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The demise of Ocean Wise and the Wild salmon crisis

Government incompetence and an off-course Ocean Wise further feed the wild salmon crisis.

ON THANKSGIVING MORNING, my husband crawled out of bed at the crack of dawn, packed up his fly box, and headed off to the Chilliwack River, which is about a one-hour drive from our downtown Vancouver home.

He returned later that afternoon with a glorious 18-pound white-fleshed chinook (also known as ivory spring salmon) that made us wish we hadn’t bothered stuffing a turkey.

Rich, exquisitely clean in flavour, and rare at the best of times — only 3 to 5 percent of wild spring carry the recessive gene that processes the red carotenoids from their feed, rather than storing it in the muscle — our white salmon was a beauty. It was also a hatchery-raised fish, thus meant for keeping and perfectly legal to catch.

Still, I couldn’t help but feel guilty about eating it. And thanks to the recent demise of Ocean Wise as the go-to resource for consumer guidance on salmon, I had nowhere to turn to help ease my conscience.

In case you haven’t heard, this was a tragic year for wild B.C. salmon and the people who depend on them for sustenance. In June, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) abruptly and permanently closed 60 percent of commercial salmon fisheries in B.C. and the Yukon to conserve stocks, which are on the “verge of collapse,” according to the federal government.

Fishers were unceremoniously thrown out of work, with no firm promises on where the reparations will come from. Many First Nations, who have a constitutional right to harvest fish for food, social and cer- emonial (FSC) purposes, are facing restrictions. And the retail displays at all my favourite fishmongers have been seriously depleted.

The news keeps getting worse. While writing this column, I read about migratory watersheds all across the province that had dried up after being scorched by heatwaves this summer. And a reservoir near Squamish that BC Hydro had dammed after a storm left thousands of spawning pink salmon stranded on the riverbed.

Fingers are increasingly being pointed at the DFO and its decades of mismanagement, which has allegedly contributed to the crisis in equal measure to overharvesting, climate change, and habitat destruction.

But in the midst of all this turmoil, the guiding voice of Ocean Wise was nowhere to be found. Since it was founded in 2005, the Vancouver- based conservation association has been a leading resource for conscientious Canadians. Its restaurant partnerships — which stamp menus with “recommended” logos and help chefs eliminate “not recommended” seafood from their repertoires — were, until recently, the gold standard for sustainability for people dining out. This is especially true in Vancouver, home to Greenpeace, The 100-Mile Diet, and countless eco-food warriors.

But when the federal government hit the emergency brake on the Pacific wild salmon industry, Ocean Wise didn’t offer any guidance. There were no press releases, not a single mention of the commercial closures in its newsletter, no little green logos to let us know if it was still OK to eat salmon from the fisheries that remained open or from the ones that were later reopened by the DFO, which led other conservation groups to wonder whether its managers had “gone rogue.”

While researching a story for The Globe and Mail, I couldn’t even contact Ocean Wise by phone; the number listed on its Google business site was out of service. It took almost two weeks for the communications department to respond to my emails.

In the meantime, some restaurants took matters into their own hands. “We need to give the salmon a break,” said Ned Bell, the former Ocean Wise executive chef who made headlines (and faced pushback) when he temporarily removed wild B.C. salmon from his menus at Naramata Inn, in the Okanagan.

Other restaurateurs decided to use sustainably farmed chinook from New Zealand. And many, who disagreed with the boycott altogether, rallied around fishermen and served as much of the remaining catch as they could during the Go Wild! BC Salmon festival in August this year.

What eventually became clear is that Ocean Wise couldn’t do its job or offer any solid advice about the wild salmon crisis because the DFO has been starving it — and all of us — of reliable science for years.

Ocean Wise is not a certification program. Its ratings rely on third-party, peer-reviewed scientific studies, including those from the London, U.K.–based Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

In 2019, three of five Pacific salmon species — sockeye, pink, and chum — lost their MSC certification when the industry body responsible for the analysis voluntarily withdrew from the program. They placed the blame squarely on the DFO, citing a lack of stock-assessment data. The DFO, the MSC explained at the time, was behind target on nine of 22 conditions and, after 10 years, had failed to even come up with plans to monitor stock assessment on the North Coast or evaluate the impacts of hatchery production on wild fish.

Ocean Wise subsequently removed the three salmon species from its recommended list and placed them under review.

“We are still anxiously waiting for that data to become available,” Sophika Kostyniuk, director of the Ocean Wise fisheries and seafood program, said this past summer.

Nothing had changed overnight. Many populations are well managed and abundant. But there is no data to prove it, leaving all of us who love wild salmon in a fishy state of limbo.

It appears that the DFO has either been unwilling to do its job or, more likely, hasn’t had the resources to meet its commitments — a predicament that many trace back to the elimination of 500 DFO jobs and $100 million in budget cuts under the Stephen Harper government.

Today, 60 percent of all West Coast salmon fisheries are closed. Only two Pacific salmon species from specific locations — coho and chinook caught with gillnets in the Stikine and Taku rivers — are rated as sustainable by the increasingly rudderless Ocean Wise organization.

Meanwhile, Canadian salmon lovers, none the wiser, are still dining in the dark. Or, if you’re like me, quietly feasting on fly-caught white spring — with a guilty conscience.

By Alexandra Gill

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