Laine Welch: Wal-Mart and park service snub Alaska salmon for lack of a label

Laine Welch

It might sound like a whopper of a fish story, but Alaska salmon is not good enough for Wal-Mart or the National Park Service.

The reason? Wild Alaska salmon doesn't have a specific eco-label saying it's sustainably managed -- as determined by the London-based Marine Stewardship Council 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 fisheries management stands on its own. But without the MSC stamp of approval, customers won't find Alaska salmon in Wal-Mart superstores, or at any food vendor at a national park or monument.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski blasted the park service for ignoring federal guidelines that say "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, which has been rating U.S. fisheries for years.

Murkowski also criticized Wal-Mart for turning its back on U.S. salmon and Alaska's small fishing businesses.

Likewise, Gov. 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, the company's 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.

Parnell pointed out that the Alaska Constitution mandates that fisheries be managed for maximum sustained yield -- the only state constitution with such language.

Big Bay payday

Bristol Bay sockeyes are netting fishermen a base price of $1.50 a pound, an increase of 50 cents a pound over the past two years. The final price will be higher for many fishermen, who get an extra 15 cents a pound for chilled fish and another nickel for bled.

The price jump comes from a slightly lower catch than expected (15.5 million fish 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, a number that will climb this summer.

More Bristol Bay fishermen have improved handling, and the fishermen-funded and -operated Regional Seafood Development Association has partnered with processors to barge ice out to the far-flung fleets.

Sockeye salmon are Alaska's biggest money fish, and the bulk of that catch comes from Bristol Bay.

Seafood feedback

After 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 seafood and 95 percent of its salmon.

Forty percent of consumers regard seafood as a healthier protein than meats, but at the same time, 25 percent said they worry more about spoilage and contamination of fish than beef or poultry, according to "Fish and Seafood Trends in the U.S." by Packaged Facts.

Fifty-one percent of customers incorrectly believe fresh seafoods are healthier than frozen. Packaged Facts projects that overall, and depending on the economy, the U.S. retail market for seafood will top $17 billion by 2017, a 3 percent annual growth rate.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state. Contact her at

Laine Welch