Lately, the seafood world has been abuzz with the news that the Alaska salmon industry has pulled out of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification process, after much negotiation and debate. This means that after this season, Alaskan salmon will no longer carry the globally-recognized MSC sustainability logo, and will rely instead on a new certification by the Ireland-based firm, Global Trust. What does this mean for global seafood sustainability and why should this matter to Alaskans?
The MSC, based in London with offices all over the world, has been the global leader in independent seafood sustainability certification for over a decade. The council's fisheries assessments are thorough, open to the public, and peer-reviewed. The MSC prescribes management improvements and re-assesses fisheries every five years to monitor compliance and fish population health. Certainly, some decisions they have made have been controversial, but at least the process is open to scrutiny, and the MSC continues to evolve its administrative and financial structures, as well as the certification process. The organization is responsive to industry, the scientific community and the public. Having an independent oversight body and a global standard for sustainable fisheries management is good for industry, for consumers, and for fish.
Alaskans are familiar with oversight bodies, such as the RCACs, or Regional Citizens' Advisory Councils, that oversee oil transport in Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound. These were created after the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, and give citizens a voice in ensuring that our natural heritage is protected. If the oil industry decided to forego the independent advice of the councils and instead chose to follow the opinion of consultants the industry hired, the public would understandably be upset.
Giving up thorough, independent oversight is exactly what the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, the Alaska Fishery Development Foundation and eight fishing industry leaders have done in switching to Global Trust. The organization reviews the rules and regulations that manage a fishery. They do not identify management deficiencies; they do not prescribe corrective actions; they do not solicit public comment; and they do not check the actual status of fish stocks.
In Alaska, Global Trust has already certified the salmon fishery management process but not the outcome. And this gives us a look at how the organization operates. In an excerpt of an email dated March 16, 2011 and posted online, Peter Marshall, CEO of Global Trust, wrote that his organization's process "relates to the certification for 'Responsible Management for Sustainable Use' of the fishery rather than targeting to make a claim of certified sustainability for the fishery. This means that the ... assessment team does not try and make a judgement [sic] on whether the fishery is sustainable [emphasis added]."
In other words, Global Trust's assessors did not actually conduct an assessment of the status of Alaska salmon stocks to determine if, in fact, they were being managed sustainably. This is kind of like saying the operation was successful regardless of whether or not the patient survived.
As we all know, there is often a difference between intentions and actions. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has done an admirable job over the past five decades in managing our fish stocks. But as with the RCACs, it's never a bad idea to have someone take a look at the system from the outside and make sure everything really is working fine. That's what the MSC does, and they do it for fisheries all over the world. The MSC is good for global fisheries, and for Alaskan salmon. As a leader in responsible fisheries management, the Alaska salmon fishery should not walk away from this process.
Allison Bidlack, PhD, is the science coordinator for Ecotrust's Copper River program based in Cordova.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.