Snow crab fishery to keep 'sustainable' label amid endangered whale deaths

The world's leading "ecolabel" is set to once again certify as sustainable the Gulf of St. Lawrence snow crab fishery, even though North Atlantic right whales are being killed by fishing gear.

Certification agency plans to launch expedited audit as soon as possible to review findings

This North Atlantic right whale was freed from fishing lines in the Bay of Fundy near Campobello Island. (International Fund for Animal Welfare)

After an unprecedented number of deaths this summer, CBC News is bringing you an in-depth look at the endangered North Atlantic right whale. This week, in a series called Deep Trouble, CBC explores the perils facing right whales.

The world's leading environmental certification program is set to once again declare the Gulf of St. Lawrence snow crab fishery "well-managed and sustainable," even amid recent concerns that endangered right whales are being killed by fishing gear. 

The fishery was first certified in 2012 by the Marine Stewardship Council, an international non-profit headquartered in London. An already-conducted assessment will see it recertified for another five years, starting next month.

The MSC offers an easy way for consumers to spot sustainably caught seafood. The agency provides guidelines for environmentally friendly practices, and fisheries groups seeking approval hire a certifier to assess their methods.

Once the rigorous audit is complete, products can display the blue MSC label — and typically sell at a premium price.

But with snow crab, the MSC has found itself in a difficult position.

The most recent 10-month assessment period ran from Sept. 6, 2016 to June 6, 2017 — just one day before the first of 14 North Atlantic right whales were found dead off the Canadian and U.S. coasts.

The MSC label can be found on a variety of seafood products. (Brett Ruskin/CBC News )

It's believed some were killed by fishing gear entanglements.

"The tragic circumstances that occurred in the Gulf of St. Lawrence with regard to right whale deaths happened after that time," said Jay Lugar, MSC's Canadian program manager.

However, under the rules of the certification program, only information within the scope of that final assessment can be used, meaning the snow crab fishery will be declared sustainable once again.

Ropes are shown wrapped around a dead North Atlantic right whale after it was found Sept. 18 and brought to shore on Miscou Island, N.B., Monday. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

One Halifax-based environmental group is calling for the certification to lapse so the industry can put together an "action plan."

"Every time one of the whales gets injured by their gear, you can't really say that the fishery is fully sustainable," said Shannon Arnold, marine policy adviser with the Ecology Action Centre.

A key requirement for approval, according to the MSC standards manual, is for a fishery not to hinder the recovery of endangered, threatened or protected species.

DEEP TROUBLE | Right whales in peril

The fishery closed in July and won't resume until April. Any snow crab caught before last season's end, and on store shelves now, still falls under the previous MSC certification.

Meanwhile, an expedited sustainability audit is planned — one that takes into account the unprecedented whale mortalities that have occurred since early June — but a timeline for completion has not been set.

That audit will be done by SAI Global, the independent auditor hired by the fishery group that sought the snow crab recertification, Affiliation of Seafood Producers Association of Nova Scotia.

SAI Global is awaiting a Department of Fisheries and Oceans report on right whale mortality in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, according to SAI spokesperson Sarah Roberts.

DFO, meanwhile, says it is awaiting a complete necropsy report, expected in the coming weeks.

snow crab
The snow crab fishery closed in July, and any crab left over falls under the previous MSC certification. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

Until each of those steps is triggered, the Gulf of St. Lawrence snow crab fishery will remain MSC-certified sustainable seafood — even though snow crab gear has been found wrapped around dead endangered whales.

"This [audit] has to happen," said Arnold, with the Ecology Action Centre. "If it doesn't happen, then you're really losing a lot of credibility with this label."

CBC News has contacted a number of snow crab fisheries groups, but has not yet heard back.


Brett Ruskin


Brett Ruskin is a reporter and videojournalist covering everything from local breaking news to national issues. He's based in Halifax.