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Begich upbraids contractor who thumbed nose at Alaska seafood

Margaret BaumanThe Cordova Times
In a letter to the chief executive officer of Sodexo USA, Begich said he's troubled by reports that the company only buys seafood certified by a single broker -- one that doesn't certify Alaska fish. Prince William Sound Marketing Assn.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, is urging a major international food contractor that has multi-million dollar contracts with the federal government to reconsider its decision to serve only Marine Stewardship Council-certified seafood to federal agencies.

Begich said in a letter to George Chavel, president and chief executive officer of Sodexo USA that he applauds the company's commitment to sustainability, but is deeply concerned by reports that Sodexo USA only sources seafood certified by a single broker: the Marine Stewardship Council.

Begich took issue with reliance on sustainability certification from London-based MSC, an organization that has come under harsh criticism by Alaska fishermen for their growing logo fees, inconsistent standards and increasing licensing costs.

"Alaska was into sustainability before sustainability became cool," he said.

"It's ridiculous and insulting that the seafood being offered to our troops might come from Russia," Begich said in his letter to Chavel. "Alaska wrote the book on sustainable fisheries and we don't need outsiders to tell us how to manage our stocks."

Heather Handyside, a spokesperson for Begich in Anchorage, said that Sodexo USA had contacted the senator's office said they were looking into the issue.

Sodexo USA is, according to the company website, the leading provider of integrated food and facilities management services in the U.S, Canada and Mexico, with $7.7 billion in annual revenue and 120,000 employees. The company serves more than 10 million customers daily in corporations, health care, long term care and retirement centers, schools, college campuses, government and remote sites.

Sodexo Government Services, a $270 million division of Sodexo North America, serves 29 million meals annually across 24 states. The company website notes that they service 110 federal agency sites, 53 Marine Corps mess halls, 1 advanced food processing plant, 10 Army medical hospitals, more than 60 food service maintenance sites, and international alliances, with over 2,300 employees and 13 different subcontract partners.

"I strongly urge Sodexo USA to include in its programs seafood that is effectively managed, publicly accountable, and has a proven track record of sustainability rather than merely relying on the arbitrary guidelines of a self-appointed non-governmental organization," Begich told Chavel.

"Seafood in the United States is responsibly harvested under the MSA's (Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act) strict regulations to keep the environment healthy, fish populations thriving, and our seafood industry on the job," he said.

Begich also noted that in Alaska, sustainable fishery management is written into the Alaska Constitution. "In fact, Alaskans largely fought for statehood in 1959 to take control of its fisheries, ban destructive fish traps, and manage fish returns for the long run, not short-term profit," he said.

"Since 1976, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council has never exceeded scientifically set catch levels," he said. "Now Alaska produces over 5 billion pounds of seafood annually -- including an average of over 150 million salmon -- and not one finfish stock is considered overfished.

"We weather the normal ups and downs in fish abundance, manage catches accordingly, and still account for over 50 percent of the nation's annual seafood production," he said. "Many of the lessons learned in Alaska were adopted nationwide when MSA was reauthorized in 2006. Now U.S. fisheries managers are seen as global leaders for sustainable seafood."