The Fish Counter's Mike McDermid knows he won't be selling wild Fraser River sockeye anytime soon.

For two years, the fishery has been closed due to exceptionally low sockeye returns. That's why he's always curious when sellers walk into his shop, offering him some freshly caught "wild sockeye."

"I've had people come into the store saying: 'We've got sockeye. Do you ever sell sockeye?,'" he recalled. "And with more prying, you find out it's Russian sockeye."

McDermid is also a marine biologist and former manager of the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Wise seafood certification program — and he's made a point to steer clear of Russian sockeye, citing unsustainable fishing practices that happen in many remote fisheries..

"Most of the fishing goes on without any regulatory body at all," he said.

"[Fishermen] will just go out and clear out a whole river."

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Fresh sockeye sit in a container on a Vancouver dock. ((CBC))

But experts say other vendors don't exercise as much caution when it comes to selling unsustainable sockeye.

Lacking labels

Some fisheries in Russia have received certification from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) — a non-profit that puts a stamp of approval on fisheries that offer traceable, sustainable wild seafood.

However, according to the David Suzuki Foundation's Bill Wareham, many remote fisheries in Eastern Russia aren't being well looked after.

"In a lot of cases, there's no tracking of quotas ... fishermen can go out and catch as many fish as they want," he said. "It needs that government system and management oversight, and that's what's lacking in a lot of the Russian fisheries."

He says there's nothing stopping Canadian restaurants and supermarkets from importing Russian sockeye, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency does not require vendors to label the salmon's country of origin, either — unlike labelling requirements in the U.S. and Europe.

Wareham says Canada's labelling is 'significantly substandard' and the low return of sockeye in the Fraser River makes it more likely for unsustainable fish to seep into the market.

"People might inadvertently think they're just buying sockeye salmon, which is abundant. It's in the store. It's from the West Coast and it's not a problem, when in fact, it may be coming from unsustainably harvested fisheries in Russia."

According to local fisherman Shaun Stoben, Russian sockeye has been making its way into Vancouver for years.

"Some of the biggest fish companies that supply restaurants and consumers in B.C. have been bringing in Kamchatka brand sockeye salmon by the container load for decades," he said.

Russia's remote Western Kamchatka salmon received MSC certification late last year. It is currently undergoing an assessment.

Improving conditions

Improving conditions in Russian fisheries has been a priority for salmon conservationists across the world, many of whom have worked directly with fishermen from the country.

According to Mariusv Wroblewski, the Western Pacific program director at Wild Salmon Centre (WSC), the Russian Far East is one of the most productive salmon fisheries in the world, producing 35 per cent of the wild salmon supply.

But over the years, it has become threatened by extractive industries, loss of habitat and large-scale poaching.

He says the group has been working with the MSC to improve conditions and get the fisheries certified.

According to the WSC, 20 per cent of the Russian Kamchatka fishery is certified or in the process of being certified by the MSC.

"Fishermen right now in Russia are slowly but surely realizing that any type of overfishing will negatively affect their own resources," he said. 

According to the MSC, certified fisheries are regularly audited to ensure they maintain traceability and sustainability standards.