Metlakatla Fisheries Certified as Sustainable

Metlakatla’s fisheries have been certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

That should help the southern Southeast community maintain salmon sales overseas. Officials say it’s the first tribal fishery to earn the certification.

Metlakatla is a Tsimshian community on Annette Island, about 15 miles southwest of Ketchikan. It’s an Indian reservation, and its tribal government controls fishing within 3,000 feet of its shores.

Its fisheries used to be included in the Marine Stewardship Council’s certification of Alaska waters. But a few years ago, that changed.

“The certifier examines the management of the fishery, as part of assessing to the standard,” says Kerry Coughlin, the council’s regional director.

“So when it became clear that the Metlakatla fishery was the only small part of the Alaska salmon fishery that’s not managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, then it became clear they couldn’t be covered under the certificate because the management of the Metlakatla fishery had not been assessed,” she says.

So community leaders decided to pursue their own certification.

Jeff Moran runs Metlakatla’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. He says the move was motivated by economics – but that wasn’t all.

“We had certain markets that we had been selling to that came back and said we won’t be able to buy your fish unless you’re certified. That was one of the primary factors that drove us to seek certification. But the more we started looking into it, the more it became obvious that it seemed like the right thing to do,” Moran says.

Metlakatla hired Scientific Certification Systemsof California to handle the review process. Coughlin, of the London-based stewardship council, says it’s lengthy, and detailed.

“There are 31 different scoring indicators in the MSC standard under three different principles around sustainability of the stock, the impact on the marine ecosystem and the ongoing management of the fisheries,” Coughlin says.

Metlakatla’s Moran says it already followed many of the required practices. He says it’s been managing its fisheries for decades.

“It’s been pretty tried and true in our eyes. A lot of the issues we had to deal with were genetic conflicts between hatchery fish and wild fish. And then, how our fishery impacts areas outside of the reserve,” Moran says.

The council certified Metlakatla’s pink, chum, coho and king salmon fisheries earlier this summer. That will maintain European markets that require proof of sustainability.

Moran says that’s important to the 50 to 70 gillnetters and 10 to 15 seiners working out of the community.

“A very, very significant percentage of the community relies very, very heavily on fisheries. And then on top of that we have our own processing plant, a packing company, which hires many people for processing the product,” he says.

Marine Stewardship Council staff traveled to Metlakatla to celebrate certification in late August. But that’s not all that has to be done.

Coughlin says the review process recommended some changes that will help make the fisheries even more sustainable.

“The rebuilding strategy, the sampling programs, monitoring and reporting, those would be some areas where they passed, but the certifier flagged them as having room for improvement,” she says.

But she says overall, Metlakatla meets the standards. And that should help maintain – if not expand – its markets.

“What’s exciting to me is to see such a clear example of a community fishery that is going to see market benefit from demonstrating their sustainability. It’s not only a good example of how the MSC program is designed to work, but it’s just a wonderful thing to see that tribal community ensuring the continuation of their fishery,” she says.

Alaska salmon, as well as western flatfish and pollock, are among other in-state fisheries certified as sustainable by the council.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues. He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.