LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. These days, you can buy sustainable fashion and sustainable home landscaping and, as we've been hearing this week, a growing number of products at your local supermarket; among them, certified sustainable seafood. That promise comes from an international nonprofit called the Marine Stewardship Council, or MSC.

WERTHEIMER: Studies show that most of the world's wild fisheries are overfished, or near their limit. The MSC says its sustainable label guarantees that fishermen caught that seafood in ways that don't deplete their supply or threaten other animals in the environment.

MONTAGNE: But as NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports in today's Business Bottom Line, many environmentalists say the label can be misleading.

DANIEL ZWERDLING, BYLINE: Sockeye salmon are a big deal in Canada. They're a big deal in the United States. So it made international news in late 2009. The population of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River, in British Columbia, had collapsed.

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BRIAN WILLIAMS: The plight of the Pacific salmon, which is raising new and urgent concerns along the West Coast right now...

ZWERDLING: NBC was all over this story. The Fraser River is one of the most important salmon producers in the world.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Throughout British Columbia, salmon counts are way down. Experts say...

ZWERDLING: And Canada's leaders formed a commission, to investigate why. The sockeye population has gone up and down since humans began recording it. But the average has been steadily declining over the past 20 years. The government appointed a Supreme Court judge to lead the commission. They gave him the power to subpoena documents and witnesses.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: This is CBC News...

ZWERDLING: Here's how Canadian radio described it.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: A federal inquiry is under way to solve a mystery: what happened to ten million sockeye salmon?

ZWERDLING: So, many researchers were stunned only eight months later when the Marine Stewardship Council made an announcement: the MSC was going to let the fishing industry label sockeye from the Fraser River Certified Sustainable Seafood.

Craig Orr runs a prominent conservation group, he got one of the Canadian government's top awards for public service. He asked the MSC, how can you do this?

CRAIG ORR: Well, here we are seeing this precipitous decline in Fraser sockeye, and then this crash - absolute crash. And then you have this organization saying our fisheries are certifiably sustainable. It just didn't seem to make sense.

ZWERDLING: The MSC is the most influential system in the world that decides which seafood is environmentally correct. You can buy seafood with the MSC logo at Wal-Mart and Target. McDonald's Filet-O-Fish are certified sustainable. The chains point to their MSC labels to show they're socially responsible.

And Rupert Howes is proud.

RUPERT HOWES: I mean, what gets me out of bed to work at the MSC - and I've been chief exec for the last eight years - is a passionate belief that what we're doing is making a difference.

ZWERDLING: Howes is MSC's chief executive. He works at their headquarters in London. Howes says the MSC set up its system to be as objective and scientific as possible. The MSC puts out detailed guidelines that define what a fishery has to do to get the label Certified Sustainable. Then any fishery that wants the label has to hire a private auditing firm to decide if it complies. So far, the MSC system has granted its label to around 200 fisheries. They've turned down only around 10 that applied.

HOWES: What we're trying to do is provide an easy mechanism for seafood buyers and the general public to say, if I see that logo, I've got assurance that the seafood products or fish that I'm buying with that label has come from a well-managed sustainable fishery.'

ZWERDLING: And environmentalists around the world said it was a great idea back when the MSC got started in the 1990s. But today, a lot of them have second thoughts.

SUSANNA FULLER: We're not getting what we think we're getting. And I think people don't know that.

ZWERDLING: Susanna Fuller co-directs the Marine program at the Ecology Action Centre in Canada. And she says here's one of the main things you don't know: When you see the label at your seafood counter, Certified Sustainable...

FULLER: You're not - you're not buying something that's sustainable now.

ZWERDLING: Let's take a step back for a moment. Suppose that you had to decide: Is the sockeye fishery in the Fraser River sustainable? You'd have to ask industry a long list of scientific questions. For instance, there are roughly 30 different kinds of sockeye or stocks caught in the Fraser River. And studies show that some of them are declining more dramatically than others.

So, how many of those threatened kinds of sockeye is industry catching? How can industry prove they're not making the problem worse? And now, suppose that industry told you, sorry, we don't have that information. How would you respond? Well, the MSC system basically told them, don't worry. We'll label your sockeye sustainable now as long as you promise that you'll get that information to us within five years. The MSC calls those promises conditions.

FULLER: It's kind of like saying, you know, to a child, like, well, you've been really bad, but I'll give you a lollipop, and then I want you to show me how much better you can be. It just doesn't work, right? You've already got the lollipop.

ZWERDLING: In fact, most seafood that the MSC labels sustainable has a list of conditions in fine print - Fraser River sockeye has more than 30 conditions. And surveys have found that the fisheries don't live up to a lot of them.

Representatives of major environmental groups and foundations have repeatedly told the MSC: Remove the word sustainable from your label - or the MSC could lose credibility. Executives at MSC have refused. I asked the MSC's president, Rupert Howes.

How can you say any fishery is sustainable, you know, bam, you are sustainable. How can you say that when there are still basic things that scientists don't know about the fish and how they reproduce and the impact it's having on the ocean floor and the impact it's having on other life in the sea?

HOWES: The sustainable word is fraught with difficulty, undoubtedly.

ZWERDLING: But Howes says I'm missing the point. He says no human endeavor is perfect. When the MSC system certified that a fishery is sustainable, and then gives it a list of conditions, he says they're giving the fishery an incentive to do better.

HOWES: The fundamental point is they have assessed the evidence of that unique fishery and deemed it sufficient to meet, as you quite rightly pointed out, MSC standard. The conditions are then there to improve that knowledge. And this is what I mean about the dangers of expectations of perfection obscuring the good that is undoubtedly happening.

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CAPT. GORDON BOTKIN: Victoria traffic in this Delta.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Delta traffic roger, you've already made arrangements with the Granny hatch?

ZWERDLING: A few months ago, I rode along on a salmon boat on the Fraser River, near Vancouver.

BOTKIN: Well, it's down about five and a half fathoms, so 35 feet, maybe a little more.

WERTHEIMER: The U.S. and Canada have a joint agency that monitors salmon, and they were sending out boats like this one to sample how many sockeye were making it back from the ocean.

ZWERDLING: The captain was Gordon Botkin. He unreeled a net from a huge drum until it stretched almost all across the river, then he reeled it in after half an hour. He got eight sockeye salmon.

BOTKIN: Watch it, take an eye out with that thing. I've been fishing salmon since 1967.

ZWERDLING: Whoa.

BOTKIN: Yeah. I've seen the trend, there's been less fish. It's been pretty dramatic in the last 20 years. My income and my production of fish has gone down, down, down.

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ZWERDLING: Not long after we made this trip, the Canadian government commission that's been investigating sockeye put out its final report. The Commission concluded that a long list of forces, from industrial development to climate change, will likely make things worse.

The Marine Stewardship Council didn't flinch. Sockeye salmon from the Fraser River are still certified sustainable.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

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MONTAGNE: NPR's Margot Williams was the co-reporter on that story. And there's more about the controversies surrounding the Marine Stewardship Council at npr.org.

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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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