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Salmon fishing boats work the Fraser River. ((Chuck Stoody/Canadian Press))

A B.C. environmental group is raising concerns after three West Coast sockeye salmon fisheries were certified as sustainable by the London-based Marine Stewardship Council.

Sockeye harvested from the Skeena and Nass rivers and from Barkley Sound will now bear the council's eco-label in fish markets worldwide.

But Watershed Watch Salmon Society ecologist Aaron Hill alleges the three fisheries routinely over-harvest threatened and endangered salmon stocks.

"Eco-certification can provide a powerful incentive for improvement in the way we manage our fisheries", said Hill, "but it becomes meaningless when you set the bar too low, and certify unsustainable and mismanaged fisheries. It becomes fraud."

The executive director of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, Dr. Craig Orr, said the group will be monitoring the fisheries to ensure the criteria for the certification are met.

"The MSC has placed several conditions for improvement on these fisheries, and we will be watching closely to see if these conditions are enforced."

The Marine Stewardship Council used an independent organization, Moody Marine Ltd., to conduct the assessment, and it concluded the three B.C. sockeye salmon fisheries met its standards for sustainably managed fisheries.

The international non-profit organization said its certification and eco-labelling program for sustainable seafood enables consumers to select environmentally sustainable seafood when they shop.

Fraser River sockeye snag

A separate study is being conducted to evaluate the Fraser River sockeye fishery, which has had disastrously low returns of spawning salmon in recent years, prompting the federal government to launch an inquiry into the apparent disappearance of 10 million salmon last year.

Earlier this year, the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, the David Suzuki Foundation and the SkeenaWild Conservation Trust filed a notice of objection to the MSC’s intention to award eco-certification to the Fraser River sockeye fishery. 

As a result, the certification of the Fraser River fishery is on hold, pending the decision of an independent adjudicator, expected by July 10, said Hill.

"Overfishing is a serious concern in the Skeena, Nass, and Barkley Sound fisheries, but the situation is not as dire there as it is on the Fraser," said Greg Knox, executive director of the SkeenaWild Conservation Trust.

"We objected to the Fraser River certification because we believe it does not meet the MSC’s own minimum standards for certification, and that the management of the fishery is so dysfunctional that the conditions of certification are very unlikely to be met within reasonable timelines," said Knox. 

B.C. sockeye salmon are primarily exported as frozen or canned products, and approximately 10 per cent is sold fresh, according to MSC.

Japan is the largest consumer of frozen B.C. sockeye, importing more than 90 per cent of the frozen product. Britain is the largest consumer of canned sockeye, importing more than 80 per cent of that product type.