Gulf of Alaska cod appears likely to lose key sustainability label

Pacific cod caught on jigging gear. (Photo courtesy NOAA FishWatch)

Take a walk past a grocery store seafood counter and you might notice the little blue stickers that mark certain types of fish “sustainably caught.” As demand for environmentally-conscious seafood goes up, sustainability certifications are increasingly important. But at the same time, climate change is threatening Alaska’s longstanding reputation for sustainable fisheries. In just a few months, Gulf of Alaska cod may be losing its blue sticker.

Gulf of Alaska cod have had a rough go of it in the last few years. A massive Pacific ocean heat wave from 2014 to 2016 crashed cod numbers by more than half in the Gulf. This year, managers were forced to close the federal fishery entirely for the first time due to low stock. And now, Gulf cod appears likely to lose its sustainability certification from the Marine Stewardship Council, or MSC.

The MSC is a global nonprofit that sets the standard for sustainable fisheries around the world.

“What the MSC certification really does is along the supply chain it allows for there to be traceability,” said Jackie Marks, Senior PR Manager at the MSC. “And at the end of the supply chain, allows that product to have the MSC blue fish label on it signifying to consumers that it has been caught sustainably.”

Gulf of Alaska cod has carried that label for ten years. It’s a branding tool emblematic of Alaska’s history of well-managed fisheries. Other fisheries, like North East Atlantic Mackerel, have lost MSC certification in part for management issues. So cod industry leaders worry that losing it would cast the Gulf in a bad light, even though this is a climate-caused crash.

Before the crash, the Gulf accounted for 20-25 percent of Alaska’s cod market, but warming waters have driven the population down to just above overfished status, and now the fishery is being reassessed.

“From what we understand of the MSC standard, it does look likely that the certification will be suspended,” said Julie Decker, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation.

With the federal fishery closed, and only a small state fishery open this season, she says it’s hard to predict what impact losing MSC certification will have on the market.

“The fact that the fishery is closed and there’s less biomass on the market also probably could have more impact to the price and then the certification,” she said. “So, you know, it’s very hard to sort of tease those two issues apart.”

In other words, not having much Gulf cod to sell will probably impact the market more than losing a sustainability label this year. In any case, the majority of Alaska’s cod — sold fresh or frozen, and processed for foods like fish and chips — comes from the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, both of which are MSC-certified.

“But there are specific export markets because that require MSC certification,” said Nicole Kimball, a representative of Alaska seafood processors and a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. “So those markets wouldn’t be available if MSC certification was suspended later in 2020 for any Gulf of Alaska state waters cod. I’m sure processors would be looking for alternative markets if they’ve been dependent on MSC markets for that.”

The bigger issue for Kimball and other industry members is distinguishing why Gulf cod might have its MSC certification suspended. As Julie Bonney, executive director of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank pointed out, it’s not management that’s to blame.

“Here we’re actually basing our fishery management based on the best available science and they’re taking a cautionary approach by closing directed fishing in the federal fishery, and they’ve also accounted for the small amount of catch that’s going to come through the state fisheries,” said Bonney.

The MSC publishes the reasoning behind suspending a fishery’s certification, but from a consumer marketing angle, there’s no distinction between a fishery suspended for management issues, versus one suspended for environmental problems.

“I think as we sort of continue to see how climate change is having an impact on fisheries, we might need to take another look at that,” Marks, with the MSC said. “Climate change is, of course, a very important one and something that we’re going to continue to have to address.”

The reassessment for Gulf of Alaska cod is slated to begin in February, with results following around April.