Why the Sakhalin Salmon Fishery Left the MSC and What it Means for Sustainable Fisheries

Earlier this week MRAG Americas suspended the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certificate for the Northeast Sakhalin Island Pink Salmon Fishery. We want to give you the backstory, it illustrates a lot about the challenges and opportunities in nurturing sustainable fisheries outside the US and Western Europe.

Our team has been working with this fishery for more than a decade. When we first started, poachers had infiltrated all parts of the Northeast Sakhalin watershed, holing up for weeks in hidden camps near spawning grounds while they methodically worked to strip female salmon of their eggs. A team of concerned and passionate citizens-- both home-grown and from abroad-- came together in a shared sense of duty to stop the destruction. Vladimir Smirnov, a local fishermen and community leader, made a personal commitment to protect the region’s wild nature and fisheries, knowing that it was not just the right decision for nature, but the right decision for his business.

Salmon Poaching and IUU in Russia The after effect of poachers in Sakhalin’s wild salmon watersheds

The fisherman put a robust anti-poaching effort in place. They hired private security brigades to work together with local police to shut down the poaching camps. Fishermen and conservationists came together to support the recreation of the Vostochnii Nature Reserve, a strict protected area which held much of the critical spawning habitat for the region’s wild salmon fisheries. The local fishermen started working with scientists from around the globe to measure, monitor, and reduce impacts of bycatch, especially on endangered species such as the Sakhalin taimen. MSC supported and validated these efforts as well as other groups like Sakhalin Environment Watch, Ocean Outcomes, and Wild Salmon Center.

As a result, Vladimir Smirnov’s fishery has a lot more fish these days. When he first started fishing in 2001 his company caught 38 metric tons of pink salmon. By 2013, his catch had increased to 5,170 metric tons! Increased abundance is something to celebrate. Goes to show, sustainability can pay, especially if we take the long view and we work with passion, flexibility, and stick-to-it-ive-ness.

Russia Pink Salmon Catch

Ten year catch trends for NE Sakhalin salmon fishery

From our conversations with Vladimir and other fishermen in the region, we understand the fishery's decision to let its MSC certification lapse was purely a business decision. It was not based on an inability to meet the MSC sustainability requirements, but rather from a lack of recognition and value of MSC products in the Russian domestic market.

This decision highlights a market conundrum. How can we motivate fisheries to make positive change if they are not selling to markets that prioritize sustainability? As the sustainable seafood movement goes global, more and more we are dealing with fisheries in remote parts of the world that do not have the networks or know-how to sell seafood to the markets (for example in the U.S. and Europe) that demand sustainable seafood. These are fisheries which need help and have an important resource to protect and sustain, but which face local markets and consumers with a low awareness of and appetite for sustainability.

Ocean Outcomes in the Russian Far East O2’s Julie Kuchepatov, Brian Caouette and partners in the Vostochnii Nature Reserve

While we are disappointed these fisheries have (at least temporarily) left the MSC process, their improvements to date confirm O2’s strategy of working with our partners to connect the dots between good fishermen and industry leaders who care about sustainability. It also points to the need for campaigns targeted at raising consumer demand and major retail interest in places like Russia, Japan, and China.

The good news is the fishery has made-- and continues to make-- really big strides in conservation, which were by supported and validated by the MSC certification process. As for O2, we'll continue our work with these companies and local partners, supporting their ongoing efforts to improve the sustainability of their fisheries, encouraging them to reactivate the certification when the time is right.

Learn more about our efforts to combat poaching in NE Sakhalin.