By Laine Welch
It might sound like a whopper of a fish story, but Alaska salmon is not good enough for Wal-Mart or the U.S. National Park Service.
The reason? Alaska’s wild-caught salmon does not brandish a specific eco-label verifying that it is sustainably managed – as determined by two Outside groups: the London-based Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.
Alaska’s seafood industry recently opted out of high-priced eco-endorsements from elsewhere, believing the State’s brand of fisheries oversight can stand on its own merit. But without the MSC stamp of approval, customers won’t find Alaska salmon in Wal-Mart’s super stores. And the Park Service is requiring that all food vendors at its parks and monuments, etc. can only serve seafood endorsed by those private enterprises.
Senator Lisa Murkowski blasted the Park Service for ignoring federal guidelines that state, “the government does not endorse any particular labeling or documentation program over another.”
The Park Service also brushed aside the government’s own FishWatch program that has been rating U.S. fisheries for years.
Murkowski also criticized Wal-Mart for turning its back on USA salmon and Alaska’s small fishing businesses.
Likewise, Governor Sean Parnell sent a letter last week to Wal-Mart CEO Michael Duke expressing “great disappointment,” and saying that while he commends Wal-Mart’s desire to source its products responsibly, he believes the decision was based on “incomplete information.”
“I encourage you to recognize that sustainable labeling has grown beyond the days when domination by a single eco-label was a viable option,” Parnell wrote.
He added that, while Wal-Mart’s “commitment to source only MSC seafood may have been sensible when first declared back in 2006, that policy is now sorely dated and is serving only to deprive your customers of high quality products produced in America and forcing your company to source salmon from less sustainable fisheries in foreign nations.”
Parnell pointed out that the Alaska State Constitution has mandated management of fishery resources on a sustained yield principle; the only U.S. state with such explicit conservation language in its constitution.
“No one understands more than Alaskans what it takes to protect fish stocks and their habitat,” Parnell wrote. “Because we have chosen, as a state, to put sustainability above profit, our historic fisheries have thrived famously and the Alaska model serves as an example to other regions.”
Big Bay payday A base price of $1.50/lb for fishermen at the world’s biggest sockeye salmon fishery Bristol Bay, an increase of $.50 higher per pound over the past two years. The final price will be even higher for many fishermen who will get an extra $.15 for chilled fish and another nickel for bled.
The price boost comes from a slightly lower catch than expected (15.5 million so far) — and big improvements in fish quality. Last year, for the first time, more than half of the Bristol Bay salmon catch was chilled. That number will climb even higher this summer.
Spearheaded by the fishermen funded/operated Regional Seafood Development Association, more Bristol Bay fishermen are routinely using improved handling techniques and the group has partnered with processors to barge ice out to the far flung fishing fleets.
“Everyone literally has stepped up; harvesters, processors, marketing, sales transportation, everything has improved in the whole supply chain. It’s taken a lot of hard work from a lot of people,” Glenn Reed, director of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association told KDLG, radio news, during a visit to Dillingham.
Sockeye salmon are Alaska’s big money fish and the bulk of the catch comes from Bristol Bay. Last year, for example, sockeyes were worth fully half of the statewide salmon value of $505 million at the docks.
The economic benefits of the fishery circulate far beyond Bristol Bay. The salmon also supports thousands of jobs in Pacific Coast states and beyond. According to a University of Alaska report, the Bristol Bay fishery also creates nearly 8,000 jobs nationwide in transportation sectors and all along the distribution chain as it heads to markets in the U.S. and around the world.
Seafood feedback Next to catching the fish, the biggest challenge is getting people to buy it. Seafood sales approached $15 billion at American seafood counters last year, a $1.5 billion increase since 2008. That’s good news for Alaska, which provides nearly 60 percent of the nation’s wild caught seafood and 95 percent of its salmon.
According to “Fish and Seafood Trends in the U.S.” by Packaged Facts, 40 percent of consumers regard seafood as a healthier protein than meats. At the same time, 25 percent said they worry more about spoilage and contamination of fish than beef or poultry.
Fifty one percent of customers believe that fresh seafoods are healthier than frozen. (Wrong). Packaged Facts projects that overall and depending on the rate of the economy, the U.S. retail market for seafood will top $17 billion by 2017, reflecting a three percent annual growth rate.
Americans eat most of their seafood at restaurants and the National Restaurant Association predicts it will make an bigger splash this year. A survey of its 2,000 members revealed the hottest dining trends are locally sourced meats, seafood and produce. Another top trend is using new cuts of meats and sustainable seafoods.
A recent survey of 1,100 Americans by the Chicago-based Perishables Group showed that 40 percent said they were not familiar with the sustainable seafood concept - topmost on their minds was food safety, followed by price.
Less than 20 percent said they recalled seeing any eco-labels or messages in supermarkets or restaurants – yet 62 percent said they recalled messages about wild or farmed seafood. In terms of organizations that promote sustainability, 46 percent were familiar with the World Wildlife Fund; only five percent were familiar with the Marine Stewardship Council.
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