In Alaska, fish labeled "sustainable" is more than a trendy buzzword -- it's the principle that drives the fisheries, through both management and the fishermen themselves.
But who gets to decide exactly what makes a fishery sustainable? That's the question lawmakers, industry officials and giant companies like Wal-Mart are trying to figure out.
For over the last decade, that certification came from the Marine Stewardship Council, a London-based non-profit that uses independent auditors to check fisheries for compliance with sustainable fishing practices. This year, Alaska's salmon industry decided to opt out of the program, citing costs and questionable practices.
'Shifting goal post?'
But with questions over the group's rationale -- including what Sen. Mark Begich called a "shifting goal post" on the definition of sustainability -- and increased costs to buy into the program, many Alaska fisheries have begun switching to another certification program.
That decision had ripple effects. Big buyers such as Wal-Mart, the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of Defense found that their own policies recommended they buy and serve only fish with the MSC "ecolabel."
On Tuesday, Begich called numerous stakeholders to a U.S. Senate hearing on seafood sustainability certification, hoping to explore ways the future certification efforts could benefit the seafood industry and consumers.
Some change has been coming. This week, the U.S. General Services Administration updated its guidelines to remove the third-party certification as a guideline for purchasing food for federal facilities. Previously, the guidelines recommended that any seafood purchased should have the MSC certification. The change gives agencies such as the National Park Service and Department of Defense more leeway in purchasing seafood.
In testimony, Darren Blue, assistant commissioner for GSA's facilities management and services program, said the original intent of the guidelines was to broaden, not restrict choices.
"They were cited as helpful for vendors, not eliminating factors," he said.
Wal-Mart: 50 million pounds of Alaska fish
While the federal government has made changes, big business has been slower to do so. Speaking at the hearing, Jeffrey Rice, senior director of sustainability for Wal-Mart, said the giant company has purchased more than 50 million pounds of Alaska fish over the last year. It has now looked at its policies and will consider multiple sustainability labels when it comes to purchasing fish. While Rice made no commitment to accepting a specific certification standard, he emphasized the company's plan to "continue selling Alaska seafood for decades to come."
The hearing is the latest in the Alaska delegation's fight to promote the sustainability of Alaska seafood.
"Sustainability is our standard," said Samuel Rauch, acting assistant administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The fisheries service manages 446 seafood stocks under 46 different plans. Since 2000, 36 stocks have been rebuilt under the fisheries service's guidance. The work done is considered a world leader, Rauch said By conducting management in a transparent, adaptive, public way, Alaska proves its fisheries are sustainably managed, not just labeled sustainable.
"No one ecolabel should strive to serve as the only litmus test for sustainability," state fisheries advisor Stefanie Moreland told the senate hearing.
The state of Alaska has its own sustainability program through the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, known as the Responsible Fisheries Management. The program has three major differences from the MSC certification, according to Randy Rice, ASMI seafood technical program director.
• The ASMI program's sustainability guidelines are dictated by the food and agriculture organization of the United Nations. The MSC standard is a privately held standard dictated by the organization.
• The ASMI certification is ISO (International Organization for Standardization) certified and is considered "benchmark for food certification programs across the world by both markets and regulatory authorities." The MSC certification is not.
• The MSC issues conditional certifications – essentially a warning. If a fishery meets some of the MSC's standards, but not all of them, they get a conditional certification based on the assumption the fishery will improve practices that the MSC dictates. Fisheries in Alaska either meet ASMI certification or they don't.
"You're now taking fisheries management out of the hands of the competent authority that's supposed to be managing the fishery," Rice said. "To us, that undermines the role of the competent authority."
Fisherman John Renner agreed with that assessment. He was happy to hear the National Marine Fisheries Service defending what he already knew -- that they already manage the harvest with conservation in mind. Now he just hopes other markets can get on board.
"We don't want marketing glitches when we have bumper harvest," he said from Cordova Tuesday. "We don't want to get into a pissing contest with MSC."
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at email@example.com