Early last year, Alaska's wild salmon fishing industry decided to end its partnership with the seafood world's most prominent sustainability certification group in favor of its own labeling efforts. But the move quickly drew a reaction from customers, as Wal-Mart and others said they would no longer buy Alaskan salmon without the independent check.
Now, the Alaska salmon industry appears to have won the fight, recently saying it was standing firm in its decision to drop the outside certification group.
For years, the group, the Marine Stewardship Council, has been the blue seal of approval for seafood products. The fast-food chain McDonald's relies on the council to verify the origins of its fish sandwich.
Then in 2012, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute created its own label in collaboration with an Irish group, Global Trust, reasoning that the state's reputation for sustainable fishing was good enough for most environmentally conscious consumers. The state's seafood marketers took the step to save money and reduce what they considered to be outside interference in a thriving business.
But someone forgot to check with Wal-Mart. The world's largest retailer told its suppliers in June that it would no longer buy Alaska salmon sourced from fisheries that were not certified by the stewardship council or an equivalent group. The company noted in a statement that "Wal-Mart has not yet determined any other standard to be equivalent to MSC."
The reaction of Wal-Mart, a major customer for Alaska fisheries, was like a slap in the face. The company, in essence, suggested that Alaska was ducking independent certification of its fishing practices.
Adding injury, Sodexo, a giant food services company that has contracts to supply the military, followed suit, raising the prospect that Alaska seafood would be supplanted by fish from Russia and other fisheries certified by the stewardship council. Even the National Park Service, whose guidelines called for fish certified by the stewardship council to be served under its jurisdiction, seemed to be abandoning Alaska.
With its $6.4 billion seafood industry under siege, Alaska came out swinging. The industry portrayed itself as a victim of Wal-Mart's "anti-American purchasing policy" and "foreign" interference in the fishery. (The stewardship council is based in London).
Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, a Democrat and chairman of the subcommittee on fisheries, convened a hearing Sept. 24 to question the companies that were threatening to stop buying Alaska salmon. The state's other senator, Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, introduced a bill to prohibit federal agencies from requiring seafood to be certified by any third party.
Since then, the companies appear to have backed down.
While Sodexo has not formally accepted the local industry certification, the company has hinted it is prepared to compromise. Laura Schalk, a spokeswoman in Paris, said Friday that Alaska salmon "continues to be on the menu" in Sodexo facilities. A senior Wal-Mart executive testified that the retailer was re-examining its decision and would have a final answer before the end of the year.
Last week, the salmon industry essentially declared victory, saying it would move forward with its own labeling efforts. In a clear swipe at Wal-Mart, the salmon industry urged "the few remaining buyers with MSC-only buying policies to stop swimming against the tide."
"Alaska has the idea of sustainability built into its constitution," Begich said in an interview, referring to a provision in the state charter, which says natural resources must be managed on the "sustained yield principle."
He dismissed the idea that the industry needed more outside oversight, noting that the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, closely monitors U.S. fisheries.
Seafood certification programs are meant to reassure consumers that seafood is being watched "from bait to plate." The stewardship council seeks to ensure that the catch is set at levels that keep fish stocks healthy and that there is no significant harm done to other species like seabirds and marine mammals.
But critics argue that many such programs are little more than exercises in "greenwashing," endorsing dubious environmental claims in exchange for corporate dollars.
The salmon dispute recalls a recent battle over forestry products, which ForestEthics and Greenpeace, two advocacy groups, argued before the Federal Trade Commission. In May, the groups claimed that a certification group originally formed by timber interests, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, was certifying timber products even when they had been harvested with destructive methods.
Both the stewardship council and Alaska's homegrown certification cite their reliance on principles developed by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Still, critics have expressed skepticism about the new Alaska standard.
"I'm not really a fan of the MSC, but I think everyone would agree that it's more credible" than the new standard, said John Hocevar, ocean campaigns director at Greenpeace. "I'm not superimpressed with the idea of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute deciding what is and isn't sustainable."
By dismissing the stewardship council, the Alaska industry says it will save money, but neither it nor the council indicate exactly how much. In addition to the cost of certification and the chain of custody audits that are carried out by third-party contractors, the stewardship council charges 0.5 percent of the value of the wholesale catch for the right to use its logo, a substantial sum.
Certification costs for the new Alaska body are similar, according to Tyson Fick, a spokesman for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. There is no charge for the use of the logo, he said.
The stewardship council declined to comment. But in an open letter, Kerry Coughlin, the council's director for the Americas, said that the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute had "attempted to discredit MSC in order to gain acceptance of its own program," and that critics' descriptions of its certification costs were "ridiculously inflated."
For many Alaska fisherman, it's a battle worth fighting.
John Renner, operator of two fishing boats and vice president of Cordova District Fishermen United, an Alaska industry lobbying group, said the council had undercut its own reputation, and thus the value of its seal, by giving the same grade to Russian fisheries as those in Alaska.
"That gives them the MSC logo and puts them on the same footing in the market as us," he said, even though the Russian fishery was in worse shape, and Russian boats faced vastly lower labor and regulatory costs.
Renner said Alaskans "don't take kindly to outsiders coming in to tell us what is and isn't sustainable." If the stewardship council wants to manage something, he said, "tell them to go manage Atlantic salmon."
By DAVID JOLLY
The New York Times