As the fishing season winds down, we’ve got an unfortunate update: Alaskan interception fisheries killed well over 3 million B.C. salmon this year in just a few small fishing districts near the B.C. border. 

To put that startling figure in context, this number of fish, some of which are considered bycatch by Alaskan fishers, is nearly three times higher than the total allowable harvest in neighbouring Canadian waters. In fact, for nearly every species you can think of returning to B.C. rivers on the north and central coast, Alaskan interception is the single largest source of mortality. Alaska gets away with this because, for most people, the fisheries in Southeast Alaska that target our fish are out of sight and out of mind.

The good news is that our Alaska’s Dirty Secret campaign is changing that. This summer, with support from our generous citizen donors, we ran $15,000 worth of online ads and hit the road to have conversations with politicians, First Nations, and people who earn their living fishing for salmon and steelhead.

Watersheds and Wild Salmon Campaigner Dave Mills

It’s essential that the public and decision-makers understand that our local efforts to rebuild our salmon populations won’t succeed unless we also address Alaska’s reckless harvesting practices.

The locations of District 104 and 101 interception fisheries.

Southeast Alaska comprises 13 fishing districts, but in terms of impact on non-Alaskan salmon, two stand out: District 104, which sticks out into the migration path of most B.C.-bound salmon, and District 101, on the approach to the Nass River. Fisheries in both these districts are strategically located to intercept Canadian fish.

These two fishing districts, in one small section of one sector, harvested more salmon than the total of all commercial, recreational, and Indigenous fisheries in B.C., Washington State, Oregon, and California combined. 

And that doesn’t even include Alaska’s dirty Chinook troll fishery that takes the lion’s share of Chinook stocks from B.C., Washington and Oregon, or the Alaskan interception fisheries that can take the majority of the catch from B.C.’s mighty northern Taku and Stikine Rivers. 

Even with all that, Alaska’s overall salmon harvest is so large that the few million Canadian salmon they took this year represent a fraction of their overall salmon catch and an even smaller fraction of their $5.7 billion per year seafood market. But for us, and our neighbours in Washington and Oregon, it might be the tipping point between the opportunity for a community to keep fishing or the need to close a fishery to protect a salmon or steelhead run that’s on the brink of extinction. 

This brings me to the relationship between fisheries and consumers. Most people shopping for seafood want to purchase from sustainable fisheries and look to organizations like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Ocean Wise to help with those decisions. How can these Alaskan interception fisheries be certified as sustainable? And what happens when organizations like MSC get it so horribly wrong?

The cornerstones of certified fisheries are clear regulations and transparent monitoring. For example, if fishers are targeting salmon at times or locations where different species are present, regulations requiring fishers to release bycatch alive are pretty important. It’s also essential to accurately monitor and report the catch, especially for those non-target species. 

Unbelievably, fisheries managers in Southeast Alaska require none of those things, and Alaskan fishers are throwing prohibited catches of Canadian Chinook and steelhead back into the ocean, dead, by the thousands. Yet, the Marine Stewardship Council issued Alaska a Certificate of Conformity # MSC-F-30027 for their salmon fishery.

When groups like MSC and Ocean Wise tell the seafood-buying public that it’s “sustainable” for a fishery to catch more of their neighbour’s fish than their own, it calls their credibility into question. MSC and Ocean Wise fail the public trust entirely when their certified fisheries don’t record or report their bycatch, and allow thousands of fish to be thrown back dead. All of this makes it much harder for us here in B.C. to manage our salmon populations. Alaska is not being a good neighbour, and we’re mad as hell at the MSC and Ocean Wise for giving them brand credibility they don’t deserve. We will be sending a formal complaint to the London, UK office of Rupert Howes, the Chief Executive for MSC, asking him to revoke the certification that gives Alaska’s unsustainable fishing practices cover. And we will be putting Ocean Wise in the public spotlight here at home. 

Alaska is unlikely to stop killing our salmon until consumers in seafood markets around the world take notice, you can expect our campaign next year to focus on that. Forcing MSC and Ocean Wise to stop giving Alaska’s dirty interception fisheries a free pass is one of the most powerful things we can do to push Alaska’s fishing executives and managers to clean up their fishery.

You can join the effort with a letter of your own to the Marine Stewardship Council.