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Facing tough market, salmon processors plan return to certification program

Several Alaska salmon processors have decided to rejoin one of the world's best-known sustainable seafood certification programs, after breaking away about three years ago.

Whether the decision to resume membership in the Marine Stewardship Council will help salmon processors sell more fish is a key question given the unusually large numbers of wild salmon forecast to enter Alaska's rivers this season and an abundance of frozen and canned fish from last season. And the glut may coincide with depressed global demand given the strength of the U.S. dollar, which makes American products relatively more expensive to foreign buyers.

"It is important that as many global retailers as possible have access to our abundant supply," said Barry Collier, president and CEO of Peter Pan Seafoods.

After leaving the council in 2012, the salmon processors, which at the time represented about 80 percent of the state's commercial catch, partnered with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute to form their own certification program, known as the Responsible Fisheries Management program.

But some retailers, including those in Germany and the Netherlands, insist upon Marine Stewardship Council certification. Wal-Mart initially refused to sell Alaska products that lacked the council's approval but later relented, said Michael Cerne, executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

"We recognize different markets have different preferences for certification, which is why we look forward to offering choice," Collier said.

The processors left the Marine Stewardship Council for a number of reasons, Cerne said.

"There was an erosion of the Alaska brand in the market. Our products were being promoted as MSC products and not Alaska products," Cerne said. "There was overreach and intrusion into the governance of Alaska fisheries. Then there was the issue of MSC collecting millions of dollars in fees from processors that essentially went to helping to fund our competitors."

Those problems "still exist, but to a lesser degree," Cerne said.

The group of Alaska salmon producers that have agreed to rejoin includes Alaska General Seafoods, Icicle Seafoods, Kwikpak Fisheries, Leader Creek Fisheries, North Pacific Seafoods, Ocean Beauty, Peter Pan Seafoods, Triad Fisheries, Trident Seafoods and Yukon Gold.

They will need to negotiate with the Alaska Salmon Processors Association, which holds the current MSC certificate, regarding their terms of entry and participation. The association is led by a growing rival, Sitka-based processor Silver Bay Seafoods.

"MSC is happy to learn of these companies' desire to rejoin the group of MSC certified Alaska salmon processors," said Geoff Bolan, the Marine Stewardship Council's U.S. program director. "The MSC has worked closely with the Alaska seafood industry for more than a decade and we look forward to maintaining and strengthening our partnership."

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