christina Burridge, executive director of the BC Seafood Alliance
The Alaska salmon fishery was one of the first to apply for MSC
certification, achieving it in 2000. British Columbia, just to Alaska's
south on Canada's Pacific Coast, began its certification process
"The MSC system worked as it’s supposed to work," says Christina Burridge, executive director of the BC Seafood Alliance, which represents the province's seafood industries. "There was a very simple reason for seeking certification: we sell the same products into the same markets as Alaska. Once its salmon fishery was certified, we quickly found that our customers expected we would have the same certification."
The BC salmon fishery is very complex and certification proceeded slowly, in part due to environmental conditions in the ocean, which produce significant variations in the number of salmon that return to BC's rivers each year. The number of sockeye returning to the Fraser River in 2009, for instance, was the lowest since 1913, but the 2010 Fraser run turned out to be the largest.
"When times are uncertain you need clear harvest rules and full management accountability. MSC certification helps deliver that accountability whether the run size is large or small," Burridge explains.
Here are a few of the steps the British Columbia sockeye salmon fishery has taken towards sustainable fishing:
- Catch is set in-season in accordance with each year's run size
- Conservative management protects weaker stocks
- Ongoing commitment to protecting weak populations, decreasing bycatch and strengthening decision rules
Since there can be such variation from year to year in the number of
salmon that return to spawn in BC's rivers, 'test fisheries' give
regulators an idea of the composition and abundance of that year's catch
so they can set the timing of the fishing seasons for each gear type –
troll, gillnet and seines – accordingly.
This also helps them protect the weaker populations of sockeye since those in some places are stronger than others. "It's quite a careful balancing act to be able to harvest at reasonably high levels the strong stocks while still protecting the weaker stocks," says Burridge.
But there is always room for improvement. Independent of the MSC certification process, regulators have embarked on long-term improvements in their approach to protecting weaker stocks. This includes shaping fisheries carefully to avoid weak populations, decreasing overall harvest levels and developing recovery plans as necessary.
"That would have happened with or without MSC," notes Burridge. "But the difference that MSC certification brings is that changes happen on a faster timeline and they happen with much more transparency and accountability."
How else does MSC certification benefit the environment?
After such a horrible year in 2009, when the 2010 season opened at
the end of July – just after certification had been achieved – "we
thought the run size, if we were lucky, would be 10 to 12 million and
that we might catch three million of that," Burridge recalls. But the
run turned out to be a massive 29 to 30 million fish, of which the
fishers were able to harvest 12 million.
"Without certification we would have left fish in the water because with that kind of massive increase in expectations we would not have had markets for all that salmon," she says. "Certainly, from our perspective, certification is fundamental for market access. You can't sell salmon to the U.K. or Northern Europe without it; we're increasingly seeing that applies to North America as well."
Burridge says that 50 to 60 per cent of the 2010 fish bought by some of the largest buyers went to markets "that absolutely require MSC certification, and those certainly tend to be the markets that pay the best." In a pre-certification year, even if the unanticipated fish had been caught, they would have been sold to markets where they would have fetched a lower price.
How else does MSC certification improve economic prospects for fisheries?
Social benefits of MSC certification
There is a social dimension to this improved market access as well.
Being able to sell more fish in a year of unexpectedly high returns
means fishers can harvest and process everything they are allowed to
"Without certification, in 2010 fish would either have been left in the water or would have been bought at half the price," says Burridge. At least in the short term, then, both prices and employment benefitted. "Whether it will do that over the long-term remains to be seen," she says.
Policy benefits of MSC certification
As recently as five years ago, the management agency in charge of the
BC fisheries, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, saw certification as
strictly a private business arrangement. But no longer.
"It's changed its views considerably as it's realised that many markets require certification and that it's impossible for a fishery to get certification on its own because so much of the information that is required is held by the management agency and any conditions tend to involve the agency very considerably," says Burridge. She says this has fostered a more collaborative relationship between the agency and the fisheries seeking certification. In the case of the sockeye fishery, the BC provincial government even contributed significantly to funding the early years of the evaluation process.
The certification of the sockeye fishery came with many more
conditions than most, but almost all of them are the responsibility of
the management agency. They generally require an improvement in
management aspects like decision rules, recovery plans and monitoring
and compliance – all improvements that were already underway before
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