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A new labelling initiative is underway to help salmon aficionados indulge in their favourite fish without eating Canada's wild salmon to extinction.

Last month, sustainable fisheries labelling organization Ocean Wise announced the creation of an expert panel to more accurately designate to consumers which of B.C.'s salmon fisheries are the most sustainable. Ocean Wise is among the most well-known environmental organizations that label which fisheries are sustainable and many chefs, food service companies and consumers rely on its designation to purchase sustainable seafood.

The panel marks a shift in the organization's approach to B.C. salmon. Citing declining stocks due to warmer waters, fish farms, pollution and overfishing, Ocean Wise removed its highest-tier sustainability designation from all B.C. salmon in 2019. That decision caused outrage among fishers, who pointed out that some of the province's salmon fisheries were fine.

B.C. is home to dozens of different salmon fisheries, defined by the species harvested, their river of origin and the type of gear used for the harvest. Some, like the Fraser River sockeye runs, are in dire straits. However, others have remained relatively strong in recent years. This new system will help consumers identify which fish come from these healthier runs.

The new expert panel is made up of three representatives from Indigenous fisheries and stewardship organizations in B.C., and three salmon science experts. The group will rely primarily on in-season stock health data collected by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), alongside information from the Pacific Salmon Foundation and Ocean Wise, said Mike McDermid, director of fisheries and seafood at Ocean Wise.

Using these data, the group will assess whether individual fisheries — down to fish from specific stream systems — can be harvested sustainably. The group will also evaluate which types of fishing gear (seine nets, gill nets or troll) are least likely to cause undue harm to the fish while ensuring fishers can harvest their catch, and which river systems have hatcheries. Hatchery-raised fish are less genetically diverse and often need to be harvested to help preserve wild stocks.

Only a handful of fisheries on the Nass River in northern B.C. and a select few sockeye fisheries around the Lower Mainland are projected to have relatively healthy returns in 2024, according to DFO's winter outlook.

"The assessment of fisheries for environmental performance and sustainability is so cumbersome and time-consuming and expensive that it's really difficult to get down to the granularity needed for something like B.C. salmon," said McDermid.

While B.C.'s wild salmon fishery is Canada's third-most valuable, on the water, it remains a "collection of small-scale fisheries" with most fishers operating independently out of smaller boats, McDermid said. For these small operators, fishing when possible and selling their catch for the highest price is key to staying in business — and an Ocean Wise seal of approval can help boost prices.

A new labelling initiative is underway to help salmon aficionados indulge in their favourite fish without eating Canada's wild salmon into extinction. 

Finding a more accurate way to identify sustainable B.C. salmon is actually a way to boost the species' chances of long-term survival, McDermid said. Helping people find and support sustainable fisheries while avoiding more harmful ones can help bolster their resilience, he said.

Smaller, community-based fisheries are also more easily adapted to the changing environmental conditions and population health, he added. Whereas large industrialized fisheries need to meet a quota allotment to stay in business and retain their licences, smaller local fisheries can often circumvent those pressures.

"With so much vested interest in the local area from a local community because salmon is more than just food or economic gain, local communities tend to act as stewards of the environment," he said.

Still, some fish harvesters are cautious about the new approach. James Lawson, a Heiltsuk salmon fisher and United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union president, wrote in a message that Ocean Wise's power to influence consumer decisions gives the panel the position of "gatekeepers" between fishers and seafood lovers.

As a result, he stressed that it is key for the panel to "engage with on-grounds fish harvesters" to get a sense of how the harvest is going throughout the season and not rely exclusively on DFO data.

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