Seattle-based pollock producers say the sinking of the Dalny Vostok, with dozens of fatalities, raises questions about a Russian fishing fleet that has a sustainable-fishing certification.

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Seattle-based pollock producers say the sinking of a Russian trawler with dozens of fatalities earlier this month raises disturbing questions about a Sea of Okhotsk fishery that has a sustainable fishing certification through the Marine Stewardship Council.

Russian criminal investigators are looking into allegations that the ship, called Dalny Vostok, had numerous safety violations and went to sea with illegal crew from Myanmar who lacked work permits. It sank April 1, leaving 65 dead and 12 missing among its crew of 132, according to reports.

“Fisheries need to be monitored, and if they aren’t doing that on labor issues, it’s a pretty good guess they’re not doing that on environmental issues,” said Jim Gilmore, a spokesman for the At-Sea Processors Association, which represents the largely Seattle-based fleet that catches and processes pollock off Alaska.

The April 1 sinking comes amid increased scrutiny of the environmental and labor practices of international fishing fleets, and seafood distributors are under increased pressure to take care in sourcing their products.

The Russian trawler Dalny Vostok sank in 15 minutes in the Sea of Okhotsk on April 1. Of the 132 crew members on board, 65 are known dead and at least 12 are missing. Source: The Associated Press (Mark Nowlin / The Seattle Times)
The Russian trawler Dalny Vostok sank in 15 minutes in the Sea of Okhotsk on April 1. Of the 132 crew members on board, 65 are known dead and at least 12 are missing. Source: The Associated Press (Mark Nowlin / The Seattle Times)

The U.S. pollock producers, who also have a Marine Stewardship Council harvest certification, compete with Russian pollock producers in the marketplace. They are pressing the council to demand “a full accounting” of what went wrong in the sinking of Dalny Vostok off Russia’s Far East coast.

Without that, the At Sea Processors warn of “reputational risks” to those who harvest, certify and market fish through the Marine Stewardship Council, according to a letter sent earlier this month to the council and a contractor involved in the certification.

Geoff Bolan, the council’s Seattle-based U.S. program director, said it is too soon to know what went wrong on the Dalny Vostok and whether the problems extend to other vessels in the Russian fleet.

“Right now, we’re operating in a world of allegations, and there is no government or legal authority that has produced results on what actually happened,” Bolan said

A representative of the Russian Pollock Catcher Association told Undercurrent News, an online seafood-industry publication, that “it was an exceptional accident and has nothing in common with the whole fleet operations.”

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), launched in 1997, is a nonprofit organization that offers two separate certifications. Auditors evaluate whether a fleet’s harvest is sustainable, and also analyze whether companies have a verifiable chain of custody so a product can be traced from the fishing grounds to the final point of sale.

Fishing fleets that want their harvest to gain the MSC’s certification hire the auditors to see if they can meet its standards.

Dozens of fisheries all over the world have gained certification. Especially in European markets, the council’s blue and white ecolabel can be an important marketing tool.

Though it remains focused on sustainable fishing, the MSC last year banned certifying companies that have been successfully prosecuted for forced labor.

The Mynamar Times reports that 16 crew from Myanmar died in the sinking, and that some of the 26 survivors never realized they were heading out to work on a fishing vessel.

Bolan, of the MSC, said that once investigations are completed, it will be up to the contractor that certifies the Sea of Okhotsk fleet to review all the evidence about the Dalny Vostok. Then, the contractor would see if the findings impact certification of Magellan Ltd., the company that operated the vessel.

In the meantime, Bolan notes that Magellan has yet to be certified on the chain-of-custody standards, so none of the Dalny Vostok’s pollock ever entered the markets with MSC certification.

The pollock caught by the Russians is the same species of fish scooped up by U.S. factory trawlers that work off Alaska’s coasts.

In America, it is one of the largest and most valuable seafood harvests in the world, producing a multitude of products that range from McDonald’s fish sandwiches to simulated crab formed from surimi.

The Alaska pollock harvests were first certified by the Marine Stewardship Council in 2005, and that helped give it a marketing edge over Russian competitors who pull pollock from both the Bering and Okhotsk seas.

Some Alaska pollock fishermen had previously tried to do business in Russia, where they were frustrated by bribery demands and other unethical business practices.

“”No one really did it successfully because of issues with government and industry corruption,” said Gilmore, of the At-Sea Processors.

So, it did not sit well with the Alaska pollock producers when, in 2013, the Russian pollock gained the sustainable-harvest certification.

In a lengthy but ultimately unsuccessful protest brief, the U.S. processors questioned the methods used to assess the health of the Russian pollock stocks, as well as the veracity of some information.

Alaska’s pollock fleets, for example, do have some entanglements with marine mammals, and sometimes inadvertently kill sea birds that fly into wires. But the Russians did not report any such incidents.

And, in Alaska, the fleet’s entire pollock harvest is monitored by observers who report their findings to the federal government. In Russia, there is far less observer coverage of the pollock fleets.