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WWF, MSC owe explanation, apology to Alaska fishermen

Posted: September 24, 2013 - 11:02pm

As chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Subcommittee on Oceans and Fisheries, I have the chance to brag about Alaska’s fisheries.

Alaska produces more than half nation’s wild fish. Fishing is important to our economy, culture and lifestyle. While our fisheries are managed by complex rules with high standards, this is why Alaska is known for quality seafood and sustainable stocks.

That’s why I was offended by the recent “We don’t farm like this” video produced by World Wide Fund for Nature Canada (WWF) in support of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The short animated video grossly misrepresents the harvesting methods of longline, purse seine, and trawl fisheries and smears them as unsustainable.

That’s shocking, since WWF generally had a good reputation of working with fishermen on issues. And especially offensive since MSC has certified longline, seine and trawl fisheries in Alaska as sustainable, and takes industry money to label them as such.

MSC says they were aware of the WWF initiative which according to one, “seem(ed) like a good idea initially.” Now they’re rapidly backpedaling, and they should.

Many Alaskans are aware of the current controversy over such third-party certification programs. Many retailers and food service providers are demanding seafood be sustainable, which is a good thing. Alaska has a good story to tell. But reliance on just one outside group and its standards can be problematic.

Alaska’s salmon industry dropped MSC certification last year because of their shifting standards and increasing fees. With release of this video, others must be considering the same. How can they trust a group which takes your money with one hand and stabs you in the back with the other?

Sustainability is written into the Alaska Constitution, and strict national standards modeled after Alaska were written into the Magnuson-Stevens Act and limit catches at sustainable levels.

Because of these standards, the fishing industry is highly regulated by the State of Alaska and NOAA Fisheries. Even so, Alaska fishermen landed a whopping 270 million salmon this past summer, eclipsing the previous record catch by almost 50 million fish. We also produce over 4 billion pounds of pollock, cod and other species from our marine waters every year.

Does that mean everything is perfect? Of course not. Fish are a dynamic resource affected by changing oceanic conditions and other factors outside of our control.

However, when these things happen, scientists accommodate the changing situation. Fishery management in Alaska is a continual process of assessment, reassessment, and making the tough decisions to manage fisheries for the long run. The regulators and boards who oversee fishing in Alaska allow scientists, fishermen and conservationists to look at the data, challenge assumptions and set rules for the future.

Not everybody is always happy with the final decisions but it’s an open, democratic regulatory process that’s resulted in one of the best managed fisheries in the world. That’s why it’s outrageous to have our fisheries maligned by a childish and offensive video sponsored by outside groups who should know better.

My Oceans and Fisheries Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the issue of certification of sustainable seafood this week.The hearing was scheduled before this ugly, disingenuous video went viral. Regardless, I look forward to a positive discussion about our record of the fisheries management, and why consumers and retailers can be confident about the sustainability standards set by Alaska and the Magnuson Stevens Act.

But MSC and WWF owe fishermen an explanation of what they were thinking, and an apology to Alaskans and others around the nation who legitimately make their living by providing healthy, sustainable seafood.

Mark Begich is Alaska’s junior senator.

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