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Laine Welch: Sen. Begich defends Alaska salmon against snubs

Laine Welch

Alaska salmon continues to get pummelled by ill-informed, faraway bigwigs who think they're making good seafood choices for their customers.

Sodexo, one of the world's largest food service contractors, said last week that it would only serve seafood certified by the London-based Marine Stewardship Council. In this case, the fish would be served to U.S. troops.

Sodexo, a Fortune 500 company based in France, has an eight-year contract to provide food services to military mess halls. That includes serving $22 million worth of seafood each year.

Sodexo provides food to hundreds of federal, state and private hospitals, schools, prisons, assisted-living centers and other facilities across the country, so it's likely many other Americans also are not benefiting from Alaska seafood.

In a letter to Sodexo USA CEO George Chavel, Sen. Mark Begich called the salmon snub "outrageous" and an "appalling insult."

"This company has decided that because of some labeling issue, they don't think Alaska fish products meet their standards," Begich fumed during a phone call as he was leaving a fisheries hearing in Kenai. "We believe the certification we have through Global Trust, the same that Canada and Iceland receive on their fish products, is as high a standard, if not higher, than what Sodexo wants."

The Marine Stewardship Council spearheaded the sustainable seafood movement in 1997, showcasing Alaska salmon as its first big certification success. The Alaska industry opted out of the program last year, due to growing logo and licensing costs and concerns over inconsistent standards.

Sodexo follows Wal-Mart and the U.S. Park Service in opting to exclude Alaska salmon based on an eco-labeling issue. Both were quick to claim "salmon love" but admitted they do not understand Alaska's new third-party certification standards.

"What we are really asking is for ASMI, and others who are closely involved in the industry, to educate us and give us more information," said Chris Schraeder, Wal-Mart's senior manager of sustainability communications. Members of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and other industry stakeholders are scheduled to meet with Wal-Mart at its Arkansas headquarters next month.

Similarly, Begich said Friday that Sodexo USA called him to say they want to work with Alaska and resolve the seafood spat.

"They understand now that there are issues they were unaware of about Alaska's sustainability programs, and how we track our products. We are happy to educate them," Begich said.

He added: "In a backhanded way, all of this lets us tout the benefits of Alaska fish, and make something positive out of an adverse situation. I feel it is my responsibility to promote seafood for Alaska and all U.S. fisheries and this gives me a chance to contact these companies directly."

As chairman of the Committee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, Begich said he is ready to add eco-labeling clarifications to the Magnuson-Stevens Act as it undergoes reauthorization.

People put-down

People magazine was next up to receive an irate letter from Begich and other Alaskans. The offense? Its assertion that farmed fish is "a better choice" than wild fish.

In a blog post titled "The best fish to buy," fitness and health food guru Harley Pasternak wrote that the many benefits of farmed seafood include "a reduced likelihood of contamination from mercury and PCBs," which "are not as much of a risk in a controlled, farmed environment."

Readers gave the guru's fish recommendations a big thumbs-down. Nearly all of the 60 comments bashed Pasternak -- "a hit job on our fisheries" ... "a shill for the farm fish industry" ... "think he'd eat it with a 10-foot pole?" ... "Real fish don't eat pellets" ... "farm raised is genetically modified food" -- and chastised him for poor research.

With a circulation of 3.5 million, People ranks in the top 10 of America's most popular magazines.

Salmon watch

Alaska's total salmon catch has already set a record and the fish are still coming. By Aug. 23, the total harvest topped 241 million (the old record was 222 million in 2005), pushed by huge surges of humpies.

The total pink salmon catch was 192 million; the old record was 161 million in 2005. In Prince William Sound, the pink harvest was more than 87 million fish. In Southeast, the pink catch was approaching 73 million. Off Kodiak, the pink catch topped 23 million.

Other statewide totals were: chinook, 303,000; chum, 17 million; coho, 3 million; sockeye, 29 million.

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

Laine Welch