Eco-label confusion returns for Alaska salmon
The announcement by the Seattle-based Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association that it will become the well-subsidized client for Marine Stewardship Council sustainability certification of the Alaska salmon fishery revived confusion over the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s alternate program, but appears to be having little effect on buying plans among major Alaskan salmon buyers in Germany and the United Kingdom.
The matter will be a major point of discussion at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute board meeting at the Anchorage Hilton May 15.
“None of them said to me, and I asked them specifically, ‘will you stop buying Alaska product if it doesn’t have the MSC logo on it?’ and the answer was, ‘no, we will not stop buying,’” said Ray Riutta, ASMI executive director.
He was referring to the German and UK salmon buyers he visited on a two-week trip before the European Seafood Exposition opened April 24.
Germany is the MSC’s market stronghold but buys only about 2 percent of Alaska’s annual salmon production. Riutta noted that some customers there said they will choose MSC-labeled Alaskan salmon over the same product without the blue and white eco-label when both are available.
Still others, there and in the UK, agreed with his view that the entire debate has become a tail-wagging-the-dog waste of time and money.
“Some said it doesn’t make a bit of difference to us. ‘We’re not using that logo. We’re not using any logo anyhow.’ Our brand stands for something,” Riutta said in a May 3 interview.
In response to the proliferation of eco-labels and the confusion they’ve caused among consumers, major retailers have been moving away from eco-labels in favor of well-publicized corporate social responsibility policies backed by solid documentation proving the origin and sustainable management of the seafoods they offer.
ASMI’s nearly completed third-party certification project was a response to those concerns but also the fear that MSC’s eco-label dominance is giving it control of some seafood markets.
“If it becomes required that you have only MSC certification to go to market then you’re basically giving these guys a monopoly to the marketplace,” Riutta said.
After a year of trade show presentations and one-on-one meetings with buyers, and despite continued media attacks from MSC supporters, ASMI’s third party certification has been gaining market acceptance. How much the latest development harmed that progress remains to be seen.
“I think people were pretty well, maybe not totally happy, but at least understood where we were going until the PSVOA made the announcement that they were going to become the client. That threw a lot of confusion into the market place,” Riutta said.
Approaching its five-year anniversary, the salmon sustainability controversy began when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced in 2008 that it would no longer be the client for the MSC certification.
In 1999 the MSC came to ADFG asking it to become one of its first international clients and, in effect, lend the state’s internationally recognized management credibility to the new eco-labeler.
As the MSC emerged as the world’s leading eco-label it has also become a gatekeeper for entry to markets like Germany’s.
“We’re very concerned about loss of brand recognition in the market place, brand substitution,” Riutta said.
As ADFG backed away from what it saw as MSC meddling in its fishery management, ASMI was asked to become the client. After lengthy negotiations and MSC’s refusal to respond to its alternate financing proposal, the ASMI board voted in December 2010 against that move.
At the same time it began developing its own third party certification program based on the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization’s code of conduct for responsible fisheries.
With the goal of providing Alaska seafood producers with the sustainable management documentation their buyers are demanding, ASMI contracted with the Irish auditing firm Global Trust, also an MSC certifier.
To date Global Trust has certified the sustainability of the Alaska salmon, halibut, black cod, pollock and crab fisheries. Pacific cod and other groundfish are still in that process.
Last year the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation took over as the MSC’s client. As the less expensive Global Trust certification gained market acceptance it announced that it would end its relationship with the MSC this October.
That allows the current season’s catch can still be sold with MSC label, but its future in Alaska remains uncertain.
“Clearly the level of industry support for MSC certification has changed substantially since 2010,” AFDF said in its January announcement that it is dropping the MSC.
Last month, after the MSC apparently agreed to cover 75 percent of certification costs up front and the rest as well if eco-label licensing fees are insufficient, the Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association announced that it would become the latest client.
Rob Kehoe, PSVOA executive director, said he wasn’t sure whether his group would have become client without the subsidy. He also said his members chum and pink salmon would lose markets if they didn’t stick with the MSC and credited the group with they higher price his boats are getting for their Alaska salmon.
“We do know certain markets, they won’t by anything if it’s not MSC and buyers are paying a premium for MSC,” Kehoe said. “Germany is a big one.”
Part of the reason ASMI launched the Global Trust certification program is the fear that the “Alaska” brand, distinguishing the state’s relatively small volume of salmon against the huge farmed product output could be lost. Although Kehoe said 95 percent of his fleet’s catch comes from Alaska, that’s not a concern.
“A salmon is a salmon is a salmon. As long as buyers were paying more for MSC, what we were more concerned with is prices as opposed to branding. Price paid to fishermen, that’s our focus,” Kehoe said.
PSVOA was also concerned that, “the processors were unilaterally making their own decisions,” Kehoe said, but only one, with close ties to the group, is backing their move.
Silver Bay Seafoods had agreed to withdraw from MSC clientship but is returning to the fold. Based in Sitka, Silver Bay’s managing partner is Rob Zuanich and general counsel and lobbyist for PSVOA.
Riutta said all the major processors, who are responsible for almost 90 percent of Alaska salmon production per season, are sticking with ASMI’s program.
ADFG dropped MSC in large part from what it viewed as interference with its management. How will the PSVOA respond if its MSC auditor calls for changes in Alaska salmon management?
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. That’s not our expectation right now,” Kehoe said. “If this had any likelihood of driving a wedge between us and ADF&G we wouldn’t have any part of it.”
The MSC declined to respond to multiple requests for interviews for this report.