Walmart refuses Alaska salmon in latest ecolabel battle


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A worker is seen in a freshwater “rearing pen” for species such as chinook, sockeyes and coho at a Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp. hatchery. The Sound fishery is at the center of the latest battle over ecolabels with Walmart now reminding suppliers it won’t buy salmon unless it is certified sustainable.

Photo/Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp./Brian Adams

JUNEAU — The largest retailer in the world is warning its seafood suppliers that it won’t buy Alaskan salmon if they don’t have the right ecolabel.

The June letter from Walmart reminding its wild seafood suppliers that their salmon must be certified “sustainable” by the Marine Stewardship Council has had no immediate impact but marks the latest episode in the struggle between the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s “responsible fishery management” certification and the MSC’s blue and white fish label.

One international trade publication described the ultimatum as ecolabel “racketeering.” Another asked, “Who cares?” And an Alaska senator jumped into the fray.

In a June 28 letter to Walmart president and CEO Mike Duke, Sen. Mark Begich wrote that he was “deeply concerned” with the company’s decision to source seafood certified by a single “broker.”

Begich urged Duke to “consider other reliable and certified suppliers with a proven track record of fisheries sustainability such as Alaska.”

Walmart’s letter was issued on the advice of the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, following talks between the SFP and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, or ASMI.

The SFP is a seven-year old Hawaiian nongovernmental organization that gives seafood-sourcing advice to major retailers, also including McDonald’s, Publix Supermarkets and Giant Eagle.

In meetings during April and May, ASMI provided the SFP with documentary and technical information on state salmon management and the details of a $5 million Department of Fish and Game project to research issues relating to Prince William Sound, or PWS,  pink salmon including possible impacts on wild stocks from hatchery fish.

A PWS “scorecard” issued by the SFP last November said, “There is evidence that managers are not succeeding at managing the wild stocks in the face of the PWS hatchery program.”

It adds that hatchery strays exceeded 10 percent in five of eight PWS districts, and that an ADFG review found multiple permit violations by the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp., which operates the pink salmon hatcheries there.

The scorecard rated PWS pink salmon management on the three points as below the six of ten points necessary to meet SFP standards.

Despite ASMI’s presentations, SFP asked that it enter a “fishery improvement plan” for PWS hatchery-enhanced fisheries — essentially hiring SFP to advise ADFG on salmon management.

ASMI rejected the call for a fisheries improvement plan and charged in a June 27 statement issued in response to the Walmart letter that the SFP downgraded the state’s fishery management because the $5 million ADFG project “doesn’t fit into SFP’s framework for FIPs.”

“SFP’s report is based on speculation and not science and Alaska has always relied on science to make resource based decisions, not emotion or hyperbole,” ASMI declared.

John Sackton, publisher of Seafood.com, said the situation amounts to extortion.

“For the SFP to turn around and say to a major supplier like Walmart, ‘only buy Alaska salmon if it’s certified by us if they pay us to be part of the solution to the problem,’ that’s racketeering in my view. It is no different than one of Tony Soprano’s garbage hauling contracts,” Sackton said in a July 1 online commentary. “This is plain and purely destructive to the American fishery management process.”

According to SFP spokesman David Martin, the only immediate cost would be compiling existing research — including the MSC and SFP “improvement needs” for Prince William Sound — and a work plan that would answer who would pay for what to meet the definition of a fishery improvement plan.

“To the extent improvement needs are being addressed, there may be little work needed beyond compiling materials and making sure relevant information (e.g. research and monitoring reports) are available publicly,” Martin wrote via email. “At no time (did) SFP seek any funds to develop or advise on a FIP, and we seek no role in implementing an Alaska salmon FIP.”

The SFP declined to provide a detailed explanation on its overall financing mechanism but Martin said its retail partners “give us sponsorship towards our core public science and information programs.”

He added that SFP has no financing or contractual relationship with the MSC, but is funded by the Packard Foundation, which formerly contributed to the MSC.

John Fiorillo, executive editor of Intrafish, the Norwegian-owned seafood news webpage asked in his July 1 commentary, “Who really cares?”

Fiorillo noted that Walmart senior buyer Catherine Johnson told him her company is buying salmon from a Russian fishery in the midst of what is currently the world’s only fishery improvement project and wrote, “So Walmart doesn’t want Alaska salmon because it doesn’t carry the MSC seal — big whoop. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of markets for what is — without a doubt — the best salmon on planet Earth.”

Sam Rabung, hatchery program coordinator for ADFG, said SFP’s concerns are not legitimate for a variety of scientific reasons, which have been made clear to the Partnership and MSC for years.

“It’s an apples and oranges approach to label hatcheries as harmful in Alaska when the studies and evidence of harm are based on practices we don’t apply in Alaska,” Rabung said on June 28.

Although many have improved their practices, hatchery operators south of Alaska established brood stock using non-local salmon runs and conducted captive breeding for multiple generations creating a “genetic bottleneck,” according to Rabung.

When the hatchery stocks are finally released they often adapt poorly to the new environment and demonstrate poor survival rates. If they do interbreed with wild stocks the offspring can also be weaker, he explained.

Alaska hatcheries do no selective breeding and their brood stocks originate with local wild stocks.

“When (Alaska) hatchery fish stray they’re straying on their cousins and siblings,” Rabung said. “Our program is a shining example of how to do it correctly.”

Glenn Reed, president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, declined to predict the impact of Walmart’s letter.

“The battle rages on about the basic foundational issue, I guess, for a lot of folks in the seafood industry,” Reed said. “Is the world ready to have one company declare themselves the sole owner of what is ‘sustainable’ or is there a broader way to look at it?”

He also suggested the episode ignores fairly recent history.

“MSC kicked off its entire world wide program with Alaska salmon because for MSC it was a perfect fit because it was an obviously a sustainable fishery. Whether it has that logo, or RFM, or anything doesn’t change the fact that it’s a sustainable fishery. The MSC was the first to recognize that when they actually got their program off the ground.”

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