Gulf of Alaska cod loses sustainability labels because of scarcity caused by climate change

A package of frozen fish fillets sold at a Whole Foods Market carries the Marine Stewardship Council blue label. (Photo courtesy Marine Stewardship Council)

After 10 years of certification, Gulf of Alaska cod will have its blue-sticker sustainability label suspended starting April 5, 2020.

After a climate change-caused crash pushed Gulf cod to near-overfished status last year, the suspension of the Marine Stewardship Council blue label did not come as a surprise to the industry.

Related: Extremely low cod numbers lead feds to close the Gulf of Alaska fishery for the first time

The MSC is a leading standard-bearer for sustainable fisheries around the world. And right now, impacts of losing MSC certification are still unclear. With no federal cod fishery this season and only a small state fishery, there isn’t a lot of Gulf cod to sell this year, anyway.

An independent audit of the fishery this winter essentially found that not enough young cod were entering the fishery — that’s what triggered the suspension.

The auditor was clear, however, that the suspension is not a result of poor management. Rather, it blames the 2013-2016 marine heatwave that decimated cod stocks in the Gulf.

“GOA Pacific cod stock and fishery continue to be extremely well managed and monitored,” the report read.

Right now, the MSC does not distinguish between climate-caused suspensions and management-caused suspensions, something industry players criticized when it became clear Gulf cod was close to suspension.

Related: Battered by a marine heatwave, Kodiak’s cod fishermen may not be fishing in the Gulf for much longer

“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,” Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation executive director Julie Decker said in a statement on Friday.

In January, an MSC spokesperson told Alaska’s Energy Desk that distinguishing climate change-caused fishery suspensions is worth taking another look at, though no actions have been taken yet.

Gulf cod makes up less than ten percent of Alaska’s cod market following the crash, according to the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation. The majority of the state’s cod comes out of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands fisheries, both of which remain MSC-certified.