A dispute with Wal-Mart over Alaska salmon sparked a protest Wednesday by fishermen outside the South Anchorage store, and on Thursday a contingent of state and seafood marketing officials will argue in Arkansas to keep Alaska salmon in the retail giant’s supercenters.
The immediate issue is whether Wal-Mart will accept a new way of certifying that the harvest of Alaska salmon is sustainable. If Wal-Mart rejects the program, the reputation of Alaska seafood as quality, eco-friendly food could take a hit.
On Thursday, Gov. Sean Parnell aide Stefanie Moreland, state commerce Commissioner Susan Bell, state commercial fisheries director Jeff Regnart, and three top officials with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute are meeting with Wal-Mart executives at the company headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. Aides to both of Alaska's U.S. senators, Mark Begich, and Lisa Murkowski, are teleconferencing in. Parnell, Begich and Murkowski all have pressed Wal-Mart to accept Alaska salmon as a well-managed resource. The Alaska Constitution requires fish be managed under the "sustained yield principle."
"There's tremendous demand for high quality, wild Alaska salmon," said Tyson Fick, communications director for the state-supported seafood marketing institute. "We absolutely would like to get this behind us. I think we are on the path of getting there."
Wal-Mart says it wants a solution.
"Let's be honest. I don't think Wal-Mart wants demonstrators in front of supercenters. I don't think we want fisherman upset about what is going on or in the dark about what our policy is or how we're going to move forward," said Chris Schraeder, Wal-Mart senior manager for sustainability communications. "As much as it's in Alaska's interest to find a resolution to this quickly, it's in Wal-Mart's interest to find a resolution to this quickly."
Wal-Mart won't say how much Alaska salmon it sells, or how much of its seafood comes from Alaska. But it's obviously an important line for the world's biggest retailer. Seafood is the primary protein source for 3 billion people, Wal-Mart's executive vice president for food, Jack Sinclair, wrote on an Aug. 8 blog post addressing the Alaska controversy.
"Our sustainable seafood commitment seems to have made waves recently in Alaska, where the state is proposing an alternative standard for sustainable fisheries management," his blog post began. "It's generated a lively debate on how to best ensure sustainable seafood for our customers today and for generations to come."
Since 2000, Alaska salmon has met the standards for sustainable fishing set by a private nonprofit organization called the Marine Stewardship Council. Based in London with offices around the world, the council says more than 20,000 seafood products carry its "eco label" of sustainability. Independent bodies that act like auditors and that separately are verified as experts check fisheries for compliance. Alaska salmon were once a heralded example.
But now, most of the state's salmon industry is switching over to a new program in which an organization called Global Trust will oversee the certification. The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute is paying for certification, but fish processors will have to pay for a separate assurance tracing the fish to its source, Fick said.
Wal-Mart in February commissioned two independent studies of whether Alaska's new program meets its goals. That work is not yet complete, Schraeder said.
"They used to tell us we're the stuff. Now they're telling us we're full of stuff," said John Renner, a salmon fisherman out of Cordova and one of the protest leaders Wednesday.
He said he doesn't need a label on his catch.
"Unless fish in the cricks are reproducing, we don't go fishing. It's plain and simple," Renner said. "I know our fisheries are sustainable. We don't want to catch the last fish. We would be absolutely foolish if we did."
His two sons have followed him into the business. "I am a second generation; they are third. I would love to see a fourth."
In 2006, Wal-Mart began requiring fresh and frozen seafood sold in its groceries to be certified through the Marine Stewardship Council, the recipient of donations from the Walton Family Foundation. Then, in 2011, it expanded the program to include farmed fish that meets "best aquaculture practices" and to open up certification beyond the marine council.
In Alaska, fish processors complained the stewardship council's process was too expensive and that its requirements kept changing, Parnell wrote in July to Wal-Mart's chief executive, Michael Duke. The state supported the industry's decision to get out of the program, he said.
Alaska fish suppliers also worried the cache of "Alaska wild salmon" was being overshadowed by Marine Stewardship Council branding, Fick of the seafood marketing institute said. He called the eco label "pay to play."
Many of those concerns are misplaced, said Jim Humphreys, the stewardship council's Seattle-based fisheries director.
For one, the eco label is an option but not required, he said. Its cost has been stable for at least five years and is one-half percent of the product's wholesale value, less than the price of an organic label, Humphreys said.
The council itself doesn't make money off certification, which is done in the background unseen by consumers by independent expert organizations, he said. The council does charge for labeling but in other countries, retailers often pay for that because they know it gives consumers an assurance that boosts sales. The council says it is running a trial program using money from the eco labels to cover the bulk of fisheries' certification costs.
Wal-Mart also said it doesn't require the eco label. Still, in 2006 when the retailer first announced it was joining the seafood certification program, it said the first step was to have "MSC-certified fisheries carry the MSC eco-label."
The MSC certification of Alaska salmon expired in October 2012. Salmon fisheries have been reassessed to see whether the state could qualify again and experts found almost the whole state still meets the standards, Humphreys said. One area, Prince William Sound, is still being evaluated to determine the impact of hatchery fish.
Some salmon purse seiners are sticking with the stewardship council program, the council says.
But most of the fish suppliers including big seafood companies such as Trident, Peter Pan and Icicle, have switched to the new one, Fick said.
Wal-Mart hasn't announced a timetable for a decision.
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER