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Wal-Mart decision on Alaska seafood could be bad for fisheries

Philip A. Loring
Commercial fishing boats work in Bristol Bay near Naknek, in July 2007. Wal-Mart's decision to accept Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute's sustainability certification for Alaska salmon removes a market force that might've prompted fisheries like these to pay more attention to sustainability practices. echoforsberg / cc via flickr

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. will once again start selling Alaska salmon, but is its decision good for Alaska’s fisheries and fishing communities? State and federal politicians and industry boosters say yes; but with so many unaddressed social and ecological challenges facing our fisheries and fishing communities, I am not so sure.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Wal-Mart had a policy to purchase only seafood that carries certification from the Marine Stewardship Council. Several players in Alaska’s seafood industry, however, have decided to no longer pursue MSC certification. As such, it appeared as though Alaska salmon would disappear from Walmart shelves. However, in response to extensive lobbying by multiple state and federal policymakers, including U.S. Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski and Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, the retail giant has reversed its position. In its reversal, however, Wal-Mart has effectively accepted a type of certification that is, in ways, fundamentally different from MSC certification, and in the process, it may have done damage to the possibility of attaining sustainable fisheries and fishing communities both in Alaska and worldwide.

Alaskans do not have to look hard for evidence that our fisheries and fishing families and fishing communities are in trouble. Surely, fisheries managers in Alaska have done a great job of managing multiple and complex fisheries through great periods of growth. But there have been costs. Alaska Natives have been systematically disenfranchised of their fishing rights through transitions to quota systems. Multiple small fishing communities across the state bear the scars of fishing industry consolidation. King salmon are in trouble. Commercial seafood is marketed outside the state at the expense of local food security.

In other words, there is much more that can be done to make Alaska’s fisheries both ecologically and socially sustainable.

That more can be done is why the Wal-Mart decision is so troubling. The goal of sustainability certifications is to provide a venue for consumers, through their purchasing power, to demand that unsustainable and unjust practices be abandoned. While it is unlikely that certifications and labels can eliminate problems like overfishing or poverty, there is much evidence that they can achieve notable gains. Fair trade coffee, for example, has improved the livelihoods of coffee farmers in many parts of the world.

Ideally, as certification systems gain reputation, they are also adopted as standards by retailers, governments, and international agreements. This is how they come to exert game-changing market pressures in favor of sustainable practices. Wal-Mart is an excellent example. The U.S. government, at least until recently, had also been using the MSC certification to guide its purchasing habits.

Over the past few years, Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, which is a joint venture of the State of Alaska and seafood industry partners, has developed what they describe as an alternative to MSC. This program, known widely by its “Wild, Natural, Sustainable” slogan, has facilitated certification of all of the major commercial fisheries in the state. This is the program that Wal-Mart recently decided to accept as an alternative to the MSC.

Yet, ASMI’s certification does not certify that a fishery is sustainable, but that it is “responsibly managed.” In other words, the focus is on the system of management, not the outcomes.

For example, the Responsible Fisheries Management certification does not include direct stock assessment. Instead, the RFM process requires that fisheries management systems perform stock assessment and monitoring. Likewise, they do not require evidence that the fish stocks have been managed sustainably, but only that they are managed with the “maximum sustainable yield” principle, a science-based concept that, despite being critiqued by fisheries scientists for decades, ASMI continues to tout as a gold standard.

Similarly, ASMI’s RFM process does not evaluate whether the interests of subsistence and small-scale fishers are in fact being protected, but just that the management system has mechanisms for doing so. This explains how Alaska halibut fisheries were certified, despite extensive research by University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher Courtney Carothers that exposes the systematic loss of halibut fishing rights among Alaska Native peoples.

The nuance between “sustainable” and “responsibly managed” is important, but ASMI regularly conflates the two. In much of its marketing material, for example, ASMI touts the mere existence of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and the sustained yield clause in Alaska’s constitution, as all the evidence necessary for evaluating these fisheries. In their words, “Not everyone requires certification of our fisheries because they know about Alaska’s 50+ years of leadership and commitment to sustainability … In Alaska, certification is an option, not a requirement, to claim that our fisheries are responsibly managed.”

In other words, “Alaska fisheries are sustainable because we say so.”

There is nothing to say that a state- or federal-level certification process could not be as good as or better than a global one. Nor are there any reasons that Alaska fisheries could not bear both the MSC and RFM seals. In fact, the Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association (PSVOA) of Alaska undertook MSC certification for Alaska salmon fisheries in 2013. That certification was successful for all fishing units in the state save Prince William Sound. As a result of PWS not making the grade, however, seafood producer Copper River Seafood dropped out of PSVOA’s application to MSC, and was quoted as saying they “cannot support a certification model that fails to certify all fisheries within a state that is a global model for sustainable fisheries management.” Again, sustainable because we say so.

There appears to be a fundamental disagreement on the part of ASMI that certifications should serve the purpose for which they are created: to create a mechanism by which consumers can drive changes in practice through the market. The appearance ASMI’s actions create is that the Alaska seafood industry was happy to be certified by MSC as long as they got a clean bill of health. Now that there are questions, however, no one wants to admit that things need to change. In fairness, ASMI’s mission is one of industry marketing. As such, this entire controversy may be the result of a simple conflict of interests.

A second noteworthy red flag from ASMI is how heavily it markets its own certification as being based on standards put forth by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Their repeated use of phrase “FAO-based” is misleading because the program has no official endorsement from the FAO. Likewise there is no clear evidence that the process fully incorporates the FAO’s guidelines. For example, FAO guidelines for responsible fisheries management require that fisheries are managed with for goals of “food security, poverty alleviation, and sustainable development,” yet these are continuing and arguably worsening challenges across the state.

Some market pressure to do a better job may be exactly what Alaska’s fisheries need to go from good to great. Unfortunately, the Wal-Mart decision likely eliminates that possibility.

Further, the damage done by the Wal-Mart decision will not likely be limited to Alaska. The FAO reports that over half of the world’s wild fisheries are fully exploited and another quarter are overexploited or already depleted. While the MSC certification is not perfect, it has shown gains.

Wal-Mart is the world’s largest retailer, and now accepts a certification scheme that is fundamentally at odds with the basic premise of sustainability certification. What damage this means for the MSC and progress in fisheries sustainability in the long run is unclear. At a minimum, it means that policymakers and industry boosters in Alaska and the U.S. have elevated local concerns over playing a role in global the stewardship of fisheries resources.

Dr. Philip Loring researches fisheries and food security issues in Alaska. He is also President of the Alaska Chapter of the American Fisheries Society.

The views expressed here are the writer's own, not those of the American Fisheries Society. They are also not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.