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Ocean Wise claims to be operating in the best interest of small-scale Canadian fisheries, but the Canadian-borne seafood sustainability certification program has no decision making power - all of its decisions are made by the American program, Seafood Watch. So are they really protecting Canadian fisheries?

This year was the hottest year on record for the Northwest Pacific, and of an estimated 20 million fish to return to the tributaries of the Fraser River Basin, less than 1 million returned successfully to spawn. The resilience of the Fraser River sockeye is wavering and with this warming trend expected to progress, continued pressures by commercial fishing will only impose more stress on the population.

Any salmon biologist would tell you that the Fraser River sockeye salmon fishery of BC is not a sustainable one, yet the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program has certified this fishery as sustainable. This makes no sense from an ecological perspective, and multiple researchers have called into question the sustainability of these fish. So why has Ocean Wise persisted with deluding the Canadian public with their claims that this struggling salmon population is being sustainably harvested?

There is a fairly obvious contradiction in terms here. How are these fish considered sustainable, when their very existence hangs in the balance? Several of the Fraser River sockeye runs are indeed red-listed as endangered. The resilience of the species is considered low by all of the scientists who study them. In a biologist's point of view, or simply an honest individual's point of view, it just doesn’t make sense.

In a corporation's point of view? Upon a hefty bit of digging, we have found it makes plenty of sense. Dollars and cents. Like most issues mirrored in stupidity, it all boils down to politics.

The advent of salmon farming on the west coast of Canada was really bad news for Alaska fisheries. The markets were flooded with fresh fish all year round, and the price of Alaskan sockeye plummeted, along with the value of commercial fishing licenses. In just a few short years the value of Alaskan fisheries decreased by 80%. Rebuilding the brand of Alaska commercial fisheries (which includes the iconic Alaskan “wild” sockeye salmon), became an instant priority for Alaskan politicians. In order to try and regain and restore the value of this region's biggest industry, two key foundations – namely the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Packard Foundation – decided to take matters into their own hands. Both invested millions of dollars into a new market intervention strategy.

This strategy was largely composed of “context building” – ie campaigning against the Atlantic salmon farming industry. Campaigns such as “Farmed & Dangerous”, headlined by radical activists like Alexandra Morton and Don Staniford, were developed with the primary goal of “demarketizing” salmon farming in BC, while simultaneously glorifying Alaskan fisheries.

Other key strategies included using reputable local marine conservation aquariums, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium (which runs the seafood certification program Seafood Watch), to advocate for wild fisheries as “the most sustainable choice”. The Packard Foundation is a key contributor of the Monterey Bay Aquarium (to the tune of ~$30 million a year), and interestingly enough if you ever visit the facility, the wild sockeye of Alaska are a prominent feature on display.

In the early 2000s, the Vancouver Aquarium joined the sustainability movement with the creation of the certification label, Ocean Wise. What is their role in Canada?

As described on their website, “Ocean Wise is a Vancouver Aquarium conservation program created to educate and empower consumers about the issues surrounding sustainable seafood”, and further, “The Ocean Wise symbol next to a seafood item is the Vancouver Aquarium’s assurance of an ocean-friendly seafood choice. With over 600 Ocean Wise partners across Canada, Ocean Wise makes it easy for consumers to make sustainable seafood choices that ensure the health of our oceans for generations to come.”

By this description, Ocean Wise is a Canadian-based program that is helping consumers make the right choices about what seafood products are sustainable, right?

Not necessarily. The Ocean Wise certification is based on what the Seafood Watch program deems to be sustainable, which in many cases, may not be in the best interest of Canadian fisheries or the Canadian consumer.

Their website states, “Ocean Wise recommendations are generated from assessments using the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program methodology”.

In other words, “Ocean Wise uses assessments based on the recommendations by the Seafood Watch program which is heavily influenced by its key contributor, the Packard Foundation (which really, really wants you to buy Alaskan seafood)”.

As a Canadian consumer and biologist, I find this to be a significant conflict of interest. The problem is that neither Canadian consumers nor many seafood producers are aware of the connection.

Ocean Wise describes for the public how it approaches the certification of wild capture fisheries – the criteria include impacts on the stock, impacts of the fishery on other species, effectiveness of management, and impacts on habitat and the ecosystem. All of these criteria require extensive research, monitoring and data at a local level.

Instead of conducting the necessary research that applies to the ecosystem relevant to the fishery in question, Ocean Wise has passed off doing its own due diligence. They are relying exclusively on the certification system imposed by the US-based group Seafood Watch.

And this American rating system doesn’t seem to recognize unique and small-scale fisheries in Canada.

Ocean Wise was created to support Canadian fisheries which made efforts to be sustainable, and to educate the industry and public about the importance of seafood sustainability. Donations to the Vancouver Aquarium as a result of Ocean Wise have become an integral funding source for the aquarium.

As a company, if you use an Ocean Wise label or sell an Ocean Wise product, you are expected to pay a fee each year, based on your sales. While Ocean Wise no longer supports individual companies, they are sure to invoice them for selling Ocean Wise products.

Ocean Wise has become the “gold standard” for consumers in Canada as the most sustainable choice. But is it really? And do consumers realize who is dictating what Ocean Wise is able to certify?

Are these certification programs working in the best interest of sustainability? Or are they being given a mandate by the vested interests that align with that of their funders, in this case the wild Alaskan fish industry?

We can speculate that the underlying reasons behind the ridiculous certification of the Fraser River sockeye is that if these sockeye are not sustainable, then certifying sockeye populations from Alaska may prove difficult.

What about farmed salmon? Well Seafood watch states on their website: “Most ‘Best Choice’ salmon (‘sake’ in sushi) is wild and, usually, from Alaska…Say ‘No, thanks’ to all sources of farmed salmon unless it's from a ‘Best Choice’ or ‘Good Alternative’ source.” (http://www.seafoodwatch.org/seafood-recommendations/groups/salmon)

I think that now is a good time to mention a really interesting piece of information that most people are unaware of. A majority of the sockeye caught in Alaskan waters as “wild”, are in fact reared in hatcheries until they are smolts, then transferred to sea cages until they are larger, and then released in the ocean by the millions. These fish are not wild. They are “ranched”, a glorified term for “farmed”. If you want to call these fish sustainable – after they eat 100% ocean-derived for their entire lives, compared to farmed Atlantic salmon who only consume a fraction of this – then farmed Atlantic salmon are sustainable too. But these sockeye are from Alaska, and therefore, they must be the best choice.

By extension, in no way Ocean Wise will certify cultured Atlantic salmon, even though many BC salmon farms are BAP certified. When asked about conducting assessments in order to certify products as sustainable or not, Ocean Wise commented: “While we may gather up the information, the Ocean Wise approval or not is up to Seafood Watch, it is not our decision”.

Why aren’t the exact same products that are certified in the US by Seafood Watch, also certified in Canada by Ocean Wise, if both programs are using the same assessments?

Ocean Wise and Seafood Watch have exhibited inconsistencies. For example, Seafood Watch certifies land-based farmed chinook in the US, though the exact same type of fishery in Canada is not certified. Further to this, why is it that land-based Atlantic salmon is certified by Ocean Wise, yet land-based chinook is not? Both are using the same criteria.

In an email to Fish Farming Expert, Ocean Wise did mention an increase in assessments of local fisheries was a focus of the program: “In addition to using the assessments from Seafood Watch, this year we put an increased focus on assessing small-scale Canadian fisheries and recently completed the first in-house report”. This is encouraging news, but I don’t know that it is good enough.

Don’t get me wrong. The existence of a certification program for sustainability is incredibly important for ensuring that seafood is grown or fished in a way that minimizes harm to the ecosystem. In Canada, Ocean Wise has been integral in this process. However, it would be convenient if the program that claims to have the best interests for Canadian fisheries actually perform the due diligence that is required. Create a unique program that recognizes the potential of local fisheries and communities to provide fish and shellfish that are sustainably grown and harvested. A program governed by a Canadian company, not by the Alaskan wild fishery.

A request for comment by Seafood Watch was not returned.