Laine Welch: Salmon issue brings Wal-Mart officials to state

Laine Welch

Representatives of mega-retailer Wal-Mart were in Juneau last week to learn just how sustainably Alaska salmon fisheries are managed.

Alaska's salmon industry had opted out of a pricey sustainability certification program that Wal-Mart relies on to guide its seafood purchasing. (The program is the work of the London-based Marine Stewardship Council.)

Alaska instead adopted a U.N.-sanctioned Responsible Fisheries Management (RFM) program. Certification of sustainable management has become a near-requirement in most seafood buying and selling.

As a result, Alaska salmon ended up outside the bounds of Wal-Mart's seafood buying guidelines. When word spread last summer that Wal-Mart might no longer stock Alaska salmon, Alaskans went ballistic. Thus, the trip to Juneau.

Seven Wal-Mart officials met for several days with Gov. Sean Parnell, state officials and seafood industry experts and scientists. The mood was friendly, said John Renner, vice president of Cordova District Fishermen United, who spent time with the group.

"All parties want to get something done. And Wal-Mart wants to get itself out of the box it got itself into," Renner said. "They were eager to learn and impressed by what they saw."

Renner said he came away with "a positive feeling that something will happen shortly after a couple of tweaks are made to the written criteria and allow others besides the MSC (to certify)."

David Baskin, Wal-Mart's vice president of meat and seafood, said, "We're excited that the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute has agreed to work with us to ensure the RFM standard meets the principles for credible sustainable fisheries programs ..."

Fish angst

A child's chemistry set can show that our oceans are becoming more corrosive. The trend stems primarily from the oceans' having to absorb larger amounts of carbon dioxide generated by the burning of fossil fuels, especially coal. Increasing acidity inhibits the ability of marine creatures to grow shells and skeletons.

Now scientists have found that ocean acidification also changes fish behavior.

Normal fish move between the shaded and light parts of a kelp forest, for example, looking for food or interacting with other fish. Studies by Martín Tresguerres, a marine biologist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in California, show that acidification affects their neurons in a way that makes them feel more threatened, so they prefer to stay sheltered.

Tresguerres' team studied the brains of juvenile rockfish living in acidic waters. Rockfish have predictable behaviors, he said, so it's easier to detect changes. When placed in a tank with one dark and one white wall, a rockfish exposed to the corrosive waters stayed close to the dark wall, as did a fish that had been given an anxiety-inducing drug. That might not sound like a big deal but it is.

"Depending on the species, if they normally go offshore at a certain period of time, or they might go to a certain area to spawn and reproduce, it might affect the way they interact with other fish. So the potential implications are pretty big," Tresguerres told KUCB/Unalaska.

Such behavior changes could eventually shift the entire ecosystem, said study co-author Trevor Hamilton.

"What could end up happening is the fish will spend less time leaving their safe environments," Hamilton said. "So there is potential for them to get caught by fewer nets and get eaten by fewer predators. It could have an effect all the way up the food chain ..."

Here comes halibut

Halibut catch limits, season dates, bycatch issues and perhaps new fishing regulations will be decided at the 90th annual meeting of the International Pacific Halibut Commission Monday through Friday in Seattle.

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

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