Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 5:25 PM on Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Processors look to U.N. for sustainable certification

The eight major salmon buyers in Alaska, including Icicle Seafoods, Trident, Peter Pan, and Ocean Beauty, are withdrawing their financial support for the Marine Stewardship Council's sustainable seafood certification for Alaska wild salmon beyond October 2012, when the current certification expires, a move that essentially dooms the certification.

The Alaska Fisheries Development Association, which is the client responsible for getting the product re-certified, issued a statement that said those processors buy and market about 72 percent of Alaska salmon.

At issue is mostly the money processors must spend for the certification, according to a statement released by AFDA.

"The level of industry support for MSC certification has changed substantially since 2010," the statement read. "After receiving letters from the aforementioned eight Alaska Salmon Processors, the AFDA Board of Directors met January 16 to consider its best course of action. Lacking substantial industry support for continuing MSC salmon certification beyond October 29, 2012, the Board was compelled to comply with the requests of its major clientship sponsors and instructed AFDA Executive Director, Jim Browning, to proceed only with those actions necessary to maintain the MSC certification of Alaska Salmon through October 29, 2012.

"While individual companies requested their letters be held confidential, their reasons for announcing their phased pullout note that MSC certification has been welcome and valuable for more than a decade. MSC has offered independent affirmation of what the Alaska industry and fishery managers have held since statehood: that Alaska salmon fisheries are sustainably managed. However, the majority of these processors now feel it is time to redirect their resources toward a broader marketing message."

In an online article, Seafood News noted that Alaska processors, whose product was sustainable prior to the existence of the MSC and whose product will be sustainable long after the MSC, have evolved into a new organizational form. They believe they can better market the sustainability and unique qualities of wild Alaska salmon, as well as meet the needs of their customers for responsible sourcing, by withdrawing from the MSC program. The move allows those customers who rely on third-party certification to get such certification from the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization standards through Global Trust.

The move is a boost to FAO's Responsible Fisheries Management certification process, whose mandate is achieving food security for all, and whose budget is funded by voluntary contributions.

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute noted that the cost of FAO certification will not be passed on to the processors.

In an ASMI press statement, Commissioner Cora Campbell of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said, "We are pleased that the Responsible Fisheries Management certification model has taken hold. It's a model that fits the purpose of what certification should be about — providing credible verification that fishery management is conducted in accordance with accepted international norms, leaving actual management decisions up to our professional staff."

Although the processors pulling out of the MSC re-certification process has probably been in the works for awhile, it comes just days after three Canadian conservation groups had announced they were strongly protesting the MSC re-certification, a move timed to coincide with the Pacific Salmon Treaty negotiations between the United States and Canada. The groups are taking credit for the Alaska processors dropping the MSC eco-label.

Those groups, Raincoast Conservation Foundation, SkeenaWild Conservation Trust and Watershed Watch Salmon Society, claim that the practice of Alaskan hatcheries releasing billions of salmon fry into the North Pacific, known as "ocean ranching," competes with and harms wild stocks from British Columbia.

The other major Alaska fisheries that bear the MSC label are the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska pollock, both of which were re-certified in 2010, and will not face another certification until 2015. No decision has been made regarding processors remaining in the pollock certification program.

ADFA and MSC stressed that all salmon caught and marketed during the upcoming season will still be able to carry the MSC "Sustainable Fishery" label.

A federal judge has ruled for the National Marine Fisheries Service in the battle between the State of Alaska, Alaska Seafood Cooperative and the Freezer Longline Coalition over closing fishing areas in the Aleutian Islands to protect food sources for endangered Stellar sea lions.

Alaska U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Burgess said that while he sympathized with the plaintiffs for the substantial financial losses due to the closures, "the Court must defer to the technical expertise of the agency as long as there is a rational connection between the evidence and its conclusions.

"In this case, the Court finds that NMFS did not apply improper (Endangered Species Act) standards and that the evidence, although equivocal, was sufficient to support its conclusions that the fisheries were likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the (Western District Population Segment) and adversely modify its critical habitat."

The judge also indicated that although the procedures NMFS followed to comply with its obligations under the Magnuson-Stevens Act and Administrative Procedures Act were "far from ideal," the deviations were not sufficient to reverse the fisheries closures.

NMFS estimates that the closures and restrictions will cost the fishing industry between $44 million and $61 million per year, and between 250 and 750 jobs.

The ruling came out at the same time that a study published by researchers at Oregon State University and the Alaska SeaLife Center found that predation by killer whales and sharks may have a decidedly irreversible impact on sea lion populations.

According to an article in the Anchorage Daily News, the study following 36 juvenile Stellar sea lions in 2005 found that by November 2011, 12 had died, a death rate that's not exceptional, according to OSU marine mammal expert Markus Horning.

The difference is the number killed by predation.

Previous models have suggested falling birth rates as a reason why Steller sea lions have not recovered.

Those models, however, essentially present a hypothesis unconfirmed by hard data, Horning said. Instead, it's possible that high levels of predation are the predominant factor preventing the recovery of the species.

"Our model suggests that even if the birth rate would be as high as is possible, if every female out there has a pup every year, the population could still not recover unless predation were reduced," he said.

Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.