MRAG Americas Inc., an independent auditing and certification body for the MSC standard, said the suspension was based on a recent review of new information regarding stock assessment in the Gulf of Alaska provided by NOAA fisheries. According to MRAG Americas, “this suspension is not due to overfishing or a lack of a responsible management response, rather, the depressed stocks of Pacific cod in the Gulf of Alaska below B20 percent limit is climate driven and caused by the Gulf of Alaska marine heat wave.”
Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod stocks have declined since 2017 due to effects of an anomalous warm water event in 2014–2016. The marine heat wave reduced food availability for cod and dramatically increased natural mortality. Federal and state fishery managers acted to severely restrict commercial fishing effort in response to the uncertainty of the ecosystem. In 2018 and 2019, harvests in the Gulf were reduced by 80 percent to maintain the future viability of the fishery. Then in 2020 commercial fishing was closed in the federal fishery in the Gulf and the small state fishery was further reduced, as fishery managers and fishermen were confident that such a response would allow for quick recovery of stocks.
Most Alaska’s Pacific cod is harvested in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands and remains MSC certified.
Under MSC standards, a fishery is suspended if it failed to meet the minimum scoring benchmark for any indicators, in this case 20 percent of the unfished biomass, known as B20%.
If the stock falls below B20% or does not have a 70 percent probability of being above this point, it no longer meets minimum MSX scoring benchmark for this indicator and is suspended. According to MSC the Gulf stock of Pacific cod in 2020 is estimated at B17% and consequently, as of April 5, the MSC certification for the Gulf was suspended.
Meanwhile ASMI’s RFM sustainability certification program, which is also an internationally accredited ecolabel for Alaska fisheries, remained intact.
Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation officials said that after a normal annual audit is completed later this year, they anticipate that the RFM program will remain in place due to differences between MSC and RFM standards. Specifically, the RFM standard does not require an automatic suspension when fishery drops below B20%, rather it assesses the management responses as well, AFDF officials said that Pacific cod harvested in Alaska, even in the Gulf, can be sold after April 5 as RFM certified.
“As the client for the Alaska Pacific cod fishery, AFDF is disappointed that the MSC certificate in the GOA is being suspended, despite fishery managers taking responsible actions in the face of ocean conditions beyond their control,” said Julie Decker, executive director of AFDF. “We believe that responsible management should be rewarded and hope this unfortunate situation will be a catalyst for the MSC program to make changes to address future scenarios such as this.”