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Wild salmon are shown in this undated handout image. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Atlantic Salmon Federation-Tom Moffatt)

TORONTO -- The B.C. salmon industry is withdrawing from a valued eco-certification because it cannot meet international sustainability requirements.

The Canadian Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Society, which represents most processors and exporters of wild salmon, decided to back out of the Marine Stewardship Council certification due to concerns that it would inevitably fail a routine audit.

The certification is given to seafood that can be harvested sustainably and meet more than 20 conditions. Without the certification, fisheries will no longer be able to sell wild salmon as an eco-certified product – an attractive designation that fetches more money on the market.

Christina Burridge, a spokesperson for the industry group, described the move as a “big deal.”

“It took us ten years to get certified,” she told CTV News.

“I mean, we will still be able to sell what we produce … but we won't be able to sell it to customers that pay the most and value sustainability.”

The decision voluntarily suspends the eco-certification for several types of salmon, including chum, pink and sockeye.

Conservationists and industry insiders accuse Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) of failing to properly monitor salmon stocks.

It’s been a disastrous year for wild salmon populations along the West Coast, which have been declining for the past 30 years. According to figures from the Wild Salmon Advisory Council, some areas of B.C. have seen wild salmon populations decline of upwards 45 per cent compared to the 1950s.

Aaron Hill, executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society, which works to rebuild B.C.’s wild salmon stocks, said the eco-certification is “very important to the fishing industry in order access overseas markets.” But not withdrawing the eco-label could have resulted in the industry potentially failing one of its routine audits.


DECLINING SALMON, STARVING BEARS

Outside of the marketplace, the dramatic drop in wild salmon stocks is having other serious consequences.

Grizzly bears that feed on the fish are now starving in Knight Inlet, just north of Vancouver Island. It’s become so bad that members of the Mamalilikulla First Nation have transported 500 pink salmon to the region to feed the emaciated, malnourished bears.

“We have been noticing that they are getting skinnier and skinnier -- and getting more aggressive,” Jake Smith, guardian watchman manager for group told CTV News Vancouver Island earlier this week.

Bears weren’t the only creatures affected by dwindling salmon populations in the region. Southern resident killer whales feed on chinook salmon, but that sourced of food has dramatically dropped in recent years.

The DFO says this lack of prey is a “critical factor” in the survival of the southern residents, which are listed as an endangered species.

Both Hill and Burridge said resolving both this latest eco-label issue and declining salmon populations are in the DFO’s lap.

“They are the management agency -- meeting conditions of certification is their responsibility and that is where we need action,” Hill said.

Hill said one of the mitigating factors to all this is climate change and the lack of funding for regular monitoring of salmon migrations.

“Wild salmon populations are struggling incredibly right now under the weight of climate changes, diseases from salmon farms,” he said, adding that another threat was the degradation of salmon habitats.

Hill calls wild salmon “the backbone of B.C.’s river and coastal ecosystems,” describing them as “tremendously important to First Nations and many British Columbians for fishing (and) food.”

He said federal parties, particularly the government, need to act immediately as the “situation for B.C. salmon is incredibly desperate right now.”